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Monday, May 24, 2010 

The return of entrapment.

Haven't used these in a while...

The last year has hardly been a vintage one for tabloid newspapers. They didn't just collectively miss the opportunity to get exclusive rights to arguably the biggest story of the last decade, the files which enabled the Telegraph to launch its series on MPs' expenses, they in some cases actively turned them down when they were offered. Circulation across the board has mostly continued to slump, with just the Star and Sun barely managing to maintain the levels of the year before, and then only through heavy discounting. Alongside the damage caused by the Guardian's investigation into the phone-hacking at the News of the World, and the concurrent investigation by the parliamentary media committee, of even more concern will have been how social media is increasingly allowing those who were previously shouted at and invariably not allowed to respond in kind to protest about the very worst of the tabloid media's excesses, never more epitomised than by the contempt focused on the Daily Mail following the publication of Jan Moir's now infamous comment piece on the death of Stephen Gately. The Press Complaints Commission may not have agreed, but no newspaper is now likely to be so unthinking before printing something similar.

True, there was something of a success earlier in the year when John Terry, having been targeted repeatedly by the News of the World was not only exposed as having an affair (although Vanessa Perroncel continues to deny having had a sexual relationship with Terry) but in the process also had his so-called "super injunction" stopping the media from even revealing that there was one in place thrown out. The injunction however stopped the News of the World from keeping its scoop exclusive, and the media flailed around in its occasional pseudo-moralist persona, justifying the story on the grounds that Terry as captain of England was in a position of influence, meant to set an example to children around the country both on and off the pitch; he had to go, and go he did.

Nonetheless, it's in part been the revelations concerning the tabloid media's previous addiction to phone hacking and the "dark arts" that have almost certainly led it back to another of those deeply dubious and ethically questionable but far more traditional journalistic tricks of the trade: entrapment. Certainly, it's no coincidence that the three big "scoops" of the last month, if they can really be described as such, have all involved stings of two distinctly different sorts.

Just to be awkward, we'll consider the one that came along second first. Here is one of those slightly rarer examples of a newspaper not doing the legwork itself. Instead, the enterprising Melissa Jacobs, having ingratiated herself with the FA chairman Lord Triesman, recorded an incredibly dull conversation that was only slightly enlivened by his indiscreet mentioning of a conspiracy theory involving Russia bribing referees at this year's World Cup in favour of Spain, with Spain then returning the favour by voting for Russia to host the 2018 tournament. Jacobs was operating the classic honeytrap form of a sting, the attractive young woman pretending to have an interest in the male target, gaining his trust only then to either get him to break the law for her, or in this case, taping him saying something vaguely controversial. Jacobs claims that the pair were having a sexual relationship, something denied by Triesman (as always, it's worth remembering the wisdom of Mandy Rice-Davis on such matters) and not entirely backed up by some friendly but hardly damning text messages between the two, only for Jacobs to suddenly have a fit of conscience involving having an affair with a married older man, and then almost two years later apparently decide to earn some money out of him by meeting up with him and recording their conversation with a view to flogging it to the gutter press.

Quite why the Mail on Sunday decided that the conversations were worth an apparent £75,000, or indeed how they justified to themselves that the story was in the public interest are things we will never know. Something we do know is that the News of the World had been offered the story, and apparently turned it down. Not presumably because it felt the story wasn't worth paying for, but because it had a rather more acute sense of the possible effects of putting the information into the public domain: the instant implications for England's own bid to host the 2018 World Cup. Luckily for the Mail on Sunday, the rest of the tabloid press decided yet again that dog doesn't eat dog and instead focused on "rescuing" the bid rather than criticising the paper for endangering it in the first place through such an unnecessary and non-revelatory report. The only casualty was Gary Lineker, who decided he could no longer "write" (in fairness, I don't know whether his column was ghosted or not, but the vast majority of those by former players are) his column for the paper as a result.

Worth remembering is the hypocrisy of the position of the Mail on Sunday in paying such a vast sum to Jacobs when so many other such stings are based around the premise of proving the target to be, not just necessarily as corrupt or otherwise, but also as greedy, which is just what the other two exposures by the News of the World in the past month have set out to do. Both of the victims were entrapped by none other than Mazher Mahmood, whom you might remember included this blog in the terms of an injunction which he took out after he had so comprehensively failed to do his usual work on gorgeous George Galloway, who then set about distributing two blurry photographs of Mahmood which his staff had taken from the pages of none other than this site (I'd located from them from an Albanian newspaper website's report on Mahmood's activities, which itself swiftly disappeared down the memory hole). Some thought after his run in with Galloway, as well as the failure to secure convictions in the Victoria Beckham kidnap plot that never was and in the red mercury plot that also never was that he'd be forced to take a back seat in such "investigations", and while that seemed to be the case for a while, he's now apparently back in charge.

He also seems to be using exactly the same underhand tactics and ploys which he always has. The apparent planning, subterfuge and indeed cost which went into entrapping the snooker player John Higgins and his manager Pat Mooney was staggering, as uncovered by the Sporting Intelligence website. This involved meetings prior to Higgins and Mooney being flown out to Ukraine, where the conversation about fixing frames in exhibition matches that Mahmood's fake company was to sponsor was filmed, the creation of a very professional looking website for this business, and liberal amounts of alcohol being offered at least on the first couple of occasions, presumably to loosen any concerns that Mooney might have had, Higgins not being involved until the meeting in Ukraine. According to Sporting Intelligence, Higgins and Mooney were even fast-tracked through customs in the Ukraine, further giving the impression of how much influence Mahmood's fake company had. It was only then that they revealed that as well as being involved in legitimate business, they also had a supposed role in a gambling syndicate and wanted Higgins to lose some of the frames. While some of the evidence provided by the NotW is elementary, including how Higgins would account for the money he might have been paid for fixing the matches, there are notable holes: such as where and when the frames were to be lost, how much money exactly would have changed hands, and when. Of further concern is that Sporting Intelligence believes the video itself of the discussion was choppily edited, and in some cases misleadingly subtitled, with even dialogue being added on later that doesn't seem to match with anyone in the room at the time.

This isn't to even begin to suggest that Higgins and Mooney are innocent. Indeed, the fact that they didn't immediately report the meeting to Barry Hearn, the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association's chairman is undeniably incriminating, considering Higgins later issued a statement claiming that he and Mooney had only gone along with what was being discussed because they were scared that they might be dealing with the Russian mafia, especially after the sudden appearance of two men previously unknown to them, one of which was another reporter, named "Jaroslav", along with someone given the moniker "Nikail".

Unlike Roy Greenslade
, I see far more of a public interest defence for the entrapment of Higgins, in order to expose corruption in snooker, than I do in yesterday's sting involving Sarah Ferguson. Fergie is hardly the most public or notable figure these days, and while her intention to "sell" access to her ex-husband in his role as a special representative for trade and investment, unpaid as it is, is of possible concern on ethical grounds, the ethics involved in the entrapment are again of no apparent concern. While there doesn't seem to have been as much effort put into the sting as there was in the Higgins case, the same methods were used, including an apparently large amount of alcohol. It's hardly a revelation that Ferguson has always been out for whatever she can get, having not exactly been remunerated extravagantly after her separation from Andrew (although that said, many other single mothers with two children would rip her arm off for £15,000 a year), and as has also already been pointed out, if someone wants to pay you simply for introducing them to a relative, especially when no other favours have been promised and it is not even clear that meeting alone would be achievable, how many wouldn't take the money and run?

Of most concern to me is that a pattern seems to be repeating itself. Mahmood gradually worked himself up originally from entrapping minor celebrities, most often with drugs, with John Alford and Johnnie Walker notable examples, to more ambitious schemes which caught out the Countess of Wessex. He then went even further, as the aforementioned Victoria Beckham kidnap plot that never was, and then the red mercury nonsense. Having been knocked somewhat off his pedestal, he's now on the up again. Despite his claims that his involvement in the "red mercury" investigation was part of his role as a police informant, he's clearly never had any qualms whatsoever about potentially ruining the lives of individuals that he imagines he can get a story out, as shown by his first ever act of grassing up friends of his parents for being involved in pirating videos. Even if the tabloid press is somewhat battered and bruised at the moment, it still only believes in one thing: making money. Everything else comes second to that, and the return of entrapment, and all the uncertainties surrounding it just goes to show that the same old lack of morals and ethics is still driving journalists just as it much as it ever did.

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