If there is one name in British journalism that inspires fear and loathing in just about equal measure, it is Mazher Mahmood, the reporter who recently exposed the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, for offering access to her former husband, Prince Andrew, for £500,000 (close to $720,000). Mahmood specializes in the classic Fleet Street sting, and Ferguson was secretly filmed in a Mayfair apartment offering to "open any door you want" to a wealthy businessman Mahmood in disguise by way of the Queen's second son. As the British saying goes, she was bang to rights, or caught red-handed. Fergiegate, as it will inevitably be called, has sparked a minor royal crisis, and the Queen, it can safely be assumed, is not amused.
Prince Andrew has denied all knowledge of the meeting, and Buckingham Palace issued a statement saying he carried out his duties as U.K. trade envoy with "complete and absolute propriety and integrity." Ferguson issued her own statement, saying, "It is true that my financial situation is under stress. However, that is no excuse for a serious lapse in judgment, and I am very sorry that this has happened." She added that the Prince was unaware of the meeting and played no part in the discussions.
Such stings are almost tradition in British journalism. The affair recalled a TV documentary by the U.K.'s Channel 4 in March of this year, which secretly filmed three former Labour ministers claiming they could influence government policy for cash. Following the documentary, all three stood down as MPs in the May election and were suspended from the Labour Party.
But it is undoubtedly Mahmood who has earned the reputation as Britain's most feared and/or respected investigative reporter depending on whom you ask. Only three weeks before Fergiegate, he exposed World Snooker Champion John Higgins and his agent, Pat Mooney, for apparently agreeing to fix games. This was a big deal in the U.K., where snooker is a hugely popular game watched by millions on TV. And Mahmood has scores of similar exclusives under his belt involving politicians, celebrities, criminals and film, TV and sports stars. No one, it appears, is safe from the "Fake Sheik," the nickname he earned for his habit of disguising himself as a wealthy Arab when engaged in one of his elaborate investigations.
Mahmood does not work for a "serious" newspaper of the sort that once lived by investigations but for a "red top" Sunday tabloid, the mass-readership the News of the World, part of Rupert Murdoch's media empire. He is routinely attacked for using entrapment to nail his victims. Most famously, in 2003 he was criticized for his part in exposing an alleged plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham after a court case against the plotters collapsed amid claims that the key informant the core of Mahmood's reporting had received £10,000 (more than $14,000) from the News of the World for the story.
He is often held up as an example of the worst of British journalism, which critics claim will resort to any tactic, no matter how legally or ethically dubious, to net exclusive stories in what remains a fiercely competitive industry. However, others claim he carries out a highly legitimate role in exposing the rich and powerful when they deserve it and bringing villains, including drug dealers, pedophiles, arms dealers and corrupt officials, to justice.
Mahmood keeps his identity as mysterious as possible. No one is entirely sure of his background, or if Mazher Mahmood is even his real name. He says he comes from the Midlands, where his Pakistani parents settled in 1960. As well as the Arab robes he deploys in the Fake Sheik stings, he uses other disguises and regularly works with bodyguards he says he has received several death threats. He claims credit for 232 successful prosecutions.
His contract with the newspaper stipulates that his picture will never appear in print; he rarely shows up in the office. However, a left-wing former MP, George Galloway, won a court battle in 2006 allowing him to publish an old photograph of Mahmood. The News of the World had attempted to block the act on the grounds that it would compromise his safety.
In an interview with the BBC in 2008, Mahmood explained how he became a journalist. "I was trying to break into journalism as a 16-year-old and got turned down two years in a row for work experience," he said. "And some family friends came round one night and they were chatting over dinner about video piracy. One guy was talking about how he was stealing films from a cinema and producing them on videotape, and I thought, That's a great story. So I just picked up the phone and rang the News of the World. Next thing I knew, as a 16-year-old, I was down in London working for the News of the World." The fate of the "family friend" went unreported.