Four Corners often sets the political agenda, but as it comes back from its yearly three-month hiatus tonight — with a new host in Sarah Ferguson and a new set — the program faces the uncomfortable journalistic feeling of being scooped.

A three-month investigation by Four Corners uses tennis as a jumping-off point from which to look at the integrity of sports betting. But it comes a fortnight after an explosive investigation by BuzzFeed UK and the BBC that revealed in the past decade, 16 players ranked in the top 50 had been flagged to the global Tennis Integrity Unit on suspicion of having thrown their matches. The story, coming at the start of the Australian Open, dominated the news cycle in Australia for days.

It’s not uncommon for different media organisations to be pursuing similar stories, but for Four Corners, with its long production times and complex investigations, the cost of being scooped is high. So what does a program like Four Corners do when another media outlet breaks a story covering similar ground?

According to Linton Besser, the lead journalist on the investigation, the BuzzFeed/BBC investigation wasn’t entirely unexpected.

“I knew it was coming, and it was a great story,” Besser told Crikey this morning.

“[BuzzFeed UK investigations editor] Heidi Blake had been working on that since May last year. It certainly set the tennis world on fire.

“Clearly we had to scramble a little bit to adjust somewhat.”

Every year, Four Corners, along with most of the ABC’s current affairs programs, takes a three-month break — much to the chagrin of viewers used to the Monday night line-up of Australian Story, Four Corners, Media Watch and Q&A. Asked whether the tennis scandal breaking provided a temptation to run the investigation in some form early, Besser says it wouldn’t have been practical. “We have a production schedule — an opening air date. All of that is set according to ABC budgets, and what is physically possible for the year … We’re budgeted for that number of programs.”

But having a rival break part of a story isn’t all bad. For one thing, Besser adds, it might mean far more people tune into Four Corners’ investigation.

The ABC’s program goes broader than the tennis world. ABC News websites are this morning leading with revelations about Malaysian betting magnate Wei Seng “Paul” Phua, who is being investigated by federal police over match-fixing concerns. He was also a guest of Crown Casinos three weeks back — the company allegedly flew him down in its private jet. The casino company didn’t respond to Four Corners’ requests for comment, according to the ABC.

Phua operates what is one of a number of global sports betting websites, many of which operate illegally out of Asia (where many types of sports betting are banned). Because of this, they are largely unregulated. They lack the close connections and integrity agreements many local bookies have with Australian sports codes.

Four Corners’ investigation comes amid a campaign by local bookies to make it illegal for such websites to operate without a licence in Australia. It also comes ahead of the release of a report being conducted by former NSW premier Barry O’Farrell in to how the federal government should deal with online wagering.

While betting agencies are one side of the coin, the other is the sports codes themselves. Besser notes that some codes deal far more proactively with the issue of match-fixing than others.

“Horse racing in Victoria is the gold standard in that respect,” he said. “They have really quite strong measures. If you’re a jockey in Melbourne, you’re provided with a phone and laptop, and told it’ll be monitored from time to time by integrity officials. So they’re really aggressive.

“Tennis is nothing like that. There have been really strong criticisms of tennis — and the extent to which they’ve thrown resources at this problem.”

The BuzzFeed/BBC reports came just at the start of the Australian Open tennis tournament. Four Corners’ report will come just after its finale last night. But Besser says corruption in tennis isn’t much of an issue at the Grand Slam level. “The corruption problems at Grand Slam level were present 10 or 15 years ago, and are largely not present today.”

“We spent a week watching very closely a tournament in Adelaide in Happy Valley, just before the Australian Open. A lot of the guys in that are lower ranked. Some interesting stuff happened there. It’s at that kind of level where there’s a problem.

“These betting markets are deep and huge on all kinds of low-level sport. And the bookies are unregulated.”

Peter Fray

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