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Behind the headlines


In the Woolmer episode, speculation took a vicious turn, fed by sensationalism, racism and lazy thinking.

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AFTER nearly three months investigation, it appears that Bob Woolmer died of natural causes and was not the victim of a murder plot. The news must come as a relief to Woolmer’s family and friends, and I suppose for cricket in general. For those who found their names tainted by alleged complicity in murder, it’s a belated vindication. For the Jamaican police, it’s an embarrassment, as it should be for sections of the global media, but they have proved once again all but un-embarrassable.

Elaborate theories

An unexplained death at a World Cup was always going to provoke speculation. But in the Woolmer affair the speculation took a vicious turn, fed by sensationalism, racism and lazy thinking. Woolmer died on March 18, following Pakistan’s elimination from the Cup by Ireland. On March 21 Mark Shields, Jamaica’s deputy police commissioner, confirmed that the death was being treated as suspicious; the following day he launched a murder inquiry.

Newspapers across the world leapt from bald facts to elaborate conspiracy theories. The Pakistanis had thrown the Ireland match, or perhaps the West Indies match; Woolmer had been about to blow the whistle and paid the price. There was no evidence to support any of these far-fetched plot-turns, but that didn’t stop some of Britain’s foremost cricket journalists from drawing the most damning conclusions about Pakistan and its cricketers.

Conclusions without basis

Michael Henderson stated unequivocally that Woolmer had “paid for his involvement with Pakistan cricket with his life”. The blunt-seeming but preposterous assertion, a Henderson speciality, is delivered with an air of expertise that is, in this case, entirely unearned. Derek Pringle began his consideration of the Woolmer death with a more reasonable statement: “In Pakistan the game is a microcosm of society”. But without pause, he then offered a sweeping indictment of the moral character of that society: “The impression is that many of the players, like the male-dominated society they come from, are a law unto themselves with allegiance only to Islam and their family. That could be why democracy has failed in Pakistan and the reason military dictatorships seem to be the only effective form of government”.

With Musharrraf under mounting pressure, Pringle may find he has spoken too quickly and certainly too glibly about military dictatorship being “the only effective form of government”. It’s the sort of statement he wouldn’t consider making in relation to his own or any other Western society. Behind it is the hoary assumption that “democracy” in non-Western countries is always trumped by “culture”. Brushed aside are the geopolitics of the Cold War and the war on terror, the distortions and lawlessness of military rule, the power of the religious Right, the gaping inequalities in wealth that have undermined democracy in Pakistan and elsewhere.

The Guardian’s Mike Selvey was another too easily seduced by the “guilty-by-suspicion” thesis. He reported that “Inzamam-ul-Haq and his side... will still return home with no evidence to detain them further but they must surely remain under suspicion, incredible as it may seem”. He went on to claim that “Inzy ruled the roost every bit as autocratically as Sourav Ganguly did India, marginalising the coach sometimes to the point of humiliation”. Selvey, and Selvey alone, seems to have interpreted Inzamam’s comment on Woolmer’s death (praising a “good” coach) as having “damned him with faint praise”.

Easy targets

For years now Pakistani cricketers have been fair game for British journalists. All offences, individual and collective, alleged and admitted, trivial and grave, have been lumped together. From ball-tampering to nandrolone to match fixing to murder... it’s an easy chain of association for a media culture that invests more in headlines and less in fact-checking. When Inzamam flew through London on his way home from the Caribbean, a Daily Mail reporter had the nerve to stick a microphone under his chin and demand an answer to the question: “Did you kill Bob Woolmer?”

One reason the British media managed to get this story so wrong was their uncritical faith in anything they were told by Mark Shields, the former London detective who found himself, thanks to Woolmer’s death, a centre of media attention. Shields was British, white, well-groomed and articulate, the sort of figure the British media view as reliable. Except in this case there were reasons to doubt that reliability from the start. Forensic pathologists from various countries raised doubts about the murder finding early on in the investigation, but Shields always dismissed these, implying that there was further evidence to confirm the pathologist’s verdict. In the end, this proved not to be the case. As late as April 16, Shields’ office was suggesting that Woolmer had been poisoned; toxicology reports have now laid that theory to rest.

During his career in Britain, Shields was reprimanded by judges for inappropriate contact with witnesses on at least two occasions. This fact was reported in the satirical fortnightly Private Eye, but greeted with silence elsewhere in the British press.

The Woolmer affair is really just another everyday tale of the global media whirlwind. Where Reality TV claims to redeem “ordinary” lives, news coverage treats them as dispensable. Families are alarmed, careers are disrupted, reputations are besmirched, dangerous myths propagated but the media rarely returns to the scenes of its crimes. Those who used Woolmer’s death for their own ends (their own pomposities) will not be held to account.

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