A former British barrister Paul Samrai took a key role in the disgraced story on arms trafficking in Romania for Sky News, ‘The Eastern European Gunrunners’, in 2016
Last year, Samrai also went undercover for The Sun “exposing” Romanian car-jackers who confess to stealing £20,000 from unlocked vehicles in Coventry, UK. The police found no evidence of the crimes described
Many of his award-winning investigations are quality journalism. But his targets include minorities, immigrants to the UK and east Europeans
Yet in 1994, Samrai was convicted as part of a million-pound passport scam helping Hong Kong residents win the right to live in the UK, before the Chinese handover in 1997. This conviction is spent
Samrai denies The Sun story was staged, and the Sky News report was fake, claiming he only worked in security and on camera for the story
A British convicted fraudster and investigative journalist Paul Samrai played a key role in the Sky News team which produced a disgraced broadcast on gun trafficking in Romania in 2016, leading to three Romanians facing charges of organised crime, and the British media group shaking off responsibility for the story.
Bucharest-based anti-terrorist police interrogated the Romanians ‘exposed’ in the broadcast. One was a media fixer, another was a manager for telecom company Vodafone, and the third a landlord. None was found to be an arms dealer.
Sky News continues to stand by the story and, as we went to press, has not yet removed it from its YouTube Channel.
Since 1996, Samrai has worked for the most prestigious UK media as an investigative journalist in the shadows.
His clients have included the BBC, Channel Four, Channel Five, ITV, Sky News, The Sun, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Mail on Sunday, the News of the World and the Sunday Mirror.
Samrai is also a mentor for young journalists. In October 2017, he worked as a trainer in covert filming at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London.
His stories have often targeted immigrants to the UK or east Europeans, feeding on and perpetuating anti-foreigner sentiment in Britain.
Despite working on reports that denigrate newcomers to the UK, Samrai previously spent prison time as part of a fraud scheme that helped Hong Kong Chinese illegally move to Britain.
A former barrister specialized in immigration, Samrai was convicted in 1994 for his part in a three-year 1.36 million GBP scam to help Chinese in Hong Kong gain British passports before London handed over the territory to Beijing in 1997.
Samrai was involved in a trick to forge official documents, claiming Hong Kong citizens were educated in the UK, giving them the right to live in Britain.
In November 1994, he was sentenced at Southwark Crown Court along with a British solicitor. The judge said the two had “agreed to participate in a thoroughly reprehensible deception of the Home Office”. Samrai pleaded guilty to conspiracy to falsify documents and was sentenced to three years.
He served two. Following his release, Samrai became a fixer for national newspapers and broadcasters, and forged a career as an undercover reporter and cameraman.
In 2016, Samrai was part of the team helping Sky News expose what the broadcaster alleged were gun traffickers in Romania willing to sell AK-47s to terrorists.
The footage, filmed in a clearing in the woods in central Romania, and broadcast on 7 August 2016, shows two hooded men displaying a cache of weapons from the back of a jeep. The Sky News reporter, Stuart Ramsay, says these weapons are smuggled from Ukraine, and could be sold in the EU.
“Is it possible that these weapons end up in the hands of terrorists as opposed to criminals?” asks Ramsay.
The Romanian fixer for the story, Aurelian Szanto, translates from the two ‘traffickers’:
“If [you have] the money, he doesn’t care who you are. He gonna sell to anyone.”
At first glance, this appears to be a major scoop for Sky News - exposing a gun trafficking ring transporting weapons of terror from the warzone of Ukraine to western Europe.
Upon closer inspection, the cache of six guns included an air pistol and a semi-automatic rifle bearing the label ‘Made in Romania’. None of the weapons was an AK-47 or automatic rifle. The two Romanian traffickers at the centre of the story were cousins - one worked at Vodafone, and the other was a landlord and hunter. The men later stated they believed they were taking part in a documentary.
Sky’s report was mocked in Romania for its falsehoods and the gullibility of the UK media. At the time, Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos attacked the broadcaster’s failure to back up its story, saying it was “unacceptable to denigrate a country without proof“.
Sky News stood by its reporting. After receiving 190 complaints, UK broadcast regulator OFCOM investigated the story. Samrai and the Sky News team spoke to the regulators.
Six months later OFCOM exonerated Sky News.
The news organisation was contacted through one of its fixers “who was a trusted source”, according to the OFCOM report. The fixer informed Sky that he had been approached by a Romanian citizen “about a gang in Moldova operating in Romania who specialised in the sale of guns to European crime gangs”.
Asked who this “trusted source” was, Paul Samrai claims it was the Romanian fixer, Aurelian Szanto, who lived in Birmingham, and has previously worked with TV and newspapers in the UK.
Four days after the report was broadcast, Szanto, Sky News’s ‘trusted source’, was arrested in Romania, along with the two other ‘traffickers’, on charges of organised crime.
Upon learning of the detention of a source, Sky News reporter Stuart Ramsay had a curious reaction. Instead of expressing concern over his fixer’s predicament, Ramsay gloated:
To those unfamiliar with English slang, this means: ‘The men have been arrested. They say they are innocent’. Ramsay’s ‘shock’ is sarcastic.
When confronted last year, Sky News refused to say what measures they made to protect their trusted source.
On the report, Samrai’s job included being a middleman between Szanto and the Sky News team, according to an individual with first-hand knowledge of the events. But when asked to confirm his role, Samrai writes to us via text message with the word: “security”. This meant he assisted Sky News’s security expert, Craig Summers, who is a former member of the British Army.
Samrai also shot part of the film.
While Sky News has repeatedly failed to answer questions on this broadcast from The Black Sea, and has hidden behind the OFCOM report, Samrai downplays his role on the programme, preferring to blame his Romanian colleague.
When we asked him if he thought the men were gunrunners, he says: “I believe they were” and “this is what Aurelian Szanto led us to believe”. Szanto declined to speak to us.
When we tell Samrai the arms included those made in Romania, and were not automatic, he says: “One was a very, very nasty... up to date Ukrainian made, Ukrainian Army issue sniper’s rifle.”
However, no other weapons were shown to the team other than those in the broadcast, and none of them was a Ukrainian sniper rifle. Samrai would not indicate to us which gun he was referring to as ‘Ukrainian Army’, and instead directed us back to Sky News, which has refused to speak to us about this broadcast.
When challenged with testimony of the Romanian men in the broadcast, who stated they were hunters, Samrai alleges: “That was what allowed them to travel around the country with a car full of weapons. It was their cover, that they were hunters.”
After two months, the Romanians in the report were all released on parole. Szanto returned to work in the UK.
The 2016 Sky News incident did not stop Samrai’s future involvement in articles which showed Romanians as criminals.
In May 2017, The Sun featured story on its website with the headline: “High-tech crooks making £20,000-a-day tricking drivers into leaving cars unlocked using jammers to secretly block remote key fobs.”
It was based on Samrai’s undercover work.
Samrai - posing as a buyer of a key fob - tests the device with ‘Mario’, the ‘Romanian ringleader’ of a Coventry car wash gang, who demonstrates how he can jam the electronic waves of a car lock, allowing thieves to rob cash and telephones from inside.
‘Mario’ boasts that he can steal up to “£20,000” a day from unlocked motors. The Sun claims it has exposed “a car wash gang spearheading the crime spree”.
The paper, which has a right-wing, Eurosceptic and anti-immigration agenda, has long been criticised for perpetuating stereotypes of east Europeans as dishonest. Meanwhile car washes are a workplace often stigmatised in Britain as run by criminals.
The online comments show this effect:
There is no evidence that Mario makes £20,000 a day, or even steals from cars. The story produces no proof he was involved in any crime.
Mario later denied all claims made by The Sun, and no one was arrested following its ‘scoop’. The police questioned staff at the car wash - in Coventry’s Ball Hill - who also refuted the allegations, according to the West Midlands Police.
And though ‘Mario’ says on ‘hidden camera’ that he targeted cars in Coventry city centre, there are no reports of such crimes.
“Coventry Police monitored vehicle crimes in light of the story that could have been committed in this way and we could not link any offences,” says a police spokesperson.
The car wash and its staff, however, were publicly shamed online.
Much of the abuse commented on their immigration status.
The staff at the car wash declined to return The Black Sea’s phone-calls and messages.
Today, Samrai backs up the story.
When asked if Mario’s boasts were authentic, Samrai says: “Yes they were.” The undercover reporter also denies that any elements in the report were staged, and says he “absolutely” believes the men in the report were criminals. The Sun says it stands by the story.
Samrai has been exposed in the past as a purveyor of misleading stories. In 1996, after spending two years in Leyhill Open Prison in Gloucestershire and Ford Open Prison in West Sussex, Samrai was released on appeal.
While in prison he met Peter Trowell, a former conman who taught Samrai how to tip off the tabloids with stories, according to ‘Hack’, an expose of fake tabloid stories by British journalist Graham Johnson, who worked with Samrai at The News of the World.
Samrai denies he met Trowell in jail. “I can categorically assure you that a Peter Trowell was never a fellow prisoner during my time at [Leyhill or Ford Open Prison],” Samrai says.
But Graham Johnson tells us: “Both Samrai and Trowell claimed independently to me and together that they met each other and or knew each other from prison.”
Samrai sourced stories that appealed to the editorial line of the News of the World. During the 1990s, according to Johnson, this was to demonise “the undeserving poor and illegal immigration”. This meant crime, benefit fraud, peadophilia, nasty neighbours and prostitution in low-income communities. Once the tabloids ratcheted up the anti-EU rhetoric, their line turned against east Europeans.
In the mid-nineties, Samrai was working in his dad’s newsagent in Warwick, and was the tipster for a story of a local 12 year-old prostitute who agreed to have sex with an undercover journalist for money, states the book. The Warwickshire police said the story was made-up.
When asked about this report, Samrai says he only worked as a hired hand in sound, monitoring the receiver and recording the conversations between the reporter, Graham Johnson, and the girl. “Only [Johnson] would know if it, or any part was made up,” Samrai says.
So we asked Johnson.
“It was definitely Paul Samrai’s tip,” he says, “and he is misleading when he claims he was brought in as a freelancer.”
Later, when Johnson worked at the Sunday Mirror, he followed Samrai to India to expose child slaves making fireworks in Chennai. The factory was owned by ‘Standard Fireworks’ - the name of a UK fireworks company.
It was a classic story of impoverished Indian children slaving to make fireworks for children and families in the UK to enjoy. The problem? It was not true. The Indian firm was a completely different one from Standard Fireworks in the UK. The story never ran.
This pattern continued. In the 2008 book Confessions of a Fake Sheikh, undercover journalist Mazher Mahmood says Samrai does have leads that can produce authentic stories, yet he is “a little too carefree and prone to exaggeration”.
One example Mahmood gives is that Samrai took him to India to interview a Coventry man called Mohan Singh, a Sikh who had officially died, but reappeared in his home village in the Punjab, in what appears to be an insurance scam.
Singh supposedly used the cash from his insurance payout to buy a farm in the Punjab.
The turbaned man was even happy to have his photo taken next to the farm.
Mahmood was not convinced. When confronted on his official death, Mohan Singh produced paperwork saying he had spent his life working at a Dunlop factory in the Midlands.
Although he had the same name as the deceased, Singh did not look the same as the photo of the dead man Mahmood had in his possession.
But Samrai had an excuse at the ready. He told Mahmood that Singh had undergone plastic surgery and was simply trying to con the journalists, according to the book.
Samrai says today that “no story ever appeared” on Mohan Singh.
When asked about the two books that made claims about him, Samrai pointed to the fact that both authors, Mahmood and Johnson, have been convicted of crimes connected to their work, and referred to them both as “two very discredited and disgraceful journalists”.
Samrai specialises in stories in the UK Midlands. We spoke to Imran Khan, who ran a bookshop in Birmingham in the early 2000s.
The bookshop was in a predominantly Muslim area, and had been raided by police in the panic following the terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Centre in 2001. The police alleged the store hosted so-called ‘terrorist literature’.
Khan says one day he received a “very sweet old middle class former lecturer couple” at the bookshop.
Once inside, they asked him: “Do you have anything under the counter?”
“I said ‘Come off it guys, let’s not be silly’. I am quite a big guy, they got a bit scared and they said: ‘Paul Samrai sent us!’”
Soon Samrai himself appeared to say he was sorry, according to Khan.
In the Midlands, and especially among the Sikh and Muslim communities, Samrai is well-known as a fixer with few scruples.
“He never had journalistic qualifications, can’t write to save his life, but what he does have is charisma and an endearing quality about him, almost a loveable rogue,” says a journalist who has worked with Samrai. “For him it is all a game - he plays for high stakes with people’s lives. He doesn’t do anything personally, it’s all about getting as much cash as he can.”
Some stories he has worked on are classic investigations. For the BBC he was part of an undercover team reporting on babies for sale in Bulgaria, and has busted doctors who offer to sell kidneys in the UK.
Samrai is also a mentor for young journalists. In October 2017, he worked as a trainer in a course on covert filming at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London, in an event organised by the Centre for Investigative Journalism. The also taught techniques such as “building a rapport with the people you are filming, winning their trust, learning to listen”. The Centre did not reply to our questions.
But many of the journalists who work with him soon become aware that he is responsible for stories that seem true on the surface, but collapse under scrutiny. Yet they decline to challenge him.
“It’s an unspeakable truth because everyone wants to get paid,” says a former colleague.
Journalists who work with Samrai claim he “over-promises”, but when they suspect there is something wrong, they fail to tell editors because they are afraid to confess to their bosses that thousands of pounds have been wasted on a questionable investigation.
“Everyone in the industry knows Paul Samrai comes with a health warning,” says the former colleague.