PtG Article 12.04.2007

Newspaper publishers worry about new restrictions on sports coverage

Each month brings fresh examples of how organisers of sport events try to limit media coverage. But is it sound business or a breach of freedom of the press when the Australian Football League refuses accreditation to overseas news agencies and the International Rugby Board restricts the use of photos from the Rugby Union World Cup? In the end, the question may be superseded by what sponsors think.

For the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), all attempts to limit what the media can publish from sport events is a breach of sacred principles of press freedom and freedom of information. Together with a coalition of news agencies, WAN is currently engaged in a very public dialogue with the International Rugby Board as well as the Australian Football League arguing that their restrictions represent unacceptable interference in the freedom and independence of the press.

Australian rules football locks out international news agenciesIn a move thought to be unprecedented in global sport, the Australian Football League has decided to lock out photographers from international news agencies like Reuters, AFP, AP and Getty Images for the 2007 season. Local media will still be accredited to the matches, but all other media must buy images from AFL matches from Geoff Slattery Publishing, a long-time publisher of the AFL’s own journal and other publications.

Previously, the international press agency Getty Images held the contract to distribute AFL images internationally, but last year the AFL handed the contract to its in-house publisher for more than ten years.

"The new contractor is little more than an in-house marketing arm for the AFL. There's no editorial independence whereas Getty is a legitimate photo agency that is separate from the AFL. So that is a problem for the news agencies," WAN spokesman Larry Kilman told Australian broadcasters ABC Sport.

Andrew Demetriou, chief executive of the AFL, says it is ridiculous to talk about loss of press freedom.

“There is no evidence of the AFL getting involved in censorship. All we have done is replace one large multinational company with a local company to protect our commercial interests,” Demetriou said to the newspaper The Australian.

The International Rugby Board meanwhile has drawn up guidelines for media accreditation to the upcoming World Cup in France that demand that news websites can only publish a maximum of five still photos per half and two still photos per half extra time.  The guidelines also demand that headlines are not superimposed over photographs to obscure the names of sponsors.

For the International Rugby Board these rules are a question of protecting commercial rights - not censorship.  The IRB needs all the money it can get to finance development of the game in member countries and therefore wants to protect exclusive rights sold to broadcasters and others, the organisation argues.

“The IRB unashamedly protects its revenues and believes that these funds should be retained within the Game and not potentially lost or diminished by what in essence may amount to further forms of third party commercial exploitation whether under the guise of so called ‘news reporting’ or otherwise,” the IRB’s CEO/Secretary General Mike Miller has told WAN in a letter.

In the letter, Miller also rejected the suggestion that the rules breach press freedoms and concluded:

“We have an obligation to protect those who underwrite the event as this revenue drives the growth of the Game. Without a healthy and vibrant event there is nothing for news organisations to report.” 

Sponsors may decide the matter in the end

The question of whether the restrictions are breaches of press freedom or expressions of legitimate business interests may in the end be superseded by what sponsors of sport events think.

Last year, FIFA also wanted to limit the number of still photographs that could be published on newspapers’ websites in connection with World Cup matches. Negotiations between FIFA and WAN came to a complete standstill until FIFA suddenly relented after WAN had approached a number of top sponsors for the World Cup to complain about the restrictions, the International Herald Tribune reports.

In Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald reports that there is already concern amongst commercial partners of the AFL that excluding international news agencies will hamper potential exposure of their logos. The newspaper can also report that WAN chief executive Timothy Balding has already written to sponsors and warned them that public perception of Australian football may change “once people realise that the only photographs available have been produced under the control and for the profit of the organising body. No longer will there be unbiased reporting, merely a form of controlled marketing.”

In the world of rugby, David Rutherford, a former chief executive of the New Zealand Rugby Union, also has advised against the actions of the International Rugby Board which could be bad for the grassroots as well the commercial partners of the professional and amateur game.

“It could cause media organisations to cut or marginalise the coverage of grassroots and professional rugby, stop publishing results and draws for free and to lessen the amount of media space given to rugby union compared to other sport.  In the smaller places where editors allow sponsors names to be used in local and provincial rugby news coverage, because the editors understand the importance of those sponsors to the game, expect the favours to stop,” Rutherford writes in an open letter widely distributed and also used by WAN.