By Peter Bills
Chief rugby correspondent, Independent News and Media
PARIS, September 3, 2007 - The International Rugby Board last night took the extraordinary step of inviting the world’s written media to go ahead and boycott the Rugby World Cup, which starts this Friday in France.
The astonishing row which has been simmering between the IRB and the world’s leading media organisations threatens to cause chaos and disruption at the tournament.
The dispute is over the question of media rights regarding access and what media officials call “the freedom of the press”.
Leading French news agency 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 last night upped the stakes significantly in the growing row. Greg Thomas, Head of Media Communications, launched a blistering attack on the world’s media, saying “Newspaper 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.
“This is a rights grab by the media and we simply can’t allow it. We have drawn a line in the sand. If the media feel they have to stay away, that is their decision.”
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.
“Our sponsors are 100% behind us” claimed Thomas. “They care only about the TV audience and that will be 4 billion for this tournament. They also want banners on stadiums, they don’t care about newspaper coverage.”
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 “That 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.”
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 Thomas’s confidence yesterday , 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 sponsors’ 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.
Peter Bills contributes regularly to the Independent News and Media group's titles in Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand and England, including 'Rugby News' magazine in London.
AIPS is a member of the media coalition which has been negotiating with the IRB and was represented at the August 21 Dublin meeting by Keir Radnedge.
The coalition of news media is supported by the following organisations:
World Association of Newspapers;
European Publishers Council;
European Newspaper Publishers Association;
Periodical Publishers Association;
Newspaper Publishers Association;
Society of Editors
FairfaxMedia, Australia and New Zealand;
APN/Independent News & Media;
New ZealandNewspaper Publishers' Association;
New Zealand Press Association;
Australian Press Council;
dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH;
European Pressphoto Agency;
World Editors Forum;
International Sports Press Association;
Sports Journalists Association;
Football Writers Association;
SIC - Sociedade Independente de comunicação, SA;
Associated Press Sports Editors;
American Society of Newspaper Editors;
National Newspapers of Ireland;
European Federation of Magazine Publishers;
National Union of Journalists;
European Federation of Journalists
Scottish Daily Newspaper Society;