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News Corp. ‘Fake Sheik’ Reporter Defends Unreliable Sources

News Corp. tabloid reporter Mazher Mahmood, known as the “fake sheik” for the scoops he obtained by imitating a wealthy Arab, told a U.K. inquiry into media ethics that unreliable people are often good sources.

Mahmood, hired by the company’s Sunday Times newspaper after two decades at its now-defunct News of the World, said he continued using a source after police deemed the man an unreliable witness, resulting in the collapse of a trial over an alleged plot to kidnap singer Victoria Beckham.

“We deal with unreliable people all the time” and our job is to test what they’re saying and decide whether to use it, Mahmood told the judge-led inquiry in London today. “I’ve had front-page splashes from crack addicts -- one even stole my tape recorder.” The public was cleared from the courtroom to keep Mahmood’s appearance secret.

The inquiry, a government response to the phone-hacking scandal and alleged police bribery at the News of the World, has heard testimony from celebrities, authors and crime victims who said they were mistreated by the U.K. press. News Corp. closed the News of the World in July to try to stem public anger after it was revealed the tabloid hacked into the voice-mail messages of a murdered school girl in 2002 to get stories.

The source Mahmood referred to gave him details about a criminal gang that led to a 2002 story about the plot against Beckham, the wife of soccer player David Beckham. The story prompted a trial of five men, which collapsed after police decided the source -- their key witness -- was unreliable because News of the World paid him 10,000 pounds ($15,600) for the information.

Self Regulation

Mahmood told the inquiry he believes the source is reliable. Britain’s self-regulatory body for newspapers, the Press Complaints Commission, determined in 2003 that the tabloid’s payment didn’t violate its code of conduct.

A call to the press office of News Corp.’s U.K. subsidiary, News International, wasn’t immediately returned.

Judge Brian Leveson, who is overseeing the inquiry, said today that the review would finish examining the media’s relationship with the public on Feb. 9 and begin its examination of the press’s relationship with the police.

In December, Mahmood testified his techniques, such as portraying different people to get stories, are justified because his articles resulted in 261 criminal prosecutions, including that of four men sentenced in connection to a Pakistani cricket scandal last year.

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