'Fake Sheik' appears at UK phone hacking inquiry

December 12, 2011 - 8:00 AM

LONDON (AP) — The star undercover reporter for the now-defunct News of the World tabloid told Britain's media ethics inquiry Monday that he duped celebrities only to expose criminality, immorality or hypocrisy.

Mazher Mahmood, who worked for the Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper for 20 years, said he had not been aware illegal phone hacking was going on until the newspaper's royal reporter, Clive Goodman, was arrested in 2006. Goodman was later jailed for eavesdropping on the mobile phone voice mails of members of the royal family staff.

Mahmood is a controversial figure, nicknamed the "Fake Sheik" after his signature ruse of pretending to be a rich Gulf businessman to trap celebrities, politicians and suspected criminals.

He said his stories had to meet rigorous public interest standards, such as exposing criminality or "moral wrongdoing." He also said celebrities were fair game "if they present themselves as wholesome characters and trade on that status" while behaving hypocritically.

Mahmood said he was proud that his investigations had resulted in more than 260 criminal prosecutions — including the convictions last month of three Pakistani cricketers for match-fixing in a scandal that rocked the sports world.

Prime Minister David Cameron set up the judge-led inquiry after it emerged that the News of the World had for years illegally eavesdropped on the voicemail messages of celebrities, public figures and crime victims in its quest for scoops.

The inquiry has heard from crime victims and celebrities, including actor Hugh Grant and "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling, who have described the devastating effect on their lives of media intrusion.

Mahmood, who now works for Murdoch's Sunday Times newspaper, was the first of several witnesses from Murdoch's News International who will provide a defense of the company's practices.

He gave evidence out of sight of the press and public to protect his identity. His words, but not his face, were broadcast on the inquiry's website.

The phone hacking scandal forced Murdoch to shut down the 168-year-old News of the World in July. More than a dozen Murdoch employees have been arrested in the case, which also cost the jobs of several of his top executives, two senior police officers and Prime Minister David Cameron's communications chief.