Sports cheats relax! News of the World is no more

Jul 9 2011 - 7:32pm

LONDON -- Unfaithful soccer stars and crooked cricketers will soon be safe from the most prying of Britain's muckraking tabloids.

The News of the World goes on sale for the last time Sunday, shut down by its proprietor after 168 years. The Murdoch-owned News International is trying to limit the fallout of allegations that reporters illegally tapped cell phones and bribed police.

Among those who will not be mourning the loss of Britain's best-selling Sunday newspaper will be the many sports figures targeted by sting operations.

On the paper's long list of scoops are motor racing boss Max Mosley's sadomasochistic encounter, Sven-Goran Eriksson's readiness to quit as England's soccer coach, swimmer Michael Phelps using a marijuana pipe and match-fixing by three Pakistan cricketers

Sitting alongside colorful descriptions of the private and not-so-private lives of A-list actors, soap stars and pop idols, the News of the World's lurid stories of infidelity by the likes of soccer's Wayne Rooney and John Terry seemed to exist solely to titillate readers.

Still, last year's exposure of Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Amir and Salman Butt conspiring with bookmakers to fix Pakistan's cricket match against England showed that the paper could do serious work, too.

The News of the World won four awards at April's UK Press Awards, including News Reporter of the Year and Scoop of the Year, both relating to its exposure of match-fixing by the Pakistan trio.

But even at that high point, many felt unease at the newspaper's methods in bringing to light the facts that helped build the case for criminal charges.

"I congratulate the News of The World," said Ronnie Flanagan, the chairman of the International Cricket Council's Anti-Corruption and Security Unit. "They (the charges) were brought to light in ways the ICC can't engage in, ways the ICC would not like to engage in."

It wasn't the first time the paper had engineered such a sting.

Three months earlier, the paper caught world snooker champion John Higgins apparently agreeing to fix aspects of matches for money. Higgins later said he had never fixed a match and played along with the ruse out of fear for his safety, but was suspended from the sport for six months.

One method used by the publication was having a reporter gain the trust of a target while posing as a rich Arab businessman -- the paper's "Fake Sheikh."

Mazher Mahmood, whose face was always obscured in photographs accompanying his investigations, managed to record a bookmaker speaking about his dodgy dealings within Pakistan cricket. The three players involved were eventually banned from the sport for as long as 10 years and face a criminal trial in London in October.

Mahmood was already famous for his 2006 scoop in getting Eriksson, then preparing England's team for the World Cup that year, to express his interest in dropping the national team to coach the club team Aston Villa.

Of course, Mahmood was never in a position to offer such a role -- had it existed -- but the damage to Eriksson's image was severe. He stepped down after the World Cup.

Eriksson should have been wiser. In 1999, Mahmood recorded the chairman and another board member of Premier League club Newcastle mocking fans for buying overpriced merchandise and calling local women unattractive "dogs."

The pair quit soon after.

It was sometimes unclear just how such entrapment was in the public interest, but it didn't seem to hurt the paper's sales. Its average circulation in January this year was just short of 2.8 million, more than 800,000 copies ahead of its nearest rival.

In another high-profile case, Phelps was banned for three months by USA Swimming in 2009 after the paper published a photo of the Olympic great using a marijuana pipe.

But even before the widespread phone hacking that led to the paper's demise, it was clear the "News of the Screws" -- as it was affectionately nicknamed by readers -- didn't always get things right.

Mosley won a privacy lawsuit against the News of the World after his sadomasochistic encounter with prostitutes was broadcast online.

Mosley, who was president of the group overseeing Formula One, took the paper to court for alleging that the orgy -- which he acknowledged participating in -- had a Nazi theme.

Mosley won his case but said the lurid video had done its damage.

"If someone takes away your dignity, you will never replace it," Mosley said. "No matter how long I live or where in the world I am, people know about it."

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