'Fake Sheikh' Mazher Mahmood case mustn't kill investigative journalism

Mazher Mahmood seen during his trial (Getty)

Friday, October 21, 2016

In light of Mazher Mahmood’s conviction and imprisonment, it’s highly likely the Tulisa case will be all that people remember him for.

That will be a real shame. Mahmood has obviously done something morally and legally wrong in the Tulisa case, and been punished accordingly. But we shouldn’t forget that, as the founding father of modern investigative journalism, he also put a lot of well-deserving people behind bars.

If it wasn’t for Mahmood, the Pakistani cricketers who conspired to fix matches would probably never have been brought to justice in 2010. I’m sure most cricket fans reading this article were grateful for Mahmood’s courage and tenacity then, and that’s just one example of the public benefit his work has brought.

Of course I am not suggesting that Mahmood did not deserve his jail sentence. He got drunk on his own success, carried away with his own reputation. He was found guilty of perverting the course of justice, and it could also be argued that his conduct in the case of Tulisa also amounted to entrapment. He practically invented the sting and eventually he stung himself.

But, like many other members of the legal profession I imagine, I don’t want to see investigative journalism legislated out of existence. There will no doubt be a clamour for this to happen, particularly with so many of Mahmood’s previous victims apparently planning to sue him and his former employers. I would imagine that anyone who was found guilty after a trial as a result of his investigations will be thinking of suing, and an awful lot of nasty stuff will come out.

We mustn’t let this furore warp our view of investigative reporting. What Mahmood did – change a witness statement – had nothing to do with investigative journalism, and the collapse of the Tulisa trial had nothing to do with the initial sting operation.

This area of journalism is already well-regulated; anyone who transgresses the law can be prosecuted for perverting the course of justice. If someone steps out of line, as Mahmood did, they will be criminally liable, which is the way it should be.

This case has shown that, when it comes to investigative journalism, the existing legal framework is effective. The law doesn’t need to be changed if it’s already robust enough to ensure those who transgress will face justice.

Ultimately I don’t think the law will be amended to prevent future ‘kings of the sting’ from operating. The papers will tighten up, for sure, and investigative teams will be more closely monitored. Again, this is how it should be; as a lawyer I am part of an industry that is rigorous in its self-regulation, and it is only right that other industries are similarly vigilante.

In the last few weeks we’ve seen the worst of investigative reporting, in the Mahmood case, but we’ve also seen the best with the exposure of Sam Allardyce. Personally I believe that, if the England football manager is willing to criticise his own employer’s policies for money, the public has a right to know about it, and I am glad this was brought to our attention.

It would be a hugely retrograde step if we denied ourselves the right to equally significant revelations in the future.

Nick is a criminal defence lawyer, author and commentator. His previous clients include Sir Alex Ferguson, David Beckham, Jeremy Clarkson and Ronnie O'Sullivan and has been labelled 'Mr Loophole' by the press. You can contact him via the company's website or on twitter at @themrloophole.