When rubbish has a point

Media - Bill Hagerty supports investigative journalism even when it just turns over twits

The News of the World's Mazher Mahmood in fancy dress ought to be as conspicuous as Mr Blobby in a Cabinet meeting. Indeed, considerably more so, some would suggest. To most public figures, a request for a business meeting from a mysterious Arab sheikh would ring alarm bells loud enough to be heard all over town, and even in the various far-flung palaces occupied now and then by members of our royal family. But, as Phineas T Barnum is believed to have observed, there's a sucker born every minute and the Countess of Wessex is one such.

When members of the public are conned into making asses of themselves, it is called Candid Camera. When it happens to the great and the good - or, as in this case, a public relations hustler elevated to celebrity by royal connections - it becomes entrapment.

I was in Australia when the Sophie story broke, yet the squeals of those criticising the News of the World for employing subterfuge to expose the countess as a flibbertigibbet could be heard clearly there. Soon they were augmented by Aussie columnists decrying the use of "deceit". The thrust of these arguments appeared to be that deception is permissible only when the story is of proper public interest - to expose criminality or other serious wrongdoing.

I have no wish to condone Mahmood's conning of Sophie - a steamroller to crack a nut and pathetically sneaky - but such hand-wringing is largely sanctimonious. Similar objections were raised when the People, of which I was editor at the time, used covert tape recordings of telephone conversations between David Mellor and his mistress to expose the then secretary of state for heritage as a humbug and a hypocrite. The wailing was misguided then and it is now.

The landlord and alleged friend of Mellor's squeeze tapped her telephone and took the tapes, initially, to the News of the World, a good friend then of the Conservative government. When the Screws passed on them, tipping off Mellor in the process (now that's really sneaky), Antonia de Sancha's Judas turned up at the People.

We continued the surveillance and to tape the telephone conversations. There was no question of trespass, as the informant owned the property. He was the blunt instrument that mugged Mellor - arrogant beyond belief in not heeding the Screws' warning - and he received rather more than the customary 30 pieces of silver for his treachery. He was every bit as mucky as Mellor, but I believed the story met the necessary criteria for publication.

The outcry was swift and deafening. The entire political establishment, many radio and television pundits, most of the broadsheet newspapers and even the Daily Express condemned the publication of the story as a gross intrusion of privacy and objected to the way it had been obtained. Andrew Neil, then editor of the Sunday Times, was practically apoplectic. But the public wasn't. It became clear very quickly that this was one of those rare occasions when the "ordinary people" were unwilling to blame "the meejah" for stepping out of line.

Neither my decision to publish the story nor the methods used to obtain it caused serious disquiet among a population that had woken up to its shameless manipulation by a government with more skeletons than old school ties in its cupboards. The Daily Telegraph, among others, saw the way the wind was blowing and commented: "The government sought to intimidate the press into better behaviour - not least towards its own ministers - and its bluff has now been called."

And later, the pre-ennobled William Rees-Mogg, commenting on privacy and the press, wrote: "We know the state spied on two prime ministers. Perhaps it spies on all prime ministers. It may have been involved recently in the spying done on members of the royal family. It would be madness, in the name of the protection of privacy, to give the state wider powers to control the press."

In Australia, especially, where raucous tabloids of the News of the World type do not exist, commentators were po-faced over the counterfeit sheikh, although the column inches devoted to poor Sophie's indiscretions would have stretched clear across Sydney Harbour. The countess and her companion had been inveigled into making fools of themselves and the story was trash, believed the critics. True on both counts - the News of the World's claim that Mahmood's interview with the countess had "serious and constitutional implications" was plain daft - but that isn't the point.

As Leonard (later Lord Justice) Hoffman, pointed out in the mid-1980s, although stories of genuine public interest were often the raison d'etre of investigative journalism, it did not matter that some produced by investigative journalism were rubbish. With those, the public interest was simply in "encouraging the activity as a whole", he said.

I hope Mahmood directs his talents at more deserving targets in future. After all, the cost of the costumes and hotel suites and the paraphernalia necessary for the scam seems a bit excessive if it results only in the turning over of a twit. But even if he is destined only to add to the bulging file of journalistic trivia, Mahmood and his flowing robes have a role in a society where the privacy of many is invaded daily by the security services and police, using sophisticated equipment of all kinds. As John Pilger has written: "The lost issue is the need to protect the public from the state, not the press."

As a character in Tom Stoppard's Night and Day observes: "Junk journalism is the evidence of a society that has got at least one thing right - that there should be nobody with the power to dictate where responsible journalism begins."