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'Fake Sheikh' Accused Of Tricking Sources Into Making News


The practices of Rupert Murdoch's tabloid press are coming under scrutiny once again in the United Kingdom. This time it's a star reporter. He's known as the Fake Sheikh who has used disguises and undercover cameras to expose wrongdoing by princesses, athletes and celebrities. The chairman of a powerful parliamentary committee, who investigated earlier tabloid crimes at Murdoch papers, is now calling for a new inquiry, which may convulse the British press once more. We are joined now by NPR's David Folkenflik, who wrote a book on the Murdoch empire. And, David, tell us a little bit about the Fake Sheikh, and how do Britains think of him?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, we're talking about a guy known as - whose actual name is Mazher Mahmood. He's a star reporter - for many years - for several papers in the Murdoch stable. He worked back for The News of the World, The Sunday Times, more recently, The Sun on Sunday. And he always seems to find people doing things wrong. He's caught some minor royals seeming to sell access to more senior figures of the royal family. He's caught minor celebrities seeming to agree or to actually sell drugs. And he's always said look, it's incumbent on me as a reporter to show weakness of character and wrongdoing when I uncover it. And nonetheless, because of those undercover tactics he's used - that you've described - he's seen as something of a rascal.

SIEGEL: Well, what is he alleged to have done wrong?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, much more than rascality. We're talking, really, about accusations that, in some ways, he's manufactured some of the stories, or certainly coerced them into being. There was a conspiracy to abduct Victoria Beckham, the former Spice Girl and model and the wife of the star soccer player David Beckham. Some years ago, there was this conspiracy to abduct her that he was able to expose. And, now, a key source in that case has said well, actually he kind of got me to create this conspiracy and to drag these poor guys into it, who were kind of hapless and helpless along for the long ride. This summer, a judge concluded that Mahmood had lied to the court in a case about a British popstar and had committed what the judge called serious misconduct in changing and altering testimony and providing information to the court. And there's a BBC documentary last week that said, in a number of times, he really pressured people to do things they didn't want to do or, at times, presented tape in such a way that presented them doing things they might not have actually quite done.

SIEGEL: Well, David, does any of this matter beyond the activities of one reporter?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there are at least 90 criminal convictions that appear to have been gained on the basis of material unearthed and presented to the public by Mahmood. You know, the judge's ruling - as a well as other material that's come to the fore - seems to, in some ways, call that into the doubt. And you've seen John Whittingdale - he's a senior member of Parliament, the chairman of a committee on media and culture there, who's an ally of Prime Minister David Cameron - say that the links between the police and Mahmood need to be investigated. He's in a position to do that. He was the guy who led an important inquiry into charges of hacking and of the bribery of police at Murdoch papers in the past. And now you're seeing a moment where, again, the relationship between the press - and the Murdoch press, in particular - and this key reporter and the police seem to be somewhat in doubt and in question.

SIEGEL: So just very briefly, where does the case of the Fake Sheikh go from here?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you're seeing questions of, as I said, the parliamentary inquiry, and you're seeing a lot more press scrutiny. You're seeing The Guardian and the BBC give a lot of tough questions, raise a lot of very difficult questions for the Murdoch press to answer about some of his past stories. And additionally, an attorney for one of the players in that abduction case has said she wants some of those charges reviewed and thrown out as well.

SIEGEL: OK, NPR's David Folkenflik. Thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.