Media rebel over Melbourne organisers’ demands

Craig Lord reports on how attempts by the local organisers of swimming’s World Championships in Melbourne later this month to cash-in on the written press, with charges of up to £800 for a desk at the venue, have seen a media backlash

Journalists heading for the Aquatics World Championships in Melbourne later this month have been duped by up to £800 and should be reimbursed by the local organising committee.

When the accreditation process for the championships started back in October last year, journalists were notified that they would need to buy a media rate card to reserve a seat in the media room and the tribune. The cost of doing so ranged from Aus$440, with no guarantee of a seat, to nearly Aus$2,000, or about £800.

The move to charge journalists, or their newspapers, exorbitant rates to do their jobs and deliver aquatics news to the wider world comes down to a simple problem: the organisers of Melbourne 2007 failed to allocate a big enough space for the media room and needed a control mechanism. Their solution: charge high rates and make good money by stealth in the bargain.

Fina, the world governing body for swimming, diving, synchro and water polo, urged Melbourne some while ago to switch the location of the main press centre to a more spacious location a short way away from the Rod Laver Arena, but local organisers opted to stick with a location that may not be fit for purpose. The fees Melbourne are trying to charge have led to anger among many media organisations and has this week prompted AIPS, the world sports press association, to launch a scathing attack against the practice.

“It is unacceptable that journalists are expected to pay large sums of money for services that should be provided by the organising committee at a nominal fee or no cost, only because the press facilities were planned inappropriately,” Gianni Merlo, president of AIPS, said.

“This is due to the lack of space according to organisers, but when they bid for the championships they knew the situation, yet have brushed the problem aside.”

The situation may yet be averted ahead of the 12th Fina Aquatics World Championships, from March 17-April 1: organisers should give back the money paid by the media it has duped – intentionally or not.

When I asked Fina about the matter, another fact emerged that organisers in Melbourne have not made clear to the media: journalists can have a seat in the tribune, a roaming place in the media room and a wireless internet connection at all venues for the two weeks of the championships for as little as Aus$110 – about £40. To compound matters, Telstra, Australia’s largest communications company, is one of the major sponsors of the World Championships.

I wrote to the Melbourne organisers and received the following reply this week: “For non-Rate Card clients, Championship Internet access can be ordered at event time through the Welcome Desks at the following rates:
256kb – Aus$110 – includes GST
512kb – Aus$330 – includes GST
1MB – Aus$550 – includes GST”

So, I know what I shall do. I still feel that Aus$550 for a 1MB connection is exhorbitant in this day and age – in Budapest at the European Championships last year, that service was available for 160 euros, a little over £100, and many journalists felt that was overpriced. And so it is: in London, not the cheapest of places in the world, I can buy a roaming high-speed wireless connection for two weeks for £18. That’s about Aus$45.

Now that journalists know that cheaper options are available in Melbourne, they may wish to change their minds. As one leading swimming journalist said: “The problem, of course, is that many of us have already ordered off the rate card because we thought we had no alternative. I imagine they aren’t going to give our money back.”

Any journalist working in Melbourne who has ordered a service in the belief that they had no alternative but that they could have received more cheaply should now be given their money back. Organisers: get ready to issue refunds to those who do not need the packages you have sold them.

Where did it all go wrong?
In the past 15 years, sports journalists have travelled to Australia for four major aquatics events: Perth ’91; Perth ’98; Sydney 2000; Melbourne 2005. All of those events ran like clockwork in terms of media services. So what has gone wrong?

The rot set in at the World Championships in Montreal two years ago as organisers who had overstretched their budget tried to recoup costs from any source they could. With television and broadcasting rights already sold, they turned their attention to the written press: Can$1,500 – nearly £800 – was demanded for a place in the tribune with a phone. A few paid it, most refused and a petition was successfully lodged with Fina.

A shame then than Melbourne was, apparently, unaware of that history. A shame too that I was not told the full extent of what was on offer last November, when I first enquired about the media rate card on behalf of colleagues.

Here is the e-mail from me to Melbourne’s media official, Damian Glass, on November 29, 2006:

Hi Damian,
Forgive me, I’ve never seen such a complicated booking form for a seat and an internet connection. I’ve read it through twice and really can’t work out what the hell I’m supposed to book.
What would you say I need to book for the following requirements:
– a guaranteed seat and desk position at the main competition pool all sessions with power and a great view of the action
– a broadband (hi-speed) wireless internet connection that works at all venues
– access to other venues but happy to sit where there’s seating available
– access to mixed zone at all venues
( I will not need a private line/phone, nor laptop etc etc…)
I’d be most grateful for your steer.

The reply from a member of Damian’s team came on November 30:

Hi Craig
Looking at your requirements below, the best option is:
Package B for Melbourne Park (Swimming & Synchronised Swimming), this will provide you with a reserved seat in the tribune with high speed wireless internet access for all sessions of swimming and synchronised swimming. Prices for this package are as follows:
– Standard package is with 256KB speed connection = $440; or you can up grade to
– 512KB speed connection = $660 (total cost); or
– 1MB speed connection = $880 (total cost)
You can use this wireless connection in the Press Centre but you will not have a reserved seat.
The wireless Championship Network that we are setting up will be across all 3 venues. Therefore the internet access that you purchase in Package B for the swimming can be used at Melbourne Sports & Aquatic Centre (Diving & Water Polo) or at St Kilda Beach (Open Water Swimming) you do not need to purchase additional internet access at these venues. Note that you will not have a reserved seat at these 2 venues.
There is no requirement to book access to the mixed zone, it is open to all press.

No mention there of the availibility of a Aus$110 rate. I booked nothing. I simply could not believe that it was not possible to simply arrive in Melbourne, buy a wireless service for the two weeks, be guaranteed a tribune seat and get to work. The original rate card information sent out on November 27 made no mention of “non-rate card clients”. It should have been labelled “caveat emptor“.

The media is not a client, of course. Its relationship with the sports being covered is to some extent symbiotic, a marriage of worlds, for better or worse. It is not a seller-buyer relationship.

The AIPS has now demanded a refund for journalists, and the organisers in Melbourne should steal themselves for that eventuality and do the right thing. Australia, rightly, prides itself on having the right attitude: if a problem arises, the common response is not to find someone to blame but to find a solution.

So it should be in this case. Melbourne 2007 organisers have made mistakes on three fronts: they have not allocated enough space in the media room; they have failed to spell out the cheaper alternative options for journalists; and they are charging rates that are unjustifiably high, giving the impression to the very people who will report on their event across the world that organisers are trying to make a quick buck out of the media.

The solutions are clear: find an overflow media room and make it work; send out a mail to all journalists immediately spelling out every single option available to them, making it clear how desk space and power will be allocated in the tribune, and making it clear that no reserve seat in the press room does not mean no seat at all; and refund those who wish to opt for something cheaper than a package they never needed but felt obliged to pay for.

Where Fina comes in this is clear: the international federation’s press commission must, as guaranteed by Fina, ensure that all journalists who regularly cover the Olympic sports that will be on show in Melbourne are well catered for when it comes to having a seat and desk, with power source, at which to work, and that all bone fide journalists have good conditions and facilities in which to do their work.

Read the AIPS’ demands by clicking here.