News of the World editor Rebekah Wade is said this week to be weighing the legal obstacles to publishing the full transcripts of "fake sheikh" Mazher Mahmood’s conversations with the Countess of Wessex and her PR partner Murray Harkin.
If she does, it will be a very different version of the story of the Countess’s indiscreet remarks to Mahmood during an undercover investigation to that published in The Mail on Sunday and Sunday Mirror last weekend.
Contacted by Press Gazette, Wade said that the goal posts had moved so much this week since the NoW ditched the original investigation and went instead for an Palace-approved interview, that she was "considering all options".
Reports have suggested that the story leaked to the MoS and Sunday Mirror came as much from Wade’s own staff, believing she had lost her bottle, as from other sources. But what has been printed elsewhere, say NoW sources, is so inaccurate that the editor wants to publish the truth.
The newspaper still believes it has an important public interest story from the Countess’s interview with Mahmood, but one with far more serious and constitutional implications than the "sensational and utterly inaccurate" accounts of its rivals.
Remarks attributed to the Countess about William Hague, Cherie Blair and members of the Royal family are "just not true", according to sources.
The paper’s original investigation into the affairs of R-JH, the Countess’s PR company, did not pan out, Press Gazette understands and, legally constrained from publishing the Countess’s remarks, Wade went with an offer from Buckingham Palace to drop legal proceedings in exchange for the approved interview.
She was then said to have had to watch impotently as, with promotions running for the interview and the front of the paper already set up, her secret investigation was blown after the Countess wrote letters of apology to those she thought would be offended by her off-the-cuff observations.
To say I was disappointed when I heard Rebekah had run an exclusive with Sophie which proved to be nothing more than a PR puff is to put it mildlyMax Clifford
Downing Street, St James’s Palace and Tory Central Office were said to have been spinning freely after the letters reached the Prime Minister, the Prince of Wales, William Hague and John Major.
Buckingham Palace’s statement exposing inaccuracies in the MoS story did not get on PA wires until around 12.15am on Sunday, much to the NoW’s chagrin.
Exclusives broker Max Clifford was said to be another source of leaks after he felt his client, Kishan Athulathmudali, a former employee of the PR agency, had been short-changed.
"To say I was disappointed when I heard Rebekah had run an exclusive with Sophie which proved to be nothing more than a PR puff is to put it mildly," he said.
"I was very pleased The Mail on Sunday came out with what it did but that’s just the tip of the iceberg."
He claimed: "The allegations my client made were very much in the public interest and were largely substantiated by the NoW investigation. He hopes the Royal family will get to hear all of these tapes so that they can see what the whole situation is."
*The Press Complaints Commission has been angered by reports that it helped engineer the NoW interview with the Countess. Its chairman, Lord Wakeham, has written to The Daily Telegraph making plain that the decision was the Palace’s alone. He was not asked whether he believed it was sensible to proceed with the plan, he emphasised
By Jean Morgan