Sport and journalism can both be winners

The All England Tennis Championships at Wimbledon. The Open Golf tournament. The London Marathon. The FA Premiership. The Rugby League Premiership. British horse racing.

By any measure, these are the crown jewels of the UK’s sporting calendar. Watched and loved by audiences of millions. Covered voraciously in the country’s newspapers.

But they are also the sports whose governing bodies have, at various times over the past three years, attempted to impose draconian controls over the way their fixtures are covered by the press. Controls that have largely been succesfully resisted. So far.

Sport and journalism have never found it easy getting on. No doubt when Fred Dewhurst scored the first ever football league goal, for Preston North End Invincibles in 1888, Burnley’s chairman was furious that the match report failed to mention the blatant off-side missed by some hapless linesman.

But despite such disagreements, for most of the next century or so, the two have somehow managed to rub along together without killing each other. The relationship was, after all, mutually beneficial. Newspapers knew that copy sales depended on their coverage of sport. Sport knew the coverage it received helped to raise interest and ensure fans continued to pay to watch their heroes.

In recent years, the relationship has become more strained. And, as with so many relationship breakdowns, money is at the heart of it.

Put simply, the sports bodies want to make sure that if there’s commercial gain to be had from the coverage, it should be theirs. Hence the deluge of copyright rows that reached a climax last year with the British Horseracing Board’s preposterous attempt to insist that papers pay £1.2m for the privilege of printing its racecards.

Now the press is hitting back. This week, the Newspaper Publishers Association issued a series of principles it thinks should be attached to all sporting agreements, enshrining certain freedoms for the press, while recognising the needs of sports to ensure their commercial future.

It’s based on a simple, sensible accreditation system that gives journalists and photographers the right to do their jobs without unnecessary editorial or commercial interference.

Let’s hope sport’s governors have learned the lessons of the racecard fiasco and begun to appreciate just how crucial an unfettered press can be to their success.

To paraphrase a recent piece on Manchester United by Independent columnist Glen Moore: sport may sell itself at present, but when the boom subsides it will need all the friends it can get.

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