Former News of the World investigations editor Mazher Mahmood has denied claims made in today’s Independent that he hired bodyguards from a firm owned by private investigator Jonathan Rees.
The newspaper claimed the financial links between Mahmood and Southern Investigations, run by Rees, was ‘part of an established relationship that at one point earned the private investigator £150,000 a year from News International“.
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Rees was jailed for seven years in 2001 for plotting to plant cocaine in the car of an innocent woman and was also arrested in 1987 following the murder of his business partner Daniel Morgan, though he was acquitted of the murder this year when the trial collapsed.
Among the accusations made in today’s Independent report was that Rees was paid £1,500 to conduct inquiries into an illegal immigration scam later published in the paper, and that Southern Investigations was also being paid by the NoW to protect Mahmood
Appearing before the Leveson Inquiry this morning, the 2010 Press Awards reporter of the year denied the claims.
‘I never commissioned a private detective to work for me, I never paid a private detective, contrary to the report in this morning’s Independent,’he said.
‘It’s simply not true.’
Mahmood did admit, however, to working with Derek Webb, who recently told the BBC’s Newsnight that he spied on more than 100 celebrities, sports stars, politicians and royals for the NoW.
Mahmood, who gave evidence in a room occupied only by lawyers to protect his identity, said he had worked with Webb on a few occasions but insisted that he had been assigned to him by the NoW newsdesk.
‘Fingers were pointing towards the newsdesk’
He later went on to claim that he was not aware of hacking until the arrest of the paper’s former royal editor Clive Goodman in 2006.
Asked if he had heard of any other journalists’ involvement in hacking after the arrest, he replied: ‘Clearly rumours were around, of course, but there was no firm evidence.’
He added that ‘all the fingers were pointing towards the newsdesk”.
Mahmood also told the inquiry that MPs should not have a right to privacy. ‘I don’t think there should be,’said. ‘If you hold public office you should be open to scrutiny.”
He added: ‘We vote for these people, they hold public office, we’d expect a certain kind of behaviour from them,’he said.
‘I don’t think I’d vote for my MP if I knew that he was cheating on his wife.
‘How could I trust him to represent me?”
He said it was different for people like actors and authors, and that in those cases there would have to be grounds to publish the story such as evidence of criminality or hypocrisy.
‘I couldn’t go off-piste and do what I wanted’
Mahmood, who now works for the Sunday Times, said that during his 20-year career at the News of the World his investigations had led to 261 successful criminal prosecutions.
Commenting how story checks at the NoW and Sunday Times compared, he said: “It was a lot more informal at the News of the World newspaper but in essence we still had to satisfy the same criteria. But it was a lot less formal – chats with the newsdesk – there were no meetings.”
The Sunday Times was “a lot more stringent”, he said, before adding that when at the News of the World he was in “constant touch” with lawyers at the company including former News Group Newspapers chief Tom Crone.
“Everything was discussed with the legal team,” he said. “I couldn’t go off-piste and do what I wanted.
‘I had to take legal advice and throughout the investigation I remained in constant touch with our lawyers.”
Mahmood denied ever having worked with Paul McMullan, a claim the former NoW deputy features editor made to the inquiry when he gave evidence last week.
He said: “This came as news to me. I may have seen him [McMullan] in the office. I’ve never worked with the chap. I can’t even recall talking to him. It’s completely untrue.”