EXCLUSIVE: John Higgins to face ‘match fix’ hearing in September amid confusion over evidence as newspaper requests he doesn’t sue

By Nick Harris

EXCLUSIVE

26 July 2010

The so-called ‘match fix’ case against the world’s No1 snooker player, John Higgins, which began in a blaze of global publicity on 2 May after a News of the World entrapment sting, will reach a conclusion with a tribunal hearing in early September, sportingintelligence can reveal.

The hearing, to be arranged and hosted by Sport Resolutions (UK), an independent dispute resolution service for sport, is most likely to happen on 7 or 8 September, depending on the diary commitments of the various parties involved.

Yet the outcome is far from clear-cut, this website has learned, not least because of the evidence (or more specifically the lack of evidence) released to the authorities by the News of the World to support the paper’s front-page claim on 2 May that Higgins had “sensationally been caught agreeing a massive £261,000 bribe to FIX matches.”

The paper’s coverage over five pages that day, and a follow-up story on Sunday 9 May, which carried the factually untrue front-page headline “Higgins bet on himself to LOSE”, led to Higgins being suspended from all snooker, and to his reputation being effectively destroyed.

As this website has reported over the past three months – on 3 May here, on 8 May here, on 9 May here, on 18 May here, and on 18 June here - there have been serious questions over the paper’s methods, and over the veracity of its claims.

Now, in the latest extraordinary twist in the case, sportingintelligence can reveal that the News of the World has intimated that Higgins should agree not to sue the paper in relation to this case. The NotW has requested the same thing of Higgins’ business partner, Pat Mooney, who was the principal target of the paper’s “long con” sting. Higgins and Mooney have understandably declined to agree to any such thing, reserving the right to sue the paper for libel at some later stage if they choose.

Sportingintelligence further understands that as a result of Higgins and Mooney declining to give up their right to sue, the News of the World has yet to hand over “evidence” to the (separate) legal teams of Higgins and Mooney. According to one source with insight into the News of the World‘s thinking, the paper does not want its evidence analysed or scrutinised without the safety net of an agreement that it won’t be sued. “The paper is protecting its position,” one informed source says.

The Higgins camp refuses to be drawn on speculation, with a spokesman saying: “Given that there is a quasi-judicial procedure on going, it would be wrong for us to comment. We are completely focussed on clearing John’s name.”

The case has been investigated for snooker’s governing body, the WPBSA, by David Douglas, a respected former Metropolitan Police chief superintendent who joined the WPBSA board earlier this year with a remit to oversee disciplinary matters. As sportingintelligence has previously report, the News of the World has assisted Douglas in his inquiries while declining to provide full, unedited audio or video tapes for reasons of its own.

The WPBSA’s chairman, Barry Hearn, said in early May that the case would come to a conclusion “within days and weeks, rather than months and months”, but it was always likely that legal complexities would slow down the process. The wrangles over evidence have not helped, but other developments that sportingintelligence can reveal are:

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  • the case was passed by David Douglas to Sport Resolutions (UK) in early July.
  • Higgins and Mooney have both been issued with a “charge sheet” by the WPBSA, and while this website does not know the precise charges, it is understood they are “general” including failure to report an approach about betting / fixing, and bringing the game into disrepute.
  • the WPBSA investigation established that Mooney (as he himself always said) had much more contact with the News of the World’s reporters, who posed as fake businessmen and fake gangsters during the sting, than Higgins, who one source described as having “peripheral involvement”.
  • there was a “case management conference” in London last Friday, hosted by Sport Resolutions (UK) and involving legal teams from all sides, and Douglas, but not the News of the World. The purpose of the conference was to discuss hearing dates and to debate the availability and admissibility, or otherwise, of certain evidence.
  • the tribunal hearing in early September will be chaired, according to a source, by Ian Mill, QC, a leading silk with an array of sports law cases on his CV.

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So what happens next?

In the best-case scenario for Higgins, his legal team will argue that following an elaborate entrapment and sting process of dubious origin, he was caught on film, in a context unverifiable, talking theoretically about missing shots, and about sponsorship deals.

The News of the World’s story on 2 May was based almost entirely on words and actions by Mooney, often after the consumption of a lot of alcohol, and following a lengthy entrapment process.

Without full disclosure of unedited and undoctored evidence by the News of the World (which would need to be as damning in its original state as when highly edited), the best-case scenario for Higgins is that his name will be cleared.

In a worse-case scenario, Higgins could be found guilty of failing to report an approach about match-fixing (a charge no player has ever been convicted of before), found guilty of bringing the game into disrepute (on the basis of edited NotW evidence) and  found guilty of agreeing to fix matches (ditto). If that were the case, he could face a multi-year ban.

In the middle ground, he could be found guilty of a general disrepute charge, and banned for short time that he has already served. As things stand, his legal team would challenge any ban because he has consistently maintained his innocence.

Any decision on legal action by Higgins against the News of the World will be delayed until after the tribunal. Many believe Higgins already has a strong case against the paper as a result of its 9 May coverage with its untrue front-page headline and betting story based on a flaky witness who could recall little detail.

That alone demonstrated malicious intent towards Higgins, something that wouldn’t help the News of the World’s defence in relation to its 2 May story.

Other questions relating to the case will probably go unanswered, such as why the paper has sat on another match-fixing story for months (involving someone completely separate from Higgins and Mooney); and the identity the person or people who turned the paper towards Mooney in the first place.

Some of this detail might theoretically emerge if Higgins were to sue the paper at a later date and the case went to court, although the News of the World, which created a fake website making fraudulent claims as part of its sting, would possibly not relish such a degree of exposure.

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