Story behind sports row

Sporting bodies such as the European Golf Association, the International Rugby Board and the cricket authorities of South Africa, England and New Zealand have all been watching the progress and completion of Australia’s Code of Practice for Sports News Reporting – a world-first agreement between sports and print/digital media.

It is designed to stop years of argument in which sports administrators forced publishing restrictions on newspapers and news agencies in exchange for media accreditation. Disputes, demands and commercial strategies have resulted in journalists being locked out.

Cricket Australia – arguing it owned the intellectual property of its events – had demanded client lists of news agencies as a condition of accreditation: that was met with blank refusal on the basis of client confidentiality.

Correspondents of Reuters and Agence France-Presse, among others, boycotted coverage of Australian Test cricket for two years. The ramifications were not felt here but affected readers in South Africa, the West Indies and Pakistan.

Photographers from Australian Association Press and Getty Images have just returned to AFL matches after a two-year absence because the sport’s administration had exclusively licensed syndicated photography to another company.

The additional costs for this licensed photography were too much for many newspapers. APN News and Media, which is a regional publisher in northern NSW and Queensland, did not run a contemporary AFL picture for two years. Independents, such as Shepparton News, had to restrict images, too.

Publishers faced other issues, such as restrictions on the number of updates of match reports and how many photographs could be published. One common issue was the banning of cricket reporting to the mobile phone, because Cricket Australia had signed an exclusive content deal with 3.

Issues around the sale of photography to the public by newspapers created no end of argument about who owned copyright. Sport said they did, because it was their event, their players, and their sport. Publishers said their photographer took the photo, so copyright (under law) was theirs. And around and around we all went. For years.

A commercial reality existed for publishers, of course. What sort of newspaper, website, mobile phone app or iPad app would they be without sports coverage?

However, they believed more fundamental issues existed: the principles of press freedom were being eroded by commercial interests; and sport belonged to the people and information should not be denied to them, and administrators were custodians of their respective sports, not owners.

High principles, perhaps, but it did not do publishers much good. Australian sport gave some media counterparts, especially the agencies, a pounding at the negotiation table.

They gained a reputation in world sport for creating cutting-edge, restrictive media accreditation documents. Clauses that featured locally would pop up almost word-for-word in South Africa, New Zealand or Britain.

The global trend, led by Australia, was obvious. The more sports could control the press, the greater potential they had to create revenue streams through delivering news and photographs on various platforms.

A little more than 12 months ago, disquiet began to stir in Canberra. Senator Conroy, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, received a letter signed by international news agencies, newspaper groups in America, Britain, South Africa and New Zealand. They essentially questioned the concept of press freedom in Australia.

Senator Conroy acted quickly, calling a Senate inquiry for last April. Its recommendations and observations included the principle that press freedom must be maintained regardless of technology platform.

Yet nothing changed . . . until Senator Conroy called in the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) chair, Graeme Samuel, and basically told him to get a deal between sport, newspapers and the agencies.

To be in a meeting run by Samuel is quite something. You need to pay attention because things move quickly and he remembers everything. He will not tolerate renegotiation of something already agreed.

The finalised code aligns to the recommendations of the Senate inquiry findings. It does not cover TV and radio because that’s a whole new conversation.

It means news organisations can now get on with their job of bringing Australians match reports, opinion and so on without restriction on any platform.

Publishers need to behave themselves, too. They cannot encourage or publish anything that looks like guerrilla marketing, which undermines potential sponsorship revenue of sports organisations. And they must not use their content for commercial use, outside the conventional reporting of news.

Which is fair enough. Publishers never sought to undermine sports’ business models. And they realise that sport has had to swallow hard on some issues.

What happens globally now will be interesting to watch. The ACCC has created a template for future media accreditation deals, and there will be a number of newspapers, including Britain’s Daily Telegraph and The Guardian, which will be keen to see an implementation in their own country.

*Mark Hollands is chief executive of the Newspaper Publishers’ Association and secretary of the committee that will oversee implementation of the code. The committee chair will be Kevan Gosper, of the International Olympic Committee.

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