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Wednesday, September 08, 2010 

If this a victory, what would a defeat look like?

It must be an odd time to be working at the News of the World right now. By recent tabloid standards it's had something approaching a string of successes: earlier in the year it exposed John Terry's alleged affair with Veronica Perroncel (still denied by her), leading to his demotion from England captain, and over the last couple of weeks has not only uncovered apparent corruption in the Pakistani cricket team, but also bought the story of a really rather pleasant young lady who claims to have slept with Wayne Rooney in exchange for money. At the same time, it's never been under so much scrutiny: even if the phone-hacking scandal took place under the paper's previous editor and now top Tory spin-doctor Andy Coulson, the paper's antics from that period of time have come back (eventually) to haunt it. With further accounts of just how out of control the newsroom apparently was coming out, it would be difficult for there not to be a level of resentment at the paper at how their hard work is being overshadowed.

Unhelpful at best then must be the implication that some of their more recent journalistic work is coming apart at the seams. Back in May, on the Sunday of the snooker world championship final, the paper claimed that former winner John Higgins had shook hands on a "on a disgraceful deal to fix a string of high-profile matches after demanding a £300,000 kickback". In a classic entrapment sting, masterminded by perennial offender Mazher Mahmood, Higgins had been filmed making what even then looked like a lot of vague comments in response to leading questions. It soon became clear that to get the footage of Higgins, hastily and sloppily edited together, the paper had gone to extravagant lengths even by its standards: setting up a highly professional looking website to convince Pat Mooney, Higgins' manager, that Mahmood's phony company had both the money and the credentials to potentially host matches at which Higgins could have thrown frames, and then flying both out to Ukraine where the filming took place, where they were apparently fast-tracked through customs thanks to Mahmood's influence.

It was clear immediately that the paper's case for Higgins having already agreed to throw matches was on the shaky side: the video it posted on its website certainly didn't show when the matches were going to take place or how and when Higgins would be paid for throwing the frames. At best it showed him talking about how frames could conceivably be lost, about how much they could be paid for either playing such a match or for throwing them and then shaking hands on something, although quite possibly not what the NotW went on to allege. This was without the video being potentially misleading edited, with audio apparently added and the clips shifting rapidly without any context being provided. That was instead left to the article, which as usual presented everything as being completely beyond certainty.

Higgins at the time denied ever being involved in any variety of match-fixing, and instead admitted to naivety in trusting that Mooney was working "in the best interests of snooker and himself [Higgins]". He also said he played along with what was discussed in the filmed meeting both because he was intimidated by some of those present, worried they might have been from the Russian mafia, and also due to his non-confrontational nature, not least having had the possibility of fixing a match thrust upon him. His account, which didn't change, was accepted by the independent tribunal heard by Ian Mill QC, which also found that the first he knew of any possible mentioning of fixing matches was right before the meeting took place when Mooney mentioned it. While Mill criticises Higgins in his findings for not making clear that he would not take any part in bribery and also for not reporting the meeting to World Snooker's governing body at the first opportunity, it accepts that he only had a "relatively limited" time frame in which to do so (the meeting took place on the Friday and the report was published on the Sunday). His actions were "extremely foolish", but the two most serious charges against him were dropped, with Higgins pleading guilty to the two others. A six-month ban (back-dated to May) and a £75,000 fine were the sanctions decided upon.

All the blame is instead laid on Mooney. His best explanation as to why he acted as he did was to string along those he thought he was dealing with into organising the matches, without any actual rigging ever taking place. Mill regarded him as an "unsatisfactory" witness and that his account was "highly implausible", and banned him from taking any part in snooker again for life.

Whether, as Mahmood and the NotW claimed, Mooney had been putting it around that he was looking to fix matches, which was what lead to them to investigate, or it was instead a simple case of dangling a line and seeing whether anyone took the bait is impossible to know. It is however another example of the NotW further sexing up a story (ala Max Mosely and the "sick Nazi orgy") when it already had one which it could have quite easily gone with. It wasn't enough for the paper to show that someone on the board of World Snooker was prepared to potentially organise fixed matches; it also had to ensnare a player, even if it meant putting the entire veracity of the story at risk. While Higgins was stupid and didn't carry out his duties to the fullest, there was never anything approaching adequate evidence that he would have gone on to actually take part in the fixed matches. While a former world champion taking bribes was a front page story, a board member almost certainly wouldn't have been. Even then, there's little to suggest that Mooney would have ever considered fixing matches unless it had first been suggested to him, and the NotW has produced no evidence which proves otherwise. For subterfuge to be justified under the Press Complaints Commission's code, it has to be in the public interest and unobtainable using "normal" methods. Seeing as its main allegations have been shown to be unproven, that has to be in doubt.

Not that the paper itself has recognised that its report in the main has been shown to be at best wishful thinking. In a terse statement, which covers itself carefully, the paper said:

This result is a victory for News of the World investigative journalism.

John Higgins has been found guilty, suspended and fined.

Pat Mooney has been found guilty and banned for life.

Today's judgement is testament to the extraordinary work of our investigations editor Mazher Mahmood.

We hope that the exposure of Higgins and Mooney will act as a deterrent to any other cheats in sport and help restore the integrity of snooker.

It doesn't matter then that there wasn't much chance of Higgins not being found guilty when he, err, accepted the lesser charges against him with the more serious ones being dropped, this is still a "victory for News of the World investigative journalism (sic)". Anyone looking even slightly below the surface might reach an entirely different conclusion, and instead find further evidence of the News of the World acting like a rogue newspaper, indifferent to the potential consequences of its brand of "investigative journalism". After all, if this is a victory, what exactly would a defeat look like?

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