Greg Thomas, IRB:
â€œOur sponsors are 100% behind us. They care only about the TV audience… They donâ€™t care about newspaper coverageâ€
Peter Bills reports on the latest twist in the rights dispute between the world’s leading newspaper groups and agencies over the Rugby World Cup. Post your comments on the situation in the box at the foot of this article
The International Rugby Board has taken the extraordinary step of inviting the worldâ€™s written media to boycott the Rugby World Cup, which starts this Friday in France.
The row which has been simmering between the IRB and the worldâ€™s leading media organisations threatens to cause chaos and disruption at the tournament.
Agence France-Presse issued a statement over the weekend heavily criticising an IRB decision to restrict the number of photos news organisations could transmit during a game, and a decision to drop photo credits during the World Cup. French Rugby president Bernard Lapasset has been dragged into the escalating row, with AFP saying, “These terms are totally unacceptable and have been rejected by all the members of the coalition”.
But the IRB has upped the stakes in the growing row. Greg Thomas, the IRB’s head of media communications, launched a blistering attack on the worldâ€™s media, saying, â€œNewspaper groups have an over-inflated opinion of their own importance. They are demanding unlimited use of photos on the internet during events and that is complete nonsense.
â€œThis is a rights grab by the media and we simply canâ€™t allow it. We have drawn a line in the sand. If the media feel they have to stay away, that is their decision.â€
Thomas then demolished suggestions from the media side that leading sponsors such as US-based Visa International were privately furious at the row threatening to overshadow the tournament for which they have paid millions of pounds to be involved.
â€œOur sponsors are 100% behind usâ€ claimed Thomas. â€œThey care only about the TV audience and that will be 4 billion for this tournament. They also want banners on stadiums, they donâ€™t care about newspaper coverage.â€
Thomas also refuted claims by media officials like AFP Chairman Pierre Louette that the IRB had reneged on an agreement said to have been struck in Dublin last month. Louette said: “Those coalition members declared today, in a letter in response to the IRB, that they were extremely disappointed that the IRB had displayed bad faith by going back on issues for which an in-principle agreement had been reached in Dublin.”
At an August 21 meeting in the Irish capital the coalition of the world’s leading agencies and newspapers requested the right to send their clients a maximum of one photo per second during each match, amounting to 2,400 for each half and 6,000 in the event of extra time.
But Thomas counter attacked hard, saying, â€œThat claim is complete nonsense. We had a discussion in Dublin and the media representatives raised eight points. We made it clear we had a problem with 3 or 4 of them. We deny completely there was an agreement. We are 100% happy with our situation.â€
AFP have complained to the French Government and their Minister for Health, Youth and Sport and to Lapasset, the president of the World Cup organising committee.
Also contrary to the agreements of August 21, allege AFP, the IRB has maintained that each photographer’s accreditation for the event will be distributed only on the condition that they waive all photo credit rights to the benefit of the IRB.
The French media stoked the fires at the weekend, with Louette adding: “It is now a question of principle. Under no circumstances can we accept the violation of our rights and the rights of our clients, whether it concerns the freedom of the press or the right to freedom of information.
“Like other members of the coalition, we do not exclude taking appropriate measures to protect our rights.”
Louette said that AFP would reconsider its coverage plans for the Rugby World Cup, and for other major events run by the IRB such as the World Cup in the women’s, under-21 and under-19 categories.
But the IRB could yet come under heavy pressure from leading sponsors. Despite Thomasâ€™s confidence, major sponsors like Visa International will hardly view such a distracting and unseemly public row with delight. Officials at their San Francisco base would surely be alarmed if sections of the media went ahead with a hitherto undeclared threat to airbrush out of any photographs all sponsors logos.
Most leading sponsors of major events negotiate a get-out clause from any on-going sponsorship if they perceive that they have had insufficient exposure.
If Visa did pull out after this World Cup, it would have cataclysmic consequences for the IRB who are heavily reliant on sponsorsâ€™ monies both to fund their organisation and, by support, the poorer playing nations of the game around the world.
At the very least, such publicity in the week when the World Cup begins is the last thing both the sport and its sponsors would have wanted.
Pay your SJA subscriptions the easy way – click here for details and a bank mandate form