Nick Harris: When newspapers manipulate a story, there is rarely a winner

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The News of the World's front page headline on 9 May was typically understated: "Higgins bet on himself to LOSE", which might have suggested to some readers that the Higgins in question – John, the world No 1 snooker player – had bet on himself to lose.

In fact the accompanying story made clear that Higgins had not actually had a bet at all. The story claimed he'd tried to have a bet although the paper's source (an anonymous former call centre worker) said she couldn't remember how much Higgins allegedly wanted to bet, or on what precisely.

This story came in the context of an earlier NOTW story, on 2 May, written by its investigations editor, Mazher Mahmood, aka "The Fake Sheikh", aka the man also responsible for Sunday's cricket exposé.

The 2 May story alleged that Higgins had shaken hands on "a disgraceful deal to fix a string of high-profile matches after demanding a £300,000 kickback".

That story, in the paper and on the website, contained multiple anomalies. Why did £300,000 in the first paragraph become £265,000 by the fifth paragraph? Where, in any of the coverage, did Higgins "demand" anything at all? Why did subtitles in an apparently damning NOTW video seem to be wrong? At one point Mahmood asked Higgins if it's simple to miss a ball. The subtitle then says "Yeah, simple as that", a phrase a casual viewer would believe was Higgins' response. But his lips don't appear to sync with that.

So to the cricket, and what appears, this time, to be solid evidence that mistakes in play by two bowlers during the Fourth Test between England and Pakistan at Lord's were manufactured to order. But a breakdown of the allegations and evidence shows the story is not necessarily as it's been widely perceived.

The "wrongdoing" – three no-balls – was actually "bought" by the NOTW for £150,000. This wasn't for any actual betting coup, as erroneously reported in some places, but to show that large amounts of cash might persuade players to make errors, however inconsequential.

The events splashed over Sunday's NOTW were manufactured by the paper to make this point. It may have been done with noble intention – to highlight that cash can influence cricketers' behaviour. Yet the conceit that anyone could profit by massive sums from individual no-balls is not substantiated by any credible evidence.

No mainstream bookmaker would ever take a bet on a no-ball. And if there is any bookmaker even within the shady black markets of Asia who would lay a bet in the tens of thousands that a specific ball would be a no-ball, his existence has never been proven. Any bookie would be insane to take such a bet.

Neither do the no-balls, which are examples of spot fixing, prove match fixing.

Pakistan's bowlers collectively bowled 14 no-balls in England's innings in the Test, each inconsequential to the result. The paper has published a video where Majeed forecasts two of the no-balls. That Majeed persuaded the players in question has yet to be established beyond doubt.

The NOTW also alleges Majeed claimed that Pakistan would lose two One Day Internationals scheduled in the coming weeks. Rather than wait to see if that claims were true, the NOTW ran with its story this weekend about the no-balls.