Yesterday’s report in Crikey on the AFL’s decision to lock out photographers from international press agencies for season 2007 appears to have rattled some cages at AFL House. It has also raised some interesting ethical issues about journalism and the commercialisation of a public sport.

Crikey understands clubs are now concerned about the impact of the move. Sponsorship dollars comprise a crucial source of revenue, and sponsors are believed to be asking questions about what the new photography arrangements mean for them.

Under the plan, agencies like Reuters, AP, AFP and Getty will not be accredited to attend games, meaning local and international newspapers which now buy images from those organisations will no longer have access. Instead they will be obliged to purchase images from the only accredited agency, AFL affiliate Geoff Slattery Publishing.

It’s not the first time a sport has tried to commercialise its property at the expense of press freedom and diversity. Larry Kilman, Director of Communications at the World Association of Newspapers, told Crikey that the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) employed a similar tactic last year.

“Among other things, the LPGA attempted to force photographers to give the LPGA unlimited, perpetual rights to use their photos for free. They backed down when The Associated Press and other news agencies refused to cover their events,” Kilman told Crikey.

FIFA attempted a similar thing during last year’s World Cup, but soon came to understand that the reach of the organisations it was banning was far greater than anything it could achieve itself. A process of “sensible negotiation” saw FIFA back down from the plan.

It’s a fact the AFL should perhaps consider. Larry Kilman says that “the news agencies have notified the AFL that, without media access rights in Australia, they will not consider coverage of any AFL games played outside of Australia. So overseas coverage would be very limited indeed.”

Further, it will mean hundreds of Australian newspapers, including many of the major dailies and their Australian readership, will be cut off from major sources of AFL imagery. For a sponsor who has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the right to stitch a badge onto a team jumper, that’s potentially a lot of people not getting the message.

Associate Professor Chris Nash, Director of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, says that AFL games are public events, and that there are serious problems with its photographic coverage being censored or becoming promotional.

“Crowd behaviour, player behaviour, and referee behaviour have to be open to public scrutiny. To reduce it purely to the commercial and promotional is damaging to the sport. It’s turning the game into pure spectacle and lifts it out of the reach of the community,” Nash told Crikey.

“If the AFL argues it’s not a public event, that the game is owned by the association and the commercial partners, this should be very worrying to those with an interest in the game. What you need is independent press scrutiny from people that don’t have a commercial interest in the game.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey