The News of the World has been much in the news lately, as well as making it and printing it. The ‘phone-tapping scandal will run its course and might or might not come to anything – if they are as deep in that as allegations suggest then of course I hope they’re held to account for it. But for me it’s a bit of a side issue. It’s hardly necessary to find evidence of illegal activity in order to hold the NotW in contempt: the evidence of their toxic effect on public – and private – life is there for all to see in the published edition of the ‘paper.

After England’s exit from the World Cup, I argued that the press themselves are an active hindrance to the performance of the national team. The agendas they pursue and the crass and often poisonous level of debate which surrounds the England team makes sensible decision-making in relation to it almost impossible. And this week, they’ve turned on another England player by publishing details of Wayne Rooney’s private life. (I’m aware, of course, that the NotW are not the only ‘paper to have run with this, and you can take this rant to the gutter press generally, but I’m focusing on the one ‘paper for reasons I’ll come on to.) Why they chose to go for Rooney, and why now, I’m not altogether sure – though doubtless he could have avoided it by having a great world cup, and with a few judicious decisions about serialisation rights to the book that would have followed.

When and why the redtops decide to publish is in itself a murky area, but let’s take the story on its own terms. It should go without saying, I would think, that I don’t give two hoots what Wayne Rooney does with his penis (well, maybe within a few obvious limits of legality). Some people might, but I’m struggling to see any possible public interest. The justifications that have been put forward are the usual ones – that Rooney has put himself into the public eye and is fair game, and that he somehow deserves to have his shortcomings exposed because he’s some kind of role model. Both of these lines of reasoning might have some element of truth in some circumstances, but only to a limited extent, and here they rely on a vision of Wayne Rooney that is itself largely a media creation. He has never, so far as I know, set himself up as anything other than a footballer; he hasn’t made himself out to be any kind of moral paragon, he hasn’t involved himself in any campaigns or activities which would justify any accusations of hypocrisy. If he’s a role model, it’s because other people have made him out to be one.

Sure, he’s gone along with it at times, he’s had his own book published, he and Colleen might even have sold rights to their wedding pictures (did they? I don’t know offhand and I’m not interested enough to check). But this is part of playing a media game that he’s been sucked into, and is more trying to exercise some control over his public profile rather than to promote or exaggerate it. There comes a point when there’s an understandable need to do something to protect your privacy, not to push yourself into the public eye but to influence the media scrum that already exists whether you wanted it to or not. The suggestion that having once allowed yourself into this world, or having at any stage been seduced by a bit of extra cash from a media who were (then) cosying up to you, it becomes open season for anyone who wants to run any story about you is nonsense.

Even more flimsy is the other justification I’ve heard for running these stories – that Rooney’s extra-curricular activities might have been the reason why he had such a poor World Cup. To me, this is so transparently absurd as to invite outright derision, but such is the level of public discourse on the issue that I’ve heard even more sensible commentators mention it as if it were a theory that’s worthy of consideration.

But if the press have been duplicitous in their treatment of Rooney, that’s as nothing compared to the way the News of the World appear to have stitched up Pakistani cricketer Mohammad Amir – and here we get onto issues that are much more serious. Firstly, we have to stress of course that nothing has been proved over any match-fixing or spot-fixing, and the allegations remain just that. But personally I find the evidence to be compelling in the specific instance in question – a middle-man was filmed taking money in return for information on precisely when three no-balls would be bowled, and right on cue the no-balls came. It stretches credibility to deny a causal link between the two events.

The News of the World has been much praised for this scoop in many circles, for uncovering what many have supposed – on no particular basis – to be the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps it is, and perhaps evidence will emerge in the coming months to suggest that this is indeed a scandal on the scale of the Hansie Cronje affair. But at the moment, it looks to me like smoke and mirrors. The people talking this up as part of a wider-scale problem are those with a pecuniary interest in doing so – the press themselves, and the middle-man. This should be treated with great caution – we’re all familiar with the small-time operator and bullshitter eager to talk up his influence when he’s chasing an opportunity, and here he had a chance to make all kinds of grand claims that he knew no one would be able to check. And what easier claim to make than that concerning the Test in Australia last winter where, as it happened, Pakistan lost on the last day from a dominant position?

Based on such flimsy pillars (and allied to a distinctly racist subtext that has us believe that, y’know, Pakistani cricketers are just like that) we’re invited to jump to the conclusion that this Sydney Test was fixed, and many people have done so. I’m sceptical, not just because of the lack of direct evidence for it, but because – for all the talk of odd field settings and dropped catches – when I looked through the match reports and cricinfo’s ball-by-ball coverage it was very difficult to see how the logistics of throwing the match would have actually worked and who might have been involved. (Amir, incidentally, was not even playing in that match.) At the very least, if there were some players involved who were trying to lose, they were leaving an awful lot to chance. Australia are, in any case, a better side than Pakistan, and a tough one perfectly capable of battling back from adversity.

As for spot-fixing, again we’re short of any evidence – indeed the circumstantial evidence points the other way, to this incident being a one-off. That the three players accused were walking around the outfield on the first morning of the Test in deep conversation rather than warming up had been remarked, and with hindsight this took on a significance which fitted into events. But one of the reasons it was noticed was because it looked odd and unusual. Similarly, the no-balls themselves – the one bowled by Mohammad Asif was subtle enough that it might have slipped under the radar, but the two bowled by Amir were such comcially huge oversteps that they had, again, been remarked on, and caused some amusement, before the spot-fixing story broke. If, indeed, they were deliberate then they left nothing to chance.

Where, then, is the evidence he might have done any such thing before? Amir is eighteen, he’s not been playing international cricket very long. Footage of all his matches is easily available, it’s been closely watched already and none of it was very long ago. If he’d ever bowled any such enormous no-balls before they’d have been remebered, commented on, reproduced since and played on Sky Sports News over and over. (There are other ways a bowler might spot-fix, but no-one has suggested exactly what – the odd no-ball would be the most trivial and, one would expect, most common way.)

The absence of any such similar no-balls in any of Amir’s previous matches makes the conclusion, to me, inescapable: the only occasion on which we have, not even evidence, but any sort of reason to be suspicious that Mohammad Amir has done anything untoward is the occasion on which the News of the World themselves provoked him and paid him to do so. And for what? News International’s agenda is not morality – that their sister organisation on Sky continue to employ Matt LeTissier, despite his own spot-fixing admission has already been observed on this site and elsewhere. Their agenda is simply to sell ‘papers, to control and influence public agendas; Mazher Mahmood’s agenda is to find stories, from anywhere, to bolster his image as some sort of daring undercover reporter. For this they have set up and just possibly wrecked the career of one of the world’s most promising young cricketers.

None of this denies Amir’s personal responsibility of course – if he did get involved he was daft. And when people within sport are so easily corruptible that might be a story in itself. That’s an even stronger line of argument for Pat Mooney, the agent of John Higgins who was banned for life this week after another NotW “scoop”; Mooney was not an 18 year old kid in a foreign culture but a man with a major position of responsibility within the game of snooker. He deserves what he got – but it’s worth noting that it’s another story which entirely failed to uncover any evidence of a deeper problem.

When the Cronje affair came to light, it was based on investigations into individuals the Indian authorities already knew of, and once it came out it unravelled quite quickly. This story, in contrast, seems to have come from nowhere, and while we don’t know how much is yet hidden from the public domain, I’ve not seen any other details of any other money men accused of being behind it, and the follow-up stories have been trivial. The week after the initial revelations, the cricket world was braced for more to follow – instead, all the NotW had was a lame attempt to implicate another Pakistani batsman, Yasir Hameed, who seemed to have his finger on no pulses but was filmed making indiscreet comments about rumours that were already in the public domain.

So, we’ll wait and see. I’m jumping the gun here in playing down the stories, but I’m doing so I suppose partly as devil’s advocate because so many people have shown such unseemly haste to jump to the opposite conclusion, to assume that the whole of Pakistani cricket is rotten and to laud the News of the World for their part in telling us about it. Maybe, but I’m sceptical, and I’m very concerned about the lack of criticality of the story, and the free run that the ‘paper has had in setting the terms of discussion of it.

When the News of the World spends its time poking its nose into the private lives of reality TV wannabes and soap stars I’ve never heard of, I can at least ignore it, much as that doesn’t make it right. But when it starts having an impact on – and appointing itself as some sort of moral guardian for – sports that I love it’s another matter. If it turns out that they do have a story here that was over and above the one of their own making, if the investigation does lead us to discover people – besides their own journalists – who are prowling the world of sport offering money to fix matches then I’ll eat my words and acknowledge the role they played in it. In the meantime I’d urge everyone to caution, to be more questioning of both the stories and the motivation behind it. And, of course, not to buy that crappy little ‘paper (I suspect I’m preaching to the converted here). And to leave Wayne Rooney get on with his life.

12th Sept 2010