Sports freelancers forced to pay the price

The Guardian and BBC’s CLIVE EVERTON, in the December issue of Snooker Scene, foresees an end to proper coverage of his sport because of PA Sport’s decision to use a governing body’s website, rather than freelance contributors, as its source of news

The chairman of the Snooker Writers’ Association, George Riley, wrote a letter of protest last month to PA Sport’s new editor, Ashley Broadley, in which he said his members foresee “snooker disappearing from the newspapers completely, which as snooker fans as well as journalists, is simply unthinkable and deeply worrying”.

The concern is real and goes beyond the journalists’ self-interest, as media outlets around the world seek to make drastic cost savings while also meet the ever-growing demands of 24/7 website and television news coverage.

As the website of the governing body, plays down controversy and routinely ignores any story it does not approve of. It is therefore often unreliable.

“Put simply, it reports tournaments in a bland, uncontroversial way which often does not give a true reflection of what has actually happened,” Riley said.

Some examples of stories it has not reported recently (there are a number of others we could provide):
*Ronnie O’Sullivan’s lewd outburst in a press conference in China (which was front page news in at least one tabloid);
*Three top players unable to enter the Bahrain Championship because of a clash of dates with another event (caused by World Snooker scheduling an event that clashed with the Premier League);
*Peter Ebdon lying on the floor during his match against Jamie Cope at the Grand Prix (Ebdon is a World Snooker board member. This was a lead story in national radio bulletins)

“In each case, these stories were filed to PA by freelances who have covered the circuit for a number of years,” said Riley.

“Under the new arrangement, the PA would not learn of them until they had appeared in other newspapers, which given that papers pay for the provision by PA of reporters at events, is far from ideal. Papers would not expect to receive copy that is basically taken off the website of the governing body. They could simply take this information themselves and would therefore surely expect a better service.”

My Midlands-based Everton’s News Agency and the Manchester agency Lancaster and Crowther, who have supplied coverage of snooker to the Press Association for 45 and 25 years respectively, have been told that their contributions will not be required after December 4.

Neil Goulding, proprietor of Lancaster and Crowther, and I were told that PA had “enhanced its relationship with World Snooker”.

The Press Association serves, on contract, a vast number of national and local newspaper, radio and television news outlets and over a century or more has built a reputation, as have international organisations like Reuters and Associated Press, for impartiality and accuracy.

Its decision to rely largely on journalists in its own office putting out reports originating from a corporate website risks damaging this reputation.

Almighty foul-up
Results are irreducible and unalterable so it does not much matter (save for lost fees for journalists) where they come from as long as they are delivered promptly and accurately.

However, if there is an almighty foul-up at a WPBSA tournament or players make remarks in press conferences critical of the WPBSA or its associates, these are very unlikely to be reported on and thus very unlikely, as the new arrangement is planned, to be disseminated through the Press Association.

All this represents a victory for public relations over journalism, an increasing trend in newspapers as a whole as PR handouts written to the agenda of whichever organisation has paid for them, are frequently allowed to masquerade as independently gathered news.

When PA sends its own staff reporter to an event, as Phil Casey was sent to report the 2008 world championship, that is entirely their prerogative but more dubious editorial principles are to apply, it seems, to most other events.

PA’s reliance on WPBSA’s version of events will lead to it giving the public, through its clients, a sanitised, uncontroversial and in some ways an unrepresentative view of the snooker world.

This is just what WPBSA want. Indeed, its disciplinary rules spell out very clearly the risk of disciplinary action against players who criticise in press conferences an opponent, a referee, a WPBSA director or official, a table or cloth supplier or just about any aspect of WPBSA’s governance of the game.

Who supervises these press conferences? The self-same WPBSA personnel who compile reports for

Controversy muzzled
Of course, it suits WPBSA very well to have controversy muzzled although this is often the very quality which results in increasing column inches devoted to the sport.

As custodians of the world ranking tour, the WPBSA should be trying to maximise coverage of it in the media. Instead, by readily agreeing to this new relationship with PA, it delivers a kick in the teeth to those journalists who have demonstrated a deep seated commitment to snooker for years, or even decades.

The golf and tennis circuits go out of their way to encourage regular reporters of their sport through special and in some case even free offers of travel and accommodation but such a policy is conspicuously absent from WPBSA ‘s thinking.

Sir Rodney Walker, the WPBSA chairman, claims credit for the engagement of a public relations company, Capitalize, to “develop new and innovative ways through which to broaden the appeal of the game [by launching] the ‘HotShots’ media campaign which aims to shape new perceptions and change the profile of the sport in the UK”.

This looks like a pale and expensive copy of the abandoned Young Players of Distinction scheme which achieved very little in raising the game’s profile, still less shaping “new perceptions” of it.

Players become interesting to publications of substance only through their on-table achievements. Judd Trump, who has very sensibly turned down the opportunity to become one of the new HotShots in order to concentrate on practice, has received all the publicity he needs for the moment by reaching the Royal London Watches Grand Prix semi-finals on BBC TV.

Reduced coverage of rival tournaments
PA also seems to be under the impression that all snooker takes place under the aegis of the WPBSA.

The Premier and Championship leagues and the new World Series illustrate very clearly that it does not, although WPBSA may not be displeased if coverage of what they seem to regard as rival tournaments – but are in fact valuable events on the calendar – is reduced.

When Luke Riches of Matchroom, promoters of the Premier League, sought reassurance from PA that it would cover, as it had in previous years, its playoffs on December 6-7, he was told that only the bare results would be put on its service to clients.

As the play-offs feature four leading players, including Ronnie O’ Sullivan, playing for substantial prize funds in an event established for 21 years, PA’s decision seems to have no rational basis except to save itself a few coppers.

Snooker is not, it is understood, to be the only sport whose coverage is to be downgraded by PA. Nor is it unknown for other media organisations to want to provide a service for which they do not wish to pay.

Local radio, both BBC and commercial, is notorious for this. Editorial budgets are small so many reports and other coverage tend to become the preserve of anybody prepared to do them for nothing either out of vanity, to gain experience or for some public relations purpose.

In snooker, local radio stations tend to rely on David Luddy International, who are engaged by sponsors, or sometimes the WPBSA, to pump out free match reports on the understanding that the sponsor receives his maximum permissible number of mentions.

BBC Radio issued instructions to its constituent radio stations before last season’s world championship that Luddy’s were not to be used as BBC would be providing a general sports reporter, Jamie Broughton, to file reports for its own local stations.

National stations like BBC Scotland, BBC Wales and BBC Northern Ireland have larger budgets and have been able to pay for reports, but this offer of a free service was too good for BBC Scotland to miss so its sports department was instructed not to use reports from Phil Yates (of Everton’s News Agency) for which it had been paying for 15 years.

Other freelances in other sports are understood to be in the same boat, each contributing, in terms of loss of earnings, a widow’s mite to facilitate the BBC’s payment of such absurdly inflated contracts as the £16.9 million over three years agreed with Jonathan Ross.

This is an edited version of an article in the December issue of Snooker Scene, which is edited and published by Clive Everton

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