BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Deal collapses under weight of Clifford anger

As with most scandals where the hand of ubiquitous 'PR guru' Max

Clifford is detected, the 'Sophie Wessex sees Fake Sheikh at Dorchester'

affair has mileage in it yet.

Despite royal PR efforts, it seems unlikely we have heard the last of

the tapes made when the News of the World's Mazher Mahmood recorded both

Wessex and her RJH PR partner, Murray Harkin, in an alleged

loose-talking pitch.

Five weeks ago, RJH account manager Kishan Athalathmudali approached

Clifford with claims of sharp practice at the firm. He was, he told

Clifford, known as 'Mr Negative' to colleagues, due to what he sees as

his 'stern approach' to ethical issues.

Clifford took his side, and with the assistance of Mahmood, Wessex and

Harkin were caught on tape. Clifford claims the material in last week's

Sunday newspapers is 'just the tip of the iceberg'.

That material is itself contested. A leak from within the NoW - for

which a mole-hunt is thought to be underway - made the Palace aware of

the tapes' contents ten days ago.

This led Wessex to write letters of apology to the Prime Minister, his

wife and the leader of the opposition for her comments to Mahmood. The

deal struck - that the NoW would pass up the material in return for an

on-the-record chat with Wessex - fell apart last Friday. Clifford and

his team ensured the Mail on Sunday and Sunday Mirror got scoops in

spite of the deal.

Clifford does not suggest that Mahmood colluded with some of his

employer's direct rivals. But he says he himself was 'deeply

disappointed' by the NoW's decision not to run the original story.

Attention is expected to focus this weekend on comments to Mahmood by

Harkin, who has kept a low profile all week. Harkin may have been

indiscreet with Mahmood, but he has told lawyers to keep a close eye on

this weekend's tabloids.

A question mark hangs over the relationship between Clifford and the

NoW, a paper which has proved useful to him for more than a decade. He

remains supportive of editor Rebekka Wade. She was, he feels, forced by

legal advice to accept the Palace deal against her wishes. Having done

all the work, only to spike the story and then be scooped, must have

been, in Clifford's words 'sickening'. Wade declined to comment.

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