UNDERCOVER-UP: MURDOCH'S MAHMOOD 'HID EVIDENCE OF SEX CRIME'
Insiders tell Byline how Mahmood and editor buried proof of freelancer's 'unlawful sex' with celeb
‘KING of Sting’ Mazher Mahmood colluded with top News International editors to bury evidence of unlawful sexual activity by a trusted undercover journalist on his team, Byline can reveal.
A front-page News of the World story was secretly dropped in late 2004 as part of the cover-up to protect the Fake Sheikh’s reputation - and to avoid potential criminal charges against him and his team in America.
Mahmood did not engage in the illegal act of 'patronising prostitution' - but a senior member of his investigation unit did, a freelance reporter who often acted in his elaborate stings.
However, Mahmood, the newspaper’s Investigations Editor, went on to engage in a conspiracy to keep the scandal a secret and to stop the woman from making an even more serious complaint.
Evidence of a team member engaging in the Class A Misdemeanour - punishable by up to a year in jail under Article 230 of New York Penal Law – was then suppressed in a high-level cover up at Rupert Murdoch’s London HQ.
At the time, Mahmood’s Fake Sheikh persona and the stories it generated were core parts of the Rupert Murdoch newspaper’s public brand.
There is no suggestion Mr Murdoch himself was aware of the cover up.
Byline understands the woman at the centre of the allegations was targeted after Mahmood’s man followed her into a hotel suite toilet for sex.
The incident left her feeling angry and, according to three sources, she was prepared to make more serious claims of a sexual nature against the man.
Despite concealing the facts, Mahmood kept his £150,000-a-year job at the market-leading Sunday tabloid without formal censure.
A former News International source said: “One of Mazher’s team had sex and the story was compromised. After that, Maz dealt directly with the Editor, and the story was not used.”
The revelation was particularly sensitive because it happened in New York - Rupert Murdoch’s hometown and headquarters of his global media empire.
The Fox News CEO has fought hard to keep criminal allegations connected to his British newspapers away from the US since the phone hacking scandal broke six years ago.
A second well-placed source, one of four to confirm the story to Byline, added: “Exposing vice was the paper’s stock in trade but now one of the ‘Fake Sheikh’s’ team had been caught out the matter had to be buried."
The suppression of evidence has clear parallels with the collapsed Tulisa Contostavlos drug trial, during which Mahmood lied on oath in the witness box at Southwark Crown Court.
The Contostavlos case has left Mahmood, of Purley, South London, facing multiple claims of journalistic misconduct, and his employers News UK facing some 45 civil claims from the victims of his stings, which experts estimate could cost £800m.
News UK – as News International was renamed when the phone hacking scandal caused The News of the World to close in 2011 after 168 years in print – has taken pains to retain his services, going on to employ him on stable mate The Sunday Times and later The Sun on Sunday.
Only today, after being jailed for conspiring to pervert the course of justice by changing a police statement, a sentence described by Judge Gerald Gordon as "inevitable", did the company finally terminate his employment after more than 25 years.
Mahmood's former editor Andy Coulson, 48, resigned in the wake of the hacking scandal, going on to be appointed Director of Communications to British Prime Minister David Cameron, before himself being jailed in 2014 for conspiring to hack phones.
The sex cover up followed a tip off that an international celebrity was also working as a prostitute.
The source added: “The story was supposed to be an expose of the celebrity working on the side as a high-class call girl.
“Mazher had set up a meeting with her, during which the plan was to try and entice her into accepting money for sexual favours.
“It had to happen in America, where she was based, so he flew his team of surveillance people and others to New York.
“Maz preferred to work in New York when he was in America because state laws allowed him to legally rig a room with secret recording devices. He hired a big suite as the stage for the story.
“This was very much an Andy Coulson production. He was intent on running stories about this particular celeb. He regarded her as perfect material for News of the World readers.
“So the whole thing had approval from the Editor Andy Coulson. Mazher liked to deal directly with the Editor and often ignored the usual chain of command. The £25,000 cash payment was approved personally by the Managing Editor Stuart Kuttner.”
The source added: “Mazher didn’t always play the main acting role in his investigations.
Sometimes he used another guy as the focal point.
“That is what happened on this occasion. Everything had gone to plan. It was all on tape. The reporter was supposed to ‘make his excuses and leave’.
“But then she went to the en suite bathroom. Knowing there were no cameras in there, he followed her in - and had sex.
“The editor found out. The tapes were reviewed back in London and sounds of sex could clearly be heard coming from the bathroom.”
Another former senior News International insider said: “Mazher was in America on a job.
“Early on in the week, the Tuesday or Wednesday, the story was working out.
“It was about a celebrity who was supposedly a hooker. But by Thursday, things had changed. The news desk suddenly didn’t have a splash.
“I just heard one of the executives saying ‘we can’t use it’, meaning the news desk could no longer run the Mazher story about the celebrity, even though they thought it had worked out.
“The mood changed on the Thursday.
“We knew this because after the story fell down, the pressure fell on reporters to produce a replacement splash.
“It was meant to be a big secret, but one of the executives said Maz’s story collapsed because of a sex offence.”
The incident, in late 2004, sparked a crisis summit among the News of the World’s editors – who decided the best approach was a cover up.
Several meetings took place with one middle-ranking editor and some very senior News International executives.
The middle-ranking editor was observed talking to at least three different executives in or near three offices in the news room.
Another source said: “There was a meeting of the top people on the paper.
“People rightly feared for their jobs. People who knew about it were told very clearly that it should never be mentioned again.”
Another source added: “Things rapidly elevated to lawyer level. Our people liaised with the celebrity’s people and it went away, as difficult things often tended to at the paper.
“Afterward, there was a total shutdown on discussion of the incident. It was swept under the carpet.”
News UK had yet to respond to Byline's requests for comment at the time of publication, however last night it confirmed it had parted ways with its former star reporter.
It said: “Mazher has led scores of successful investigations during his 25-year career with the company. His work has led to the exposure of criminality and wrongdoing. It is a source of great regret that his time with the company should end in this manner.
“We have noted the threats made after Mazher’s conviction of civil claims against this company in relation to his previous work. Should such claims be brought, they will be vigorously defended.”
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