Speaking to Press Gazette in 2005, after the News of the World was named British Press Awards newspaper of the year, editor Andy Coulson used the example of a Mazher Mahmood sting to explain why he was proud of what he did.
It was the story of a desperate mother who was offering her baby for sale. Coulson (since jailed for phone-hacking) said: “Not to overstate the case that story, I believe, resulted in a life being saved.”
The question the trial judge may now ask himself, when weighing up sentencing, is whether the undoubted good done by Mahmood in the course of a 35-year career in journalism outweighs the bad.
Estimates vary, but he is reckoned to have secured around 100 criminal convictions during his 20 years at the News of the World.
His undoing was a complex and expensive sting in which he persuaded a second-rate pop star to help supply his film producer alter ego with cocaine. The Tulisa trial collapsed after Mahmood was accused of persuading his driver to change a witness statement in which he said Tulisa had claimed to be “anti drugs”.
Mahmood said in a statement to police: “I will have had absolutely no reason to ask Mr Smith to add or subtract anything from his evidence because I had gathered irrefutable evidence that Mrs Contastavlos had supplied cocaine and that was all that mattered.”
But the jury in Mahmood’s own trial said they agreed that he had conspired to pervert the course of justice and it is now he who is facing a prison term (for an altogether more serious offence).
Phone-hacking lawyer Mark Lewis says that fresh legal claims from 18 of Mahmood’s targets could now total £800m.
But let’s remember that whereas the phone-hacking victims were (on the whole) guilty of nothing more than being famous, or close to someone famous – Mahmood’s prey fell into a different category.
His stings may be seen by some as entrapment, but many resulted in genuine public-interest revelations about high-profile figures.
In 2010, for example, he revealed how Sarah Ferguson was offering a bogus foreign businessman access to Prince Andrew for £500,000 (in order to secure lucrative deals).
Also that year he revealed that Pakistani cricketers corruptly conspired to throw no-balls at a Lords test match in exchange for pay-offs.
Speaking to Press Gazette in May 2008 he said that he had been beaten up, had guns pointed at his head and had a Russian mafia boss put a £30,000 price on his head.
Mahmood said his proudest investigations had been those targeting paedophiles and recalled how he once received a letter from an abuse victim thanking him for saving her life.
Last month the Daily Telegraph exposed how England manager Sam Allardyce was willing to accept £100,000 a time to advise investors who looked keen to bypass FA transfer rules.
Ten years ago, Mahmood similarly revealed how then England football boss Sven-Goran Eriksson was looking to maximise his external earnings six months ahead of the World Cup – in yet another ‘fake sheikh’ sting.
At the time he told Press Gazette: “Our targets are invariably driven by greed, and the disguise has been a useful tool for helping expose high-profile targets who are involved in criminal or moral wrongdoing.”
In the race to demonise Mahmood don’t forget that his ‘victims’ were invariably already rich people who offered to do bad and often illegal things because of the lure of yet more money.