News of the World treads fine line over no balls

PETER PRESTON, in today’s Observer, looks at whether the News of the World‘s methods justify the ends

Sometimes events weave their own bizarre pattern. In Britain, the biggest media story of the week sees Pakistan cricket covered in dung: bad news for all the sporting world. Over in America, though, a Washington Post sports reporter tweets a football tale that he knows is marginally wrong. He wants to show how duff information can spread round the web like wildfire. The Post’s ombudsman declares that “fabrication” is journalism’s greatest sin. Mike Wise is ceremonially “suspended” for a month. Pakistan’s top trio get suspended rather later.

Meanwhile, of course, William Hague objects to some web “fabrication” himself. And, back in the US, the New York Times produces a report which squares the circle. Its reporters, after much London toil and reading of what they describe as “the Labour-oriented Guardian“, declare that Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s supreme spin doctor, “actively encouraged” phone hacking when he was editor of the News of the World and ran an often “degrading” newsroom.

The link here couldn’t be more important. It puts journalism’s ends and means together. It scratches its head over what’s ethical, pure and true.

The News of the World lives constantly on the edge. Sometimes – as in the case of the prison term for its hacker-in-chief royal correspondent – it topples right in. Sometimes its stings (of Sven-Goran Eriksson or the Beckham family’s would-be kidnappers) emerge convoluted and inconsequential. But sometimes – putting John Higgins, Sarah Ferguson and Pakistani no-ballers together – the hits seem clear enough; and make waves with clear public interest attached.

Cricket’s authorities pay some of UK policing’s former finest to patrol the sport. But they didn’t catch Pakistan’s opening attack treading a foot too far, nor the owner of Croydon Athletic transfixed in mid-trade. A newspaper did that. We can’t write finis to all this murk as yet, but if you care about dodgy bets and even dodgier money laundering, about thousands of punters potentially rooked, then this wasn’t a sting too far. It’s part of what journalism is all about.

To continue reading Preston’s column, click here

Read Paul Hayward on corruption in sport