03 April 2007
 
Press Freedom:
Rugby Board Puts Commercial Interests Ahead of Press Freedom

A former director of New Zealand rugby has called on the International Rugby Board to drop restrictions on press coverage of the 2007 World Cup, saying the Board is "improperly seeking to interfere in the gathering and publishing of news in the short term pursuit of the dollar."

David Rutherford, former chief executive of New Zealand Rugby Union, has written an open letter to IRB councillors in which he sides with the world's press in its dispute with the IRB, which is seeking to limit photographic coverage on web sites and other digital platforms and interfere with the way newspapers use photos in print. He said the restrictions violate press freedom and also hurt the long-term commercial interests of rugby and its sponsors.

A copy of the letter was sent to the World Association of Newspapers, which, along with a coalition of the world's news agencies including Agence France-Presse, The Associated Press, Reuters and Getty Images, has asked the IRB to remove restrictions imposed on coverage of the World Cup, to be held in France in September. Read the full letter at http://www.wan-press.org/article13653

"WAN is clearly seeking only to protect the rights of its members to gather and disseminate news," said Mr Rutherford, who said the restrictions interfere with press freedom, which he called "one of the most fundamental human rights."

"Failure by bodies like the IRB to observe human rights norms in pursuit of the dollar undermines rugby as a sport as much as drug cheats do," he said. "Such a failure undermines democracy in the nations in which rugby is played and it undermines the fundamental ethics and values of sport, and rugby in particular."

"There has to be a balance between the IRB's understandable desire to maximise revenue and the democratic right of the news media to gather news," he said.

The IRB has severely limited publication of World Cup photos through the Internet, including on thousands of newspaper web sites, to a maximum of five still photos per half and two photos of extra time. It has also introduced editorial restrictions on how photographs can be used in print publications -- banning the common practice of superimposing headlines and captions on photos if they obscure advertising within the images, for example -- and has put severe limits on audiovisual content on websites and mobile devices.

The restrictions are imposed as a condition of access to the World Cup and news media are obliged to accept them before gaining accreditation to the events. News media face expulsion and legal action if the rules are broken.

The IRB says it needs the restrictions on photos to protect its commercial contracts with licensees who pay for the rights to show the events live.

But Mr Rutherford said the restrictions hurt, rather than enhance, the commercial interests of world rugby.

"The current IRB position is bad for the grassroots of the game and the commercial partners of the professional and amateur game because it will cause media organisations to cut or marginalise the coverage of grassroots and professional rugby, stop publishing results and draws for free and to lessen the amount of media space given to rugby union compared to other sport," he said.  "In the smaller places where editors allow sponsors names to be used in local and provincial rugby news coverage, because the editors understand the importance of those sponsors to the game, expect the favours to stop."

He cited a recent global study that concluded that the news media were the "best advertising agency" for major professional sports.

"That study showed how the media's coverage of the major professional sports totally dominates sports coverage.  In only one or two countries is rugby the number one or two professional sport. It is therefore always at risk of being marginalised, even at the professional level.  That may not be true once every four years when Rugby World Cup rolls around, but it is otherwise true everyday everywhere that rugby is played," he said.

"This is a time to realise that the media were with us when we were not professional and they are with us now and news is still news however delivered," he said. "The revenues of the game can be sustained while protecting the right of the media to gather and disseminate rugby news. Most importantly rugby can be more commercially valuable if it does not follow those sports that have sacrificed democratic values and their own traditions and standards for dollars."

Mr Rutherford was chief executive of New Zealand Rugby Union from 1999 to 2002 and is a lawyer specialising in European and Australian competition, human rights and employment law relating to sport. He has particular interest in competition, media and internet law as well as human rights law, which he calls "competition law for people."

Read more about WAN's dispute with the IRB at http://www.wan-press.org/article13480.html .

The Paris-based WAN, the global organisation for the newspaper industry, defends and promotes press freedom world-wide. It represents 18,000 newspapers; its membership includes 76 national newspaper associations, newspaper companies and individual newspaper executives in 102 countries, 12 news agencies and 10 regional and world-wide press groups.

Inquiries to: Larry Kilman, Director of Communications, WAN, 7 rue Geoffroy St Hilaire, 75005 Paris France. Tel: +33 1 47 42 85 00. Fax: +33 1 47 42 49 48. Mobile: +33 6 10 28 97 36. E-mail: lkilman@wan.asso.fr