It's easy to mistake a strong circumstantial case for definite proof - something worth remembering before coming to firm conclusions about whether the Pakistan cricket team are cheats, for example, or whether Andy Coulson definitely knew about phone hacking at the News of the World.
There was a good example of this yesterday - with the decision to suspend snooker player John Higgins for bringing the game into disrepute, but to clear him of allegations he had decided to throw frames for money. The News of the World's original story wasn't couched in any terms other than "He must've done it":
You are, as ever, invited to join the dots - or, more accurately, have the dots joined for you. These kind of entrapment/sting stories do a good job of creating a strong circumstantial case of evidence and then bring about enough noise and shouting and finger-pointing to try and obscure the places where the evidence doesn't quite reach.
You can see this attitude in the News of the World's triumphalism regarding the verdict:
"This result is a victory for News of the World investigative journalism," it read. "John Higgins has been found guilty, suspended and fined. Pat Mooney has been found guilty and banned for life.
"Today's judgement is testament to the extraordinary work of our investigations editor Mazher Mahmood. We hope that the exposure of Higgins and Mooney will act as a deterrent to any other cheats in sport and help restore the integrity of snooker."
Well true, but only partly true. John Higgins has been found guilty of one charge, but not guilty of another. It's misleading to suggest that the News of the World's allegations - that Higgins had agreed to throw frames in return for money - were proven, because that's not the case at all.
Not that it's the case, either, that he's been found to be a completely innocent victim in all this, because he hasn't - but establishing the truth is a complicated thing in these situations. The evidence was deemed by those assessing it to be insufficient to prove all the charges against Higgins - which doesn't necessarily mean that he definitely didn't do it, of course. However, in these kind of disciplinary hearings, as in court cases and other hearings held to determine the facts of a situation, "He must've done it" doesn't count. You can have a lot of circumstantial evidence, but that doesn't prove what you're trying to prove. It can certainly taint someone.
And that's worth bearing in mind with the Andy Coulson side of things. There may be a compelling circumstantial case, to which people might like to add a lot of finger-pointing and noise, but I think it runs the risk of being a bit like the News of the World (ironically enough) if we try and say Coulson must've been involved with the dark arts, without evidence that he must've done it. That may be frustrating and disappointing for those of us who might like to see damage done to the Government, but that's how it is. I've yet to see conclusive evidence nailing him.
It's the same kind of attitude we saw last week with William Hague - you can put down the circumstances and give a wink and a nudge in italics in red crayon, like a big baby - but that doesn't mean that anything's been proved. I know that it's tempting to try and reach the conclusion that you want to reach, in all that excitement, but I don't think it does anyone any good to do so. We might want Andy Coulson to be unmasked as a villain, or the Pakistan cricket team to be exposed as chucking matches, or snooker players to be shown to be chucking games for money, because that's the most exciting outcome and it makes a better story - but if the gloves don't fit, you must acquit. Otherwise you just end up trying to do damage through insinuation and supposition, rather than showing that you've demonstrated your theory properly.
Just saying "They must've done it..." isn't always enough.
I want to start this by looking at the justification for the latest Wayne Rooney stories. It's pretty much the same justification that we all remember from the Tiger Woods tales about what he'd been up to and what he'd been doing with his dick.
News about dicks - the same old story. Except we're meant to believe that there's a reason for all this, beyond the giggling prurience and the intrusion into someone's private life. You can see the figleaf over at the News of the World's original story:
Rooney's earlier brush with scandal came in 2004 when he confessed to visiting a seedy massage parlour in a rundown area of Liverpool for £45-a-time sex, including a romp with a 48-year-old grandmother nicknamed Auld Slapper - the first time he was caught cheating on devastated childhood sweetheart Coleen.
Since then Rooney, who played for England on Friday night at Wembley, has crafted a brand of happy family life that's helped win big-money sponsorships and endorsements.
But the tawdry truth is just a year ago he was at it again.
But interestingly enough, that defence is torpedoed by Max Clifford in today's Sun:
Publicist Max Clifford believes football fans won't be bothered by the allegations surrounding Rooney's private life — as long as he keeps on scoring goals.
Mr Clifford said: "The only thing Wayne Rooney has to worry about is his wife, whether she, like all the others, is prepared to accept her husband's alleged infidelities.
"Nobody in football gives a monkey's as long as he's winning on the pitch. Will it stop people drinking Tiger Beer? No. Will it stop people buying Coca Cola? No. Will it stop parents buying Nike for their children? No."
Well, of course it won't. But the gleeful press attempted to scramble up to the moral high ground during the Tiger Woods revelation by claiming that it was Tiger Woods's family-friendly image - and not the fact he's one of the most spectacular golfers in history - that was responsible for his ever-growing list of endorsements. Some of them are doing the same, this time - but others are being a little more honest.
Because this isn't about exposing the hypocrisy between a person's public image and private life - this is pure and simple about digging dirt. Rooney's past transgressions didn't stop him from getting endorsements, and nor will this, so long as the goals keep going in. I don't remember Avram Grant having a load of picture spreads in Hello! magazine with his wife, but that didn't stop the papers ferreting around in his private business last year.
Perhaps the most telling paragraph in all of this business is to be found in the Sun's coverage today:
Wannabe glamour model Natalie, whose dad is Wayne's uncle John, also said: "Other footballers have girls begging to have sex with them. He pays for it. Lost all my respect for him now! He's obviously got more money than sense."
I'm no prude, but there are times when even I start yearning for a gentler time before all of this stuff was considered fair game. I don't think there should be rules preventing it from being published; I just wish people, no matter how famous, could be allowed to have private lives, and there wasn't a market for this grubby kind of story. I don't have a huge amount of sympathy for Rooney at all, of course, given what he's done. But that doesn't mean I think it's a worthwhile story for the papers to be covering. But cover it they have, and not just the red-tops:
I don't care what Wayne Rooney does with his dick, just as I don't care what William Hague does or doesn't do or did or didn't do with his. Maybe that puts me in the minority, but so be it. It's always a different justification... it's about the taxpayers' money, it's about the endorsements, it's about the hypocrisy... no. No it isn't. It's about digging up sleaze, that benefits no-one, but titillates a few. That is all it has ever been about.
True, he has behaved despicably. Yes, he's got form for being deeply unpleasant. And it goes without saying that he represents the kind of weasel, untouchable arrogance that people think of when they think of Premiership footballers. He's a walking stereotype. He's not the victim in all this, as he was responsible for his choices. Not only that, but he attempted to use big-shot lawyers to try and hush it all up.
Bearing all that in mind, though, let's climb down from that high horse for a moment. Amidst all the self-congratulatory "justice has been done" articles in the News of the World yesterday, what was the substance of the actual story that demanded such a huge legal fight? A married man has had an affair with a colleague's partner. I don't think this is the first time in history it's happened, unpleasant as it is for those people involved.
As I said during the Tiger Woods saga, we don't really learn anything new by all this. I would appear to be in the minority by thinking that people are entitled to their own privacy during these times - though of course that would mean everyone wanting things to stay private. Clearly, someone wanted this to go public, and I don't think it's beyond realms to suspect that a little bit of money has changed hands at some point, via Max Clifford and associates.
Maybe these stories shouldn't be banned altogether by some kind of restrictive law; maybe I am wrong on that one, if there's a danger it could be used by those in power to shield themselves from genuine scrutiny. But then, that would suppose that newspapers actually do a lot of genuine scrutinising rather than just mucky kiss-and-tell stories about famous people, which add nothing whatsoever to our understanding of the world. Might it not be enough to hope that they could be outnumbered, by better stories that are really in the public interest, rather than just detailing the sex lives of the rich and famous for people to pore over on a Sunday morning? It might be too much, I think. And let's not forget, for every celebrity endorsement-gatherer like Terry, there will be hundreds of Mr and Mrs Nobodys, whose privacy could be invaded at any time, if the tabloids - and others - deem that it's necessary. That's the price we pay for our brave boys of the fourth estate having the freedom to write about people having sex with each other.
And yes, Terry is England captain, but what he does in his private life won't really affect his ability to call heads or tails, or hand over the England pennant at the start of an international match. I don't think the parents of the England mascot will demand that someone other than this person who has had an affair holds their son or daughter's hand while they go through the tunnel at Wembley. At least I don't think it will. It's stretching it a bit far to complain about an 'England crisis' just because the skipper has had an affair. Terry was made captain by dint of the fact that he could shake hands properly and was so good at football that he's a shoo-in for pretty much every game, not because of some moral probity which has now been found to be lacking. (I realise that in this view I find myself in agreement with Rod Liddle, but these things happen. I'm sure it would upset him as much as it would me to find we are pointing in the same direction on this issue, if he knew who the hell I was.)
True, these celebrities do court positive coverage by appearing in those ghastly magazines and inviting us into their lovely £3million gated mansion complete with toilets the size of swimming baths and giant pictures of themselves scoring goals plastered all over the walls. And I daresay they do make a bit of money from the odd bit and bob of baloney here and there - Terry's appearance as 'dad of the year' has been cited as evidence that we had the right to know about this affair, for example. But as I said about Tiger Woods, no-one sponsored him just because - or even because at all - he was a clean-cut family guy; they did so because he is the second best golfer in all history. With Terry, it's the same - the vast majority of his endorsements have come about because he's a highly talented footballer, not because of the now-proven-to-be-wrong perception that he's not the kind of bloke who'd have an affair with a fellow England player's partner. The sponsors didn't seem to mind when he roared abuse at Americans after 9-11, though; if they didn't have an inkling he wasn't an all-round stand-up citizen then, then they were being slightly naive.
I'm not saying Terry isn't a ghastly human being, because it appears that he is. He's not committed any crime but he has not exactly acted with a whole world of decency. But in our delight at another sporting personality's fall from grace, let's not clutch our pearls too tightly.
I wish, instead, that we didn't find out about these stories at all. Not because they didn't happen, but because there are so many things out there so much more worthy of talking about. So many more deserving scoops, which might really impact on our lives in a meaningful way. They say you get the press you deserve. Do we really deserve this?
"We published the extracts in the belief held in good faith that we had Kate's permission to do so.
"It is now clear that our belief was misplaced, and that, in fact, Kate neither approved of nor knew the extracts were to be published."
Hmm. Easy mistake to make, thinking that someone who recently sued you for false accusations and has warned you off for intruding on their privacy would be delighted for you to print details of their diary. Very, very easy mistake to make.
A less easy mistake to make if you actually fucking well attempted to make contact with that person or their easily-contactible media adviser, I grant you, but these things happen, don't they? I mean it's not as if the article was the front-page lead and quite a few inside pages as well, is it?
Ah. I see.
Metodo 3, the pisspoor detective agency who said Madeleine McCann would be back home by Christmas, are convinced that there's still legs in their Dave Hill/George Harrison lookalike sketch of a 'creepy man' seen in Praia de Luz.
I mentioned yesterday that the real police had already ruled out one man believed to be the suspect, but I was surprised that Clarence Mitchell, Metodo 3 and the gang hadn't thought that a positive step.
Seems they're happy to smear someone else for the 'kidnapping' now - a 'drifter'. Look at the following sentences from today's Hate Mail.
Joaquim Agostinho was seen in Altura last week after two British tourists complained they had been followed by a prowler who looked "identical" to a sketch of the alleged kidnapper.
They said the prowler had also targeted children.
One of the most important reasons why the Mail is a disgusting sewer-pipe of shit journalism is the way in which it writes things which are completely misleading on first glance but, if you read them again, are just about on the ragged edge of being legally all right. (Not that I imagine they think this 'drifter' would have the time to write a stern letter to the PCC or start a libel action anyway, but still.)
You can't help but read that and think the man has been targeting children, but it's written in such a clever way that it makes you think that without actually saying it. I imagine they get taught how to do this at Daily Mail school - how to imply one thing without actually saying it, so you can't get done for it afterwards.
And besides, is it actually true anyway? Let's have a look.
Officers were called to the resort, near Portugal's open border with Spain, after British tourists complained a man was following them and apparently targeting children.
Classic Daily Mail - had to get in a dig about the 'open' border, didn't they? They couldn't fucking resist it! So British tourists had complained a man was following them and 'apparently' targeting children. And are these 'real' officers or Metodo 3 pretend police? It's very easy to get confused in these Maddie stories, isn't it? And it's not a confusion that the Mail hacks like to clear up, either.
Two women told their tour operator the man who followed them was "identical" to the McCann sketch. A third British woman said she saw the same man talking to two children on the beach in the quiet family resort and said one boy seemed upset. Witness Pauline Douglas-73, of Manchester, said she did not believe the man who followed her was Mr Agostinho.
Q1. Was the man who followed these tourists first two tourists Agostinho?
"Oh, can't be bothered with asking that question, it might blow the story."
The only 'witness' we have named doesn't even think it was him anyway. But that's quickly glossed over. Better not have too many quotes from her because that'll make it clear that this whole concoction is yet more bullshit to take attention away from the McCanns and put new 'suspects' into the public domain.
A source close to Metodo 3, the McCanns private detectives, said: "We are going to be talking to this man as a priority, to establish if he is the man in question, who Mrs Cooper saw."
Oh are you. Then why the fuck haven't you? Because this isn't about finding the truth; this is about flogging a few red-top papers. This story has come from Brits in Portugal who've phoned the number I mentioned back in 'Face of a Monster' and not got through to the police, but some bloody News of the World hack instead. Who, instead of passing on this urgent new lead to the real police, has got onto Metodo 3 and done a hatchet-job on some poor tramp bastard who, as far as I understand it (because you can bet your life they'd have mentioned it if he had), has never committed a crime in his life.
And here's the biggest irony of the lot:
The former cocklepicker, 42, who ekes out a living delivering newspapers, said: "I did not kill Madeleine and I've never been to Praia da Luz."
Ekes out a living - delivering newspapers. The same lies and shit that have smeared his name for a week, just to flog a few more copies of the News of the Screws and Daily Mail.
Yet more Maddieballs just to keep everything going, then. As you'd expect given its obsession with paedophilia, the News of the Screws is at the heart of it, driving the campaign.
A British woman who came face to face with the suspected Maddie McCann kidnapper revealed last night: "He made my blood run cold and gave me the creeps."
Bullshit. He was the kidnapper, was he? That was definitely Madeleine McCann he was carrying, was it? There's no debate about that, then? This bloke who looks like a swarthy Dave Hill out of Slade is definitely our man then, is he? Really? Who says that - the police? Anyone who's actually looked at the evidence...? (I know, I know, Metodo 3 are going to pop their heads round the corner in a minute.)
Granny Gail Cooper, 50, was staying just 600 YARDS from the McCann family's Portuguese holiday flat when she had THREE separate chilling encounters with the moustachioed mystery man.
'Moustachioed mystery man'. Ha ha! Lovely alliteration. I can't fault the subs for having a bit of fun with this load of old dogshit of a story.
The man is 38 to 45, with sallow skin, lank dark hair, distinctive droopy moustache, large teeth and speaks broken English. As the dramatic development raised the McCann family's hopes a source at the heart of the probe admitted: "This is a stunning breakthrough. We now have a manhunt. Where is this man now? We need to find him as soon as possible."
'A source at the heart of the probe'? Who's that then, a senior police officer? Er, no. Here come Metodo 3!!! You knew they were on their way, didn't you? Because every single new Maddie story comes up with some shit pulled out of Metodo 3's arse.
Over the last seven days Spanish private eyes Metodo 3 and the Find Madeleine campaign worked round the clock after the News of the World conducted a detailed review of the case. We studied all material in the public domain homing in on witness reports we felt had been overlooked.
Ah it was the News of the World wot dun it. They gave some hacks the job of looking at some evidence as opposed to writing up some shit from some blonde slag who gave a footballer a blowy in some club toilets that no sentient being gives a flying fuck about. Well that's something, I guess. What did these journalists come up with that the police couldn't do?
When we spoke to Mrs Cooper at length it soon became clear vital clues were buried in her account of a "creepy man" loitering at the resort. Two of her sightings were also witnessed by her husband. And we can also reveal that a NEW witness, a 12-year-old girl, has come forward to back up her story.
"This man was very unpleasant and creepy. I'd put his age at 38 to 45. He was very scruffy and had a 70s-style black Mexican moustache. He wasn't Portuguese—I think he was North African, either Tunisian or Moroccan."
Ah, a "creepy man". Well then, that should be a piece of piss for the cops then. Just round up all creepy men, and we'll be safe. A sallow-looking bloke who's African and not European in appearance, so it must have been him!
Oh, and a 'new witness'. Fucking hell, they turn up every day in Praia de Luz, don't they? Must be mass memory loss over there.
Last night the McCanns' spokesman Clarence Mitchell said the new image had been passed to officers from the Leicestershire Constabulary, Portuguese police and Interpol. They hope the hunt will also be joined by forces in Spain and Morocco. Metodo 3 believe the kidnapper may have had accomplices in Praia da Luz who helped spirit Madeleine away to the Moroccan hills.
Yes, that's the narrative we're getting: Wog takes blonde child and spirits her off to Bongobongoland. As depressing as it is predictable. But not questioned in the slightest by these red-top vultures, who ignore whenever they feel like it the fact that the child's parents are still the strongest suspects in the case, preferring instead to take everything their private dicks and spokesman say at face value.
If you have any information about the man in the new picture contact the confidential phone line 0034 902 300 213 based in Spain now. A specially-trained team will take your call in any language.
I'm interested. Does that number get you through to the police in Portugal, do you think? Or someone else? If it's someone else, why?