Vital to get football licence right to avoid censorship

By Barry Newcombe, SJA Chairman

This is a difficult time in our business. The dispute between the media and the Football League and the Premier League hangs like a cloud over the start of the football season and it could become increasingly entrenched if there is no solution before Saturday’s big kick-off of the Premier League season.

2008 Journalism awards - Barry Newcombe
SJA chairman Barry Newcombe

A revised legal document was sent to the newspapers last night, and the talks between football and the News Media Coalition resumed this morning after a week-long stand-off, leaving just 48 hours to hammer out an agreement.

Word from our members on the ground is that their employers remain defiant over the terms being proffered; some sports desks are even telling their reporters not to bother buying tickets for the games, as some did last week, if they cannot access the usual press box to do their job.

Sam Wallace prefaced the difficulties in his Saturday column for The Independent.

“No one could doubt that newspapers face challenging times but in reporting football, as in the reporting of politics or foreign news, the time comes when you have no option to stand up for yourselves or face restrictions that make proper reporting an impossible job. The key asset the leagues hold is press access to stadiums and that is significant.”

What, Wallace rightly asks, “if, one day, newspapers are edged out of the press boxes and the training grounds altogether?”

It is the alternative which ought to be entirely unacceptable, not just to journalists, but to the readers, listeners and viewers who have a voracious appetite for all sports news, but particularly on football. If newspapers do not have access to matches and to the clubs and the players, football fans will have to depend on the clubs’ own websites for their information.

“I have always voted Labour,” The Independent‘s football writer reveals, “but if I want to know what is going on in my party, I do not check the Labour website for a happy ‘Everything’s fine’ bulletin. I read Steve Richards and Andrew Grice in The Independent.

“We do not always get it right, although we always try our best to do so. The basic aim is: deliver well-sourced stories. Some fans will never be happy and some think that there is an agenda against their club or one individual, but I am yet to meet the reporter who would put his or her club loyalty ahead of a cracking news story.”

Wallace also sees a sub-text in the licensing dispute, of all-powerful, super-wealthy football clubs who are determined to have total control not just of their own match programmes, websites and other publications as they are entitled, but even of what The Sun, the Daily Mail or the Telegraph can report.

Few outside our business (and many of those within it), will be aware that even with the version of the licence under which all newspapers and agencies had operated until the end of last season,  the country’s richest sport demands that journalists and photographers are strictly restricted as to where they can sell their own copyrighted material. Under the new licences as originally proposed, such restrictions were to be extended to the timing of online match reporting and even the use of Twitter.

Here at the SJA,we support the NMC position, as we seek reasonable working conditions for our members, unfettered by unreasonable restrictions which could amount to a version of football censorship.

It is important to get the right agreement in this case, because if we do not, what happens in football coverage this weekend may soon extend to rugby, cricket and other sports. In which case, the role of the sports journalist will change forever from being an objective observer, to becoming an unpaid PR.


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