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30 July 2014

Tulisa and the “fake sheikh”, FBI’s home-grown terrorists and why Gove had to go

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column

By Peter Wilby

The News of the World may be dead and so, one hopes, may the phone-hacking habits of its journalists. But one of its star turns, Mazher Mahmood – called the “fake sheikh” because he has often dressed up as one – is still employed by the NoW’s successor, the Sun on Sunday. His chequered career has just suffered another reverse. The trial of the singer Tulisa Contostavlos on charges of setting up a cocaine deal collapsed on 21 July because, the judge said, there were “strong grounds to believe” that Mahmood – “the sole progenitor of this case, the sole investigator, the sole prosecution witness” – had told lies in evidence.

Contostavlos had allegedly been enticed into getting a friend to supply Mahmood with half an ounce of cocaine. She thought he was an Indian film producer auditioning her for a £3.5m role. Mahmood has many admirable scoops to his credit, notably the exposure of match-fixing by Pakistan cricketers in 2010. Yet many of his stories seem to involve luring the harmlessly naive, such as Contostavlos, into potentially serious misdemeanours. Some have led to expensive trials that collapsed because the “plots” he claimed to have exposed turned out to be bogus: a plan to kidnap Victoria Beckham, for instance, and a conspiracy to “explode a dirty bomb on the streets of Britain”.

In better days, Mahmood would have produced two or three mega-stories a year under intensive editorial supervision. Now, in a fiercely competitive and shrinking market, he is required to produce “exclusives” even when he hasn’t got a real story.

Feel the sting

More serious cases of entrapment – involving law-enforcement agencies and mostly impoverished Muslims, not journalists and glamorous singers – have received little attention. In a new report, Human Rights Watch details cases in which the US’s FBI “may have created terrorists out of law-abiding individuals by conducting sting operations”. In 2010 and 2011, the FBI targeted Rezwan Ferdaus, a man with mental-health problems. An informant infiltrated his mosque, devised a plan with him to attack the Pentagon and the Capitol, provided fake weaponry and funded his travel. Ferdaus got 17 years in prison. In at least two instances, the FBI paid people to take part in a terrorist plot.

How often the British police use similar tactics we can’t be sure, but one undercover officer, Mark Kennedy, confessed that he had infiltrated green groups and sometimes played an active role in organising protests. No wonder the police and security services are so anxious to hold trials in secret. 

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Takes the Michael

Michael Gove had to be sacked as education secretary because he treated the job as though he were still at the Times. He never distinguished between a bright idea for a 1,000-word Monday-morning column and a serious government policy. “I’ll bring back O-levels” sounded great until everyone remembered O-levels excluded more than half of the nation’s 16-year-olds. Like many columnists, he loved the provocative paradox, displaying a picture of Lenin in his office and insisting that he entered politics purely to assist the poor. But his journalistic instincts made him too many enemies and too often invited ridicule.

Some commentators predict another big job for Gove if the Tories win the election but it’s hard to know what it could be. David Cameron would surely not risk Gove upsetting doctors (“I’ll bring back bloodletting!”) as much as he upset teachers. At the Foreign Office (“I’ll bring back the British Empire!”), he’d probably provoke a nuclear war. The safest option would be defence, where “I’ll bring back the cavalry!” would appeal to animal lovers as well as to the nostalgic.

Testing times

England Test cricketers now come and go with bewildering rapidity. Over the past decade we have had two apparently world-beating sides that disintegrated almost as soon as they reached the top. Matt Prior, the current wicket-keeper, seems finished at 32 after a Test career lasting a mere seven years. The career of one of his predecessors, Alec Stewart, spanned more than 13, ending in 2003 when he was 39. England Test careers now rarely last longer than ten years and players generally retire in their early thirties.

Andrew Flintoff managed an 11-year career but retired at 32. Ian Botham, by contrast, played for 15 years and retired at 36. Overseas players seem to survive: South Africa’s Jacques Kallis retired at 38 after an 18-year career. Perhaps English cricketers have to strain harder to beat anyone. The likely explanation is that the English board, in its money-making zeal, puts players through a more punishing programme. This year’s schedule of five Tests against India in six weeks is just one example.