Inquiry exposes black arts of the tabloid hacks
The Duchess of York was caught out by the tabloid newspaper's 'Fake Sheikh', Mazher Mahmood
From the going rates for a celebrity "kiss and tell", to the purchasing of child pornography to trap paedophiles, to the mechanics of a good old-fashioned Fleet Street sting, the dark arts of the tabloids were yesterday laid bare at the Leveson Inquiry by a trio of their most skilled practitioners.
At the start of a week which sees ex-employees of Rupert Murdoch's News International take centre stage at the investigation into press ethics, the Fake Sheikh, the Wolfman and the "Neville" named in the infamous "for Neville" email at the heart of the phone hacking scandal explained how they went about their work for the 'News of the World'.
Between them, investigations specialist Mazher Mahmood, former News of the World deputy editor Neil Wallis and ex-chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck had more than 70 years' experience at the sharp end of tabloid journalism and insisted that, beyond the prurient nature of their work, lay a crusade against "hypocrisy and criminal wrongdoing".
Mazher Mahmood -- aka The Fake Sheikh
Mr Mahmood insisted it was a fallacy that he had entrapped dozens of individuals -- from hapless royals to serious criminals -- using his elaborate journalistic subterfuges.
The former NOTW investigator, who now works for the 'Sunday Times', said his 20-year career at the former led to more than 260 "successful criminal prosecutions", including the recent convictions of Pakistani cricketers for match-fixing after the publication of a story which saw him named reporter of the year in industry awards.
Mr Mahmood said he had always posed two questions when deciding if a story about a potential target was to be pursued: "Are they involved in criminality? Are they involved in moral wrongdoing?"
The reporter, whose nickname originates from his penchant for posing as a monied Arab royal to claim scalps, including the Duchess of York, said that the focus for many of his scoops was illegality.
He said: "The public interest is the overriding factor. I have purchased child pornography, for example, which clearly is illegal, and that led to conviction. There are times when we cross the line -- but the overriding factor is the public interest."
Neville Thurlbeck aka "Onan the Barbarian"
The former chief reporter of the NOTW, who was dismissed by News International in relation to phone hacking allegations which he refutes, was at the heart of a succession of important stories for the Sunday tabloid, including the revelation of the so-called "Nazi orgy" involving motor racing boss Max Mosley, which has become a benchmark in British privacy law.
Mr Thurlbeck, who was arrested in April by police investigating the phone hacking scandal, revealed that the average payment for a "kiss and tell" resulting in a front page article was between £15,000 and £20,000.
But when it came to lifting the lid on an alleged affair between David Beckham and his former personal assistant Rebecca Loos, Mr Thurlbeck confirmed the fee had risen to a "six-figure" sum.
The inquiry was told there had been "huge public interest" in publishing the claims about the England and Manchester United star's personal life.
Mr Thurlbeck said: "He was sponsored left, right and centre. He was always promoting himself with his family as a happy modern man. It was a wholesome image that the family cultivated and the public bought into on a massive scale, and we exposed that as a sham."
Neil Wallis aka Wolfman
The former deputy editor of the NOTW, who left the paper in 2009 to pursue a new career in public relations, bluntly denied there was a Fleet Street culture of paying police or public servants for stories.
Speaking in the gravelly tones that, along with a fierce newsroom manner, earned him his nickname, the journalist said the appetite for "kiss and tells" had fallen in recent years and it was wrong to label such stories as the default option for tabloids.
He said: "I remember paying £15,000 for a video of some soldiers in Iraq who had dragged some kids off the street and beaten them to a pulp. I wouldn't like you to think that all tabloid expenditure is about 'kiss and tells'."