A week ago today, BBC finally aired the long awaited Panorama exposure of Sun on Sunday reporter Mazher Mahmood after a battle between lawyers from both camps at the High Court before the judge eventually ruling against Mahmood’s application for injunction to halt the programme.
What was most surprising of all was the somewhat bizarre intervention of the Attorney General of England and Wales, Jeremy Wright, asking the Corporation to “consider whether it is in the public interest for the BBC to broadcast” the expose – even though Mahmood has not been arrested – so contempt of court restrictions does not apply. However, undeterred, BBC went ahead with the broadcast.
Panorama had interviewed a former Attorney General on camera – who’s had past dealings with Fake Sheikh cases.
Lord Goldsmith was the Attorney General between 2001 to 2007. So he was in office for two of the Fake Sheikh’s most humiliating “stings” that never quite lived up to the billing News of the World sold its readers.
One of them was even referred to him by a judge – the so called Victoria Beckham kidnap plot.
Unfortunately for The News of the World, in 2003, the charade of the kidnapp plot unravelled when Mahmood admitted in a police interview that he had paid entrapper turned prosecution witness Florim Gashi £10,000 for the story Gashi later claimed Mahmood encouraged to set up – including asking Gashi to provide a gun for the “gang”.
Though the defendants should have been immediately released, they remained on remand until the collapse of the case in June that year. CPS have never explained why.
Judge Simon Smith, in a hearing at Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court, said he was referring the newspaper to the Attorney General after defence lawyers claimed it had shown “complete contempt for the administration of justice”. The judge said: “I express concern. I am minded to refer the whole of this matter to the Attorney General to consider the temptations which money being offered in return for stories, in particular about celebrities, gives rise to and the way in which newspaper investigations may have a detrimental effect on ultimate court proceedings – or may indeed lead to something being placed before people in the way of an inducement.”
We knew that this would be a difficult case to prosecute on the evidence we had but after initially reviewing it we decided that there was sufficient evidence to bring the case to court. However, as with any case, it has remained under continuous review. It is only in the last month that we have received detailed information about a News of the World investigation into Wandsworth parking attendants (previous Mahmood/Gashi “sting”) in which the same witness had been the informant and where there was some reason to doubt his truthfulness. This led to a review of the case and of the reliability of his evidence. After seeking counsel’s advice we decided that there was no longer a realistic prospect of conviction.
CPS Casework statement makes no mention of the £10,000 payment to Gashi that Mahmood had admitted in a police interview five months earlier in February, but the News of the World statement does:
The News of the World passed on that information – the fact that we had paid Mr Gashi £10,000 as an informant and about his background – to the police pre-February 14, which was the day that they announced that these men would be charged.
On the day that the News of the World published its “scoop”, Mahmood gave a statement to police in which he said that Gashi was involved in the investigation, but “without any mention of financial or other rewards”. He was not asked specifically about any payments he might have made. On 4 February, however, he gave a tape-recorded interview to police in which he was asked specifically about payments. He admitted that some time after the arrests he had paid Mr Gashi “about five grand for this story” and “maybe a couple of grand” for previous assistance.
Gashi in his statement to police two years later in 2005, told them Mahmood had tried to downplay the payments, which corroborates with Mahmood’s 4 February police interview:
I was paid £10,000 for the Beckham kidnap story. The amount was agreed with Maz [Mahmood] in advance at the beginning, provided we got enough evidence to publish the story. It was more than the other stories I had done because it was such a big story. I told police I hadn’t been paid. Later I was told by Maz that the police had discovered the £10,000. He wanted to downplay how much I had been paid. He told me I should pretend that only £5,000 was for the Beckham story and that there were two payments of £2,500 for the parking warden and forged document [another previous Mahmood/Gashi “sting”]. Maz knew this was untrue as I had already been paid in cash for these stories. Maz also promised me a further £5,000 if the men [Beckham kidnap “gang”] are convicted.
So the question now is did Scotland Yard disclose to the CPS Special Casework unit that Mahmood had paid Gashi as Mahmood himself had told them after the interview in February?
After being cleared, two of the five men sought compensation from the Home Office and News of the World and took legal advice claiming they were the innocent parties in a “set-up” by the newspaper. Disturbingly, they were kept detained and told by the Home Office they had overstayed their visa which had expired while they were in prison.
Serious questions need to be looked at here. Were the defendants being silenced by the Home Office, did it not take into consideration this only occurred because of time spent on remand by being “set-up”?
One of the five men did belatedly, win a libel case in 2007 against News of the World, but none have ever received compensation from the Home Office. Instead, they were issued with IM3s (notice of deportation) and deported to their countries of origin in Eastern Europe.
Meanwhile even more damaging for the CPS, Gashi’s statement goes on:
I continued to work with Maz until May this year (2005). For example, in March, I was behind a front page story of an 18 year old girl selling her baby. This was all a set-up that led to the baby being taken into care. The collapse of the (Beckham) kidnap trial did not stop Maz from using me. But from then on, he always tried to hide my involvement. I feel particularly guilty about two cases. One has resulted in a totally innocent man being sentenced to four years. Another is the girl whose child was taken into care.
The “totally innocent man” Gashi is referring to was Albanian security guard Besnik Qama whose conviction got quashed in 2010 as a direct result of Gashi’s statement.
This same statement also triggered Scotland Yard’s Operation Canopus – an investigation into Mazher Mahmood – in October 2005. Mahmood was interviewed under caution and asked why he used someone like Gashi. He told the police he even had “bent coppers that are witnesses, who are informers.” It should be pointed out that Mahmood himself was a registered police informer. Why he never told police about the “bent coppers” or why the police failed to open an inquiry immediately after being told is still not clear.
Furthermore, Scotland Yard decided to close the investigation. On the basis that Gashi is not “convincing witness” and therefore “insufficient evidence.”
At this precise moment, Mahmood, News of the World, Scotland Yard and CPS were also working TOGETHER on a “sting” known as the ‘Red Mercury – Dirty Bomb’ plot which was another humiliation for both the Met and CPS as well as once again, News of the World as three men were acquitted after a case costing the taxpayer £1m – before the trial had even started.
In an further twist, Gashi had given Scotland Yard his statement WHILE Qama was STILL serving his sentence in prison. He served his full sentence.
Five years later despite Scotland Yard’s earlier claim Gashi not being a “convincing witness” and therefore “insufficient evidence” (against Mahmood), Qama appealed to overturn his conviction with the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) – an independent public body – using the very SAME Gashi evidence Scotland Yard had dismissed. The CCRC referred Qama’s case back to Southwark Crown Court [pursuant to section 14(4A) of the Criminal Appeal Act 1995] on the following basis:
There is real a possibility that, in the light of;
1) Fresh evidence the circumstances that Mr Qama came to commit these offences and the role of Mr Gashi, the journalist’s source, in those offences and/or
2) Material non-disclosure (prior to interview and the entering of a plea) [by the prosecution] of matters affecting the credibility of the key prosecution, the journalist Mazher Mahmood
The Crown Court will set aside the pleas of guilty and stay any further proceedings against Mr Qama as an abuse of the process
The court documents confirm CPS not only agreed with CCRC, but consented with Southwark Crown Court for Qama to “vacate his guilty plea”.
Knowing all this, Metropolitan Police and CPS allowed Mahmood continue to operate as a private entrapper who brought cases to them for years after.
Also, if CPS and CCRC can agree on Qama’s quashing, this totally dismantles Scotland Yard’s claim of “insufficient evidence”.
On the subject of Mahmood’s claim that his evidence has secured over 100 convictions, Lord Goldsmith told Panorama: “The fact that someone who has been accused by a judge of apparently of not telling the truth may be instrumental in those convictions would certainly be a reason to look at those convictions again and to examine them to see whether they are safe.”
A week later, still silence from Metropolitan Police or CPS on Lord Goldsmith’s call for a full review of historical Mahmood cases going back decades.
Letter send to DPP and Met Police Commissioner
In further developments, Bellingcat has been privy to letters that have been addressed to both Director or Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders and Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe as a result of Panorama’s broadcast.
The letters dated 17 November 2014 were sent from Siobhain Egan, who is a lawyer for one of the accused in the Beckham kidnap plot. In her letter to DPP Saunders, Egan demands a “full inquiry” into all historical Mahmood cases, and “I’m happy to provide detail upon request” (to CPS).
The other letter sent to Hogan-Howe, Egan asks:
“During the programme last week, Florim Gashi (one of the Crown’s main prosecution witness in the case) admitted that he made up those allegations. In fact I understand in the evidence he gave to the BBC he goes further than that, and that there is evidence of close relationships with members of the Metropolitan Police (some of whom are still serving officers), Mazher Mahmood and various newspapers then within the News International group.
I now understand that police began Operation Canopus, apparently into Mahmood and possible criminal charges. I was never asked by the police for any evidence or to assist with any way but would have certainly co-operated with that investigation. I’m requesting for a full inquiry into the prosecution of that case.”
Questions for the Home Office and the Attorney-General
1) Of the Met and CPS officers reviewing Mahmood’s cases, have any of them previously had anything whatsoever to do with bringing past Mahmood cases to court, whether it was a conviction, acquittal or collapsed case?
2) Bellingcat understands CPS casework is not that big a unit, and until government cuts, had a relatively low staff turnover, how many officers in that CPS unit that signed off Mahmood’s cases for prosecution?
3) Why did the Attorney General feel the need to intervene to discourage the BBC broadcasting Panorama when Mahmood had neither been arrested or charged with any criminal offence, therefore contempt of court restrictions do not apply?
4) As the Attorney General has intervened, will he now consider his predecessor Lord Goldsmith’s call for a review all of Mazher Mahmood’s past cases to be examined?
This post originally appeared on the ¿Bellingcat website and is reproduced with permission and thanks