By Nick Harris
31 August 2010
The News of the World’s front page headline on 9 May (below) said ‘Higgins bet on himself to LOSE’ (NotW’s capitals), which might have suggested to some readers that the Higgins in question – John Higgins, the world No1 snooker player – had bet on himself to lose.
In fact the accompanying story, on pages 1, 4 and 5, and written in relation to the world championship final of 2009, eventually 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.
The NotW said Higgins could even be stripped of his 2009 world title as a result of this (non) bet. But as there had been no bet, no offence had happened, so of course no action against Higgins was taken as result of this particular story by the police, the Gambling Commission or any other body.
This story on 9 May came in the context of an earlier NotW story, on 2 May, written by its chief investigations officer, Mazher Mahmood, aka ‘The Fake Sheikh’, aka the man also responsible for Sunday’s cricket exposé. The 2 May story came after a lengthy, elaborate sting operation.
The 2 May story about Higgins, on page 1 then unfolding across two spreads inside, alleged Higgins had shaken hands on “a disgraceful deal to fix a string of high-profile matches after demanding a £300,000 kickback.”
That NotW story, in the paper and on the website, contained multiple anomalies. The timing and location of these high-profile matches wasn’t specified. (The NotW’s fake businessmen were proposing to stage them. “It’s exhibition matches,” one reporter said).
And 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 were some subtitles in an apparently damning NotW video wrong? For example, 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 didn’t sync with that; he never said those words. Why package it like that?
If the NotW, was, as stated, acting on a tip from a “sports insider” that Higgins and his business partner Pat Mooney “could be involved in match-fixing”, why was there no word, anywhere in the coverage, about any prior fixing misdemeanour, real or imagined, by Higgins?
Maybe these are mere details. But the effect, in the public consciousness, was that Higgins was a match-fixer. He was immediately suspended from all playing activity and remains suspended, pending a snooker disciplinary tribunal next week, on 7 and 8 September, when it should become clear whether he is guilty, naive, innocent or a mixture.
There was never, nor will there be, any police or Gambling Commission involvement in that Higgins case, because the NoTW didn’t and hasn’t (to date) proved Higgins has ever actually fixed anything.
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.
Undeniably it is deeply troubling to the integrity of cricket if any specific activity by players can be “bought”. It strikes at the heart of sport’s credibility. It goes without say that when evidence exists, match-fixers should be charged and punished.
But the “wrongdoing” in this specific case – three “no balls” in the Test – was actually “bought” by the NotW itself, 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 numerous pages in Sunday’s NotW were manufactured by the paper to make this point.
It may have been done with noble intention – to highlight 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”, or does. 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”, in themselves prove match-fixing, which is a different proposition.
Yet the NotW on Sunday declared: “CAUGHT! Match-fixer pockets £150k as his rigs the England Test at Lord’s”.
The intro on the story said: “The News of the World has smashed a multi-million pound cricket match-fixing ring which RIGGED the current Lord’s Test between England and Pakistan.”
A more accurate but certainly less sensational intro would have been: “The News of the World paid a corrupt agent, Mazhar Majeed, £150,000 to persuade players he knows to bowl three ‘no balls’.”
Pakistan’s bowlers collectively bowled 14 “no balls” in England’s innings in the Test, each inconsequential to the result, including the three “bought” by NotW.
The paper has published a video where Majeed forecasts two of the no balls (not all three). How Majeed persuaded the players in question has yet to be established beyond doubt: bribery, coercion or some other method. Did they receive cash? Were they bullied or threatened? A full investigation should reveal all.
None of this is to say that match-fixing hasn’t happened (it clearly has, for years, in cricket) or wasn’t being planned, even by Majeed.
Indeed, the NotW alleges Majeed claimed that Pakistan would lose two One Day Internationals scheduled to be played in the coming weeks.
Rather than wait to see if that claim were true, the NotW ran with its story this weekend about the no balls.
A full inquiry should establish a full picture of what happened, something headlines alone sometimes misrepresent.
An abbreviated version of this article first appeared in The Independent this morning.