There is fury and bewilderment at the News of the World at the collapse of the trial of five Eastern Europeans charged with a plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham and her children.
Since the plot was uncovered by the NoW last November, the paper and its investigations editor, Mazher Mahmood, have been constantly in touch with the police.
The newspaper has turned over all its considerable amount of evidence to them. As late as last week Mahmood was told by police that it was “full steam ahead” on the case.
Yet the newspaper only found out on Tuesday, the day of the trial at London’s Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court, that the Crown Prosecution Service was to withdraw charges against the five.
One insider told Press Gazette: “We had to rely on a freelance court reporter – the police didn’t tell us until it was happening. They did it at a time when Maz couldn’t be there to represent himself; they did it when the NoW couldn’t be there to represent itself.
“Until that point all we had from the police were positive signals. They had repeatedly told us how impressed they were with the evidence and with the job Mazher had done.”
The CPS said the NoW informant, Kosovan Florim Gashi, had been paid £10,000 and was not a reliable witness. Judge Simon Smith said he was “minded to refer the matter to the Attorney General to consider the temptations which money offered for stories, in particular to celebrities, gives rise to”.
Our source claimed: “The picture that they [the CPS and police] tried to paint was that somehow or other, through their own investigative means, they uncovered new details. There is no new detail.”
It was neither a shock nor a revelation to the police that Gashi had a shady past, he alleged, adding: “Show me an informer who hasn’t. You really think that you get these kind of stories -about kidnap plots, about serious crime and misdemeanours – from people who have a whiter than white background? It’s not how the world works.”
Mahmood is said by colleagues to be “flabbergasted” by the turn of events.
The NoW story was published in November. It paid an informant, not a witness, and will continue to do so where there is a public interest, our source revealed.
Sir Christopher Meyer, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, has indicated the PCC will act in any case where a newspaper or magazine is found to have breached the Editors’ Code on witness payments. But the NoW will be judged on the code as it was when the story was published, allowing for payment in the public interest. Toughened rules on witness payments came in months later.
Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell said: “No doubt there are questions to be asked about the whole issue. But there ought to be even more serious questions asked about the police and the CPS.
“Editors don’t like paying for stories but they live in the real world. Sometimes the only way of getting information is to pay for it. It is not something just the tabloids do. The police do it regularly. Before other journalists join the bandwagon of criticism, they might think it’s better to think that you should never say ‘never’.”
‘A BONA FIDE INVESTIGATION’
NoW editor Andy Coulson reacted angrily. “We are bewildered by what is an apparent ambush on Maz and the NoW in court,” he told Press Gazette. “We think it is important to recognise that decisions to prosecute or otherwise are not made by newspapers. They are made by the CPS.
“All we did was to print what we considered to be a bona fide investigation which was legally sound for publication. We then passed on all our evidence, and the evidence was pretty considerable and included testimony from Mr Gashi along with video and audio material, to the police. The decision was then made, completely independently of us, to charge those involved.”
Coulson went on: “The NoW’s record and that of Maz speak for themselves. Maz’s investigative expertise would have been well known to the defence QC, Martin Hicks [representing one of the accused] who accused Maz of setting up the kidnap plot.”
Hicks had claimed: “On the face of it, it was designed to further Mahmood’s notorious career.”
Coulson riposted: “Hicks used Maz’s evidence to great effect when he successfully led the prosecution of the actor John Alford in 1999.”
Mahmood, on holiday in Los Angeles, has borne the brunt of rivals’ opprobrium. The Guardian, despite the fact that Mahmood has had death threats and is involved in often violent investigations, published his picture on the front page.
“I was extremely disappointed to see another newspaper publish Maz’s picture,” said an icy-voiced Coulson.
By Jean Morgan