Let’s have a definitive code of conduct for sports journalism – we’ve waited long enough

About 20 minutes into a long overdue garage clear-out last week, I found a box buried under a pile of junk in one particularly dark and cobweb-plastered corner. Its contents instantly made me smile.

By the time I’d sifted through them all and overcome a particularly vociferous bout of sneezing brought on by a million disturbed dust particles, I’d counted seven bags of various shapes and sizes, two crumpled fleece jackets, four baseball caps, a couple of beanie hats, and enough USB sticks, pens, keyrings, mouse-mats, notebooks and desk diaries to open a small stationery shop (the diaries were out of date, but you can’t have everything).

My surprise was two-fold – firstly at the volume of stuff accumulated and secondly the fact I’d obviously, at some stage, taken the trouble to neatly store them all in one place.

All the merchandise had one thing in common – logos.

Lloyds Bank, RBS, Under Armour, Guinness, Magners, HSBC, EDF Energy, Heineken…I even found items stamped with Rockport (remember them?) and, wait for it, Invesco Perpetual (a personal favourite for reasons I can’t explain).

These names will prompt knowing, nostalgia-filled nods of recognition from ex-colleagues. But to those less familiar with the ownership of clothes and personal property branded by banks and multi-national drinks companies, let me explain…

What I’d unearthed was the loot (or some of it at least) acquired from years of working as a rugby writer treading the circuit of matches, tours, press conferences and launch events. In a word, freebies, bestowed on members of Her Majesty’s Press by sponsors presumably looking to curry favour with anyone in a position to unleash the power of the pen.

This was the stuff I once-upon-a-time took home, like a kid leaving a birthday party with a goodie bag. The stuff I would never leave lying around while interviewing for fear some dastardly rotter from a rival publication might surreptitiously swipe it to give to one of their mates. Or their dad.

The kind of fleece you might be given at a press conference (if you’re lucky). This was not in my garage!

Come to think of it my own dad was, several times, the grateful beneficiary of a judgement I’d made that something was surplus to my requirements. Even now, on a cold winter day, he enjoys nothing more than parading around in a three-quarter length padded jacket advertising Irish cider.

Considering much of what I harvested over the course of 20 years I never wore or used, considering it ended up gathering dust, mould and dead leatherjackets in my garage, it didn’t half assume absurd levels of importance at the time.

Not that I was alone. Far from it. My recollection is of work pals dispatched on assignments generally being given one overriding instruction by half the sports desk: “If there’s anything decent on offer bring us one back”.

Invariably, as the contents of the box proved, a laptop bag was the gift of choice – and some perfectly serviceable ones there were too. Pity the snob in me saw them doomed to a lifetime of concealment.

My point in all this? Well, after stumbling on the gear and remembering stories like the time one poor colleague turned up at a press conference to launch RBS’ backing of the Six Nations wearing a jacket emblazoned with ‘Lloyds TSB Six Nations’, I got to wondering, with my lecturer’s hat on, whether ethically I should ever have accepted so much as a sheet of A4 paper boasting the EDF Energy crest.

Before going any further, not for a second did I ever feel compromised as a sports journalist because I had a Guinness keyring in a drawer at home. It never impacted the content I sought or produced. It never entered my head.

Press conference time at the 2019 Rugby World Cup

I’m fairly confident – make that totally confident – that all those who were in the same position as me would concur. Technically though, journalists who accept anything for nothing leave themselves open.

The various codes we study on the BA Sports Journalism course at University of South Wales, which regulate the industry, confirm this.

Or do they?

There is nothing in the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) Editors’ Code of Practice that deals specifically with this matter. Ditto the National Union of Journalists’ code of conduct, which has been in existence since 1936.

However, the BBC Editorial Guidelines do address it. Section 14 stipulates “…people working for the BBC must not accept gifts or hospitality from anyone who might believe it will give them a business advantage”. And why would Guinness fork out for a job-lot of heavily insulated coats if they didn’t see it as giving them some kind of ‘business advantage’?

Obviously much of this is down to individual judgement. Accepting products like those mentioned above, in circumstances that are open and transparent, is overwhelmingly harmless. Furthermore, you’d like to think a good journalist possesses an accurate in-built gauge of when they might be in danger of crossing the freebie line.

Let’s hope so, because in the UK there is no established, credible industry-recognised code to guide sports journalists in this or any other form of behaviour in the course of employment.

At USW the go-to regulatory reference points on law and ethics modules are those mentioned above, which cover journalism as a whole. Academic theories, such as those bound up in a 2017 charter by Ramon and Torrijos, are also analysed and discussed. All have huge relevance, but a code that serves as an industry accepted template for the coverage of sport remains conspicuous by its absence.

Some sports journalists would sniffily dismiss the need for a formal charter, but theirs is a specialism that throws up all kinds of ethical dilemmas rarely encountered by media professionals in other spheres. So drilling down from IPSO’s catch-all guidelines to a more tailored code of conduct to which sports journalists feel accountable is something that should have happened some time ago. You wonder, is it something the respected Sports Journalists’ Association might care to consider?

Certain countries do have documents solely relating to the particular moral compass required…Germany, France, Serbia, Puerto Rico, and Cameroon among them. Some however, are narrow in their scope and overtly culture-specific.

The one code which caught my eye as being potentially a blueprint for UK professionals was drawn up by the US-based Associated Press Sports Editors, which lays claim to being ‘the most important and most prestigious sports journalism organisation in the country’.

Yet if this code was introduced to the UK sports journalism industry tomorrow, I guarantee 99% of those falling under its jurisdiction would either be pleading for a clean slate or sticking two fingers in the air.

On inspection, the APSE document immediately highlighted conflicts:

Clause 1: ‘The newspaper pays its staffer’s way for travel, accommodations, food and drink’.

Reality: We’re fine on the travel and accommodation part (he says), but if an event organiser neglected to provide free food and drink I know some sports journalists who’d consider including it in the intro of their copy for the back page. Others would be contacting union representatives.

Clause 2(b): ‘(Sports journalists) should not write for team or league media guides or other team or league publications’.

Reality: So many have, and do. Myself included. Scribes writing for club/country match programmes is common – and comparatively lucrative. All parties gain. There’s the kudos and extra pocket money for the journalist, the profile for his or her regular employer and the top content for the commissioners. Just for the record, I never felt compromised doing this.

I once wrote a regular column for the Cardiff Blues match programme. Alas, the arrangement lasted no more than a couple of months. After one critical article too many for the South Wales Echo, the then Blues chief executive Bob Norster pulled it. I also wrote intermittently for Wales rugby international programmes, which I always saw as a privilege. That too came to an abrupt end, coincidentally around the same time as Warren Gatland decided I was a wrong ‘un.

Clause 6(a): ‘Sharing and pooling of notes and quotes should be discouraged. If a reporter uses quotes gained secondhand, that should be made known to the readers. A quote could be attributed to a newspaper or to another reporter’.

Reality: Ahem…a bit late for this. On most tours I’ve been on, and following some formal top-table press conferences at home, sharing quotes has been standard practice. If 10 newspaper journalists attend the same briefing, why would all 10 write out the quotes? My experience has been that if a session lasted 20 minutes, four people would be tasked with transcribing five minutes apiece and circulating the material to the group. The next day it would be a different four, and so on. Similarly if we ever ran into logistical problems, or distance made attending an event impossible, it was always an option to ask a colleague to furnish you with what was said later on via email, on the understanding that the favour would be returned in future if needed. And when the story went to print or was put online, there was certainly no asterisk at the foot of it explaining that the quotes came courtesy of a writer employed by a different newspaper.

A typical article by a journalist in a Wales rugby match programme

Sports journalism has long since ceased to be the office ‘toy department’ or the ‘little brother’ of serious news. It now tackles issues of profound social importance – racism, mental health, corruption, sexual abuse, bullying and gender discrimination among them.

It is therefore rightly subject to the same level of scrutiny reserved for any section of the media. Sports journalists are now expected to display a level of expertise once assumed the preserve of news correspondents.

And sport itself has long since commanded the kind of prominence on every communication platform that once upon a time seemed inconceivable. We live in an age of daily sport pull-outs, bumper sport sections, millions and millions of daily clicks on sport stories online, and radio and TV channels devoted entirely to sport. Engagement with sport on social media so often displays the best – and sadly the very worst – examples of human interaction.

Sports journalism has come a long way. It matters. More than ever.

So it’s high time it had a code of conduct. Which matters. More than any other.

And yes, even if that means buying your own laptop bag.

End

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