The sentencing on 21 October, of star News UK reporter Mahzer Mahmood, otherwise known as "the fake sheikh", to 15 months' jail, has led to renewed demands for more official regulation of the press.
Mahmood made his considerable professional reputation through a series of especially audacious sting operations aimed at high profile figures in entertainment and sport. His nickname stems from the most common and famous of the disguises used to fool these figures into dodgy financial deals which he would secretly film. In his last major operation he was disguised as an oil-rich film mogul.
He invited singer and X Factor judge Tulisa Contostavlos to a meeting to discuss the possibility of a starring role in a movie. He produced apparently clear evidence that Contostavlos had agreed to provide him with cocaine, and the Sun ran a headline story accusing the singer of being a drug dealer. Cue much personal distress and a career on the rocks.
Contostavlos fought back and, in July, the prosecution case against her was thrown out of court on the basis that Mahmood had tampered with evidence. Specifically, he had tried to get the driver who had taken his victim home to alter his statement. According to Contostavlos she had been drawn into a discussion on a possible drugs deal as part of an improvised audition for the movie part. She was vindicated and the fake sheikh found himself in the dock. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 months in prison.
As throughout the Leveson inquiry, News UK has sought to distance itself from the wrongdoing of their employee. That tactic didn't work fantastically well then and News UK has no reason to assume it will now.
There are also questions about how Mahmood managed to see an original copy of his driver’s statement, so the issue of police collusion with tabloid journalists clearly hasn’t been put to bed. The political issues aren’t straightforward here.
On the one hand it can never be anything other than gratifying to see the Sun and the Murdoch empire exposed and shamed for the grubby and sanctimonious journalism they represent. On the other hand illegal and underhand methods, including sting operations, have been used throughout the history of journalism to expose real corruption and even change the law in progressive directions.
The Daily Telegraph’s exposure of the MPs expenses scandal played a key role in undermining the credibility of a generation of politicians on the make. A legal framework that made exposures harder would not be in the best interests of those of us keen to challenge the rich and powerful. In the specific case of the Sun and Murdoch, however, we can indulge ourselves a bit. This is absolutely not a campaigning progressive anti-corruption outfit. Their exposures have mostly been of football stars and second rate celebrities. On the few occasions they have targeted politicians, it has been a matter of score-settling or a demonstration of their power.
They have carefully nurtured a reputation of fear with mainstream politicians, leading Tony Blair and his inner circle to conclude that the only way for Labour to win, and then remain in, power was to defer and pay homage to the Murdoch organisation. The price for those who don’t comply is the threat that any sexual, financial or personal transgression will be splashed all over their pages - and, if they can’t find one, they will find a way of inventing it.
We should be wary of any legal changes that criminalise stings per se, though that is not what Mahzer Mahmood was convicted of and not something demanded by the pro-regulatory pressure group Hacked Off. On the other hand we should welcome anything that hammers another nail into the vile anti-working class institution that is News UK and its most toxic manifestation, the Sun.