journalism

Cricket: Entrapment journalism overshadows record breaking Test Match

BBC latest on spot betting allegations. Something is clearly rotten in the state — but is it cricket, or agent provocateur journalism which seeks to entrap athletes in a way which would never be admissible if the police did it? One of the greatest best days’ cricket of recent years, when 17 wickets fell in a single day, and Broad and Trott put on the world record for an eighth wicket test partnership, and Broad narrowly missed becoming the highest scoring number nine batsmen in an incredible display of talent and dedication which took the team from 102/7 to 434/8, is now described with the brutal summary: “England beat Pakistan in tarnished test”. No matter that this was — by a long way — England’s biggest margin of victory over Pakistan, a staggering innings and  225 runs, after a catastrophic start when teenage Pakistan fast-bowler Amir became the youngest person to reach 50 test wickets, while England batsman Jonathan Trott went on to narrowly miss being the first player to score consecutive double-centuries at Lords as he steadied the ship.

It is absolutely clear that athletes in every sport at whatever level should behave diligently and honourably, tarnishing sport neither with drug-taking nor taking of bribes nor any other kind of corrupt behaviour. Athletes representing their country in front of the world’s cameras in a major sport share this obligation, and the implications of failing in it are far worse for the reputation of sport overall, and their nation’s and their game’s sport even more.

But, equally, there is a world of difference between a journalist who discovers that a scam or corrupt behaviour is taking place and exposes it, and a newspaper — which, it appears from the reports — took active steps to lure athletes into committing a crime.

As the Pakistan team manager Yawar Saeed has very properly said, no allegations are true until they are proved. It is still possible that Pakistan’s crickets will be exonerated, and that the News of the World will withdraw its story.

However, this does not resolve the issue of entrapment journalism.

The Press Complaints Commission Editors’ Code of Conduct makes the following ruling: “Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.”

Most of us would accept that, when this involves the exposure of a paedophile, sex trafficking or drug smuggling ring, subterfuge does work in the public interest. But what about cricket betting? The News of the World article makes it clear that the editors believe they were engaging with an existing gambling cartel. But who exactly was in that ring? It seems unlikely that, before this series, Mohammed Amir would have been especially high up a cartel’s list of targets.

If we take the News of the World story at face value, then a crooked manager agreed to fix certain aspects of the game. But the News of the World has no insights about how that manager persuaded players (if he did). Consider the kind of pressure that a crooked manager (allegedly) could bring to bear on a teenage cricket star who had just delivered six wickets at Lords for the first time. Was Amir promised money? How much money? What other tricks, techniques and cunning were brought to bear?

The issue here is that — it would appear — the News of the World actually commissioned a crime, which then went on to take place. This is not the same as a TV reporter who gets to the point of buying a trafficked woman, and then pushes the deal away, having gained the footage he needs. Nor is it the same as a team of journalists meeting a known drugs-dealer in order to film a drugs deal right up to the moment money changes hands. In this particular case, there is no reason to believe that the crime would have taken place at all, and no assurance that pressure of a kind few of us can imagine was not brought to bear on an impressionable but previously untainted teenager.

When offered wealth on the one hand, and the threat of losing an agent’s essential support on the other, how many people really would manage to say no? Supposing their family was also threatened? Supposing photographs of a sensitive nature were produced? I have no idea whether any of this happened or not, but, crucially, in offering money to have a crime committed, neither did the News of the World.

This is the reason why the police are not allowed to persuade criminals to commit crimes in order to prosecute them. Far too many otherwise virtuous people have been persuaded to do things they would afterwards regret. It is far too easy, in that way, to convict someone for a crime they would never have dreamt of if they had not been thus entrapped.

I, for one, will remember this Test Match for the outstanding cricket, for the heart-in-mouth turnaround, for the heroism of Broad and Trott, and for the bowling of Mohammed Amir in the first innings.

But, at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference in Liverpool this month, I will be pressing for a change in the law, not merely the Press Complaints Commission Code, to prevent newspapers ever adopting these kinds of practices again.

How did the Charles Kennedy defection story gain credibility?

How did the Charles Kennedy defection story gain credibility?

Charles Kennedy, on the day I first met him in 1999

BBC — Charles Kennedy calls rumours ‘absolute rubbish’ On Saturday, several newspapers ran stories that former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy was in talks with Labour with a view to defecting. When the story was denied by the Liberal Democrat party, but not immediately by Charles Kennedy, many bloggers took this as a sign that the rumours were true.

Of course, Kennedy has now denied them, saying “I am not joining the Labour Party and have not had any discussions about it with anyone from the Labour Party.”

But the question remains, why did anyone think it was plausible in the first place, and why did newspapers choose to run an unsubstantiated story?

There are two issues here. The first is about the way the public — or, at least, some journalists and editors — see the natural relationships in politics. The Lib Dems have been perceived for a long time as a sort of ‘soft Labour’: during the Blair years, possibly even a refuge for Labour activists who felt they could not back their party on Iraq. Attempts by ‘Orange Book’ Lib Dems such as Oaten (remember him), Webb and Clegg to put forward a slightly right of centre economic theory were dismissed as pandering to potential Tory crossover voters. Very few people ever imagined that Lib Dems would really be involved in anything as unsocialist, or, indeed, anti-socialist, as the current coalition. Kennedy was the only Lib Dem MP who did not vote for the coalition. Therefore, he is the obvious candidate for defection. The fact that he is the ousted former Liberal Democrat leader lends spice to the story.

Was there ever a basis of fact? Was there some meeting or conversation that took place which could credibly have been misunderstood to have been about defection? Or was someone just making mischief, using their informal role as an informed source to possibly try and flush Kennedy out? We may never know.

Now to the other matter. If this had been a business deal, or a celebrity, or some such, there would have been talk of the Press Complaints Commission by now. Newspapers have a duty not to publish misleading stories, and the fact that a journalist may have been themselves honestly misled is not a defence. The onus is on the publisher to ensure that they do not mislead.

However, the moment a politician is involved, it seems that it is open season, and, really, anything goes. Journalists may believe that politicians get what they deserve, and anyone who puts themselves into the public spotlight gets what is coming to them. But the issue is really not the damage done to politicians, but the damage done to journalism, and by extension, to democracy.

Confidence in journalists, newspapers and politicians is more or less as far down as it can go. Even the expenses scandal of last year did not depress the stock market value of politicians very much. But is it really the job of journalists to keep it down at the bottom level?

Since I first decided to stand for parliament, back in 1998, people have asked me over and over again “why?” Sometimes it’s because they feel the cost/benefit isn’t very good, and they may well have a point. But most of the time they say something like: “You seem like a nice enough chap. Why would you want to get involved in that?”

Given that the vast majority of people in Britain will never meet their MP or their local councillor, this is rarely because of personal contact with MPs. In fact, people who know MPs personally generally regard the ones they know as really rather honourable. But there is an assumption that, as a class, they are scoundrels.

Perhaps MPs are. Perhaps our current crop are talentless good-for-nothings who bought their way into parliament with either trades-union backing, inherited money, or money earned through financial dealings of the kind that brought the economy to its knees. But if we persist in treating MPs as if they are guilty until proved innocent, we will never attract the next generation of MPs (if the current crop really are like that) who will be honest, hard-working servants of the people, in it out of duty and public service, not out of greed and self-aggrandisement.

As Winston Churchill pointed out, in democracy we get the government we deserve. But this is not just what we deserve when we go out and vote. It is what we deserve as a result of the stories we choose to put our trust in, the newspapers we choose to buy, the stories we choose to retell, to retweet, to post on Facebook or on blogs.

Unlimited press freedom comes, it seems, at a heavy price.

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