Bill Hagerty on the press

Restraint is just a fantasy in the greedy world of football
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It is debatable whether those who run the Premiership and the Football League have noticed that most national papers have removed the Barclays, Coca-Cola and Nationwide imprints - sponsorships costing millions - from their results pages. They may have been too busy trying to work out ways of levying school magazines for publishing first-team match reports, or how to cream cash from journalists whose sons enjoy a kick-about in the park on Sunday mornings.

It is debatable whether those who run the Premiership and the Football League have noticed that most national papers have removed the Barclays, Coca-Cola and Nationwide imprints - sponsorships costing millions - from their results pages. They may have been too busy trying to work out ways of levying school magazines for publishing first-team match reports, or how to cream cash from journalists whose sons enjoy a kick-about in the park on Sunday mornings.

I exaggerate, but the latest demand by Football DataCo Ltd, which controls that wonderful contradiction in terms, professional football's "intellectual rights", on behalf of the leagues, is almost as great a travesty. With the expiry of an agreement already extended because of lack of progress, the Newspaper Publishers' Association has been presented with a demand for a percentage of the revenue from, and the assigned copyright of, all fantasy football games. Fantasy's the right word. The NPA, regarding the last-minute supplementary claim as sheer greed, promptly picked up the negotiating ball and headed for the changing rooms.

The NPA director, Steve Oram, able to attend the Society of Editors' annual conference in Newcastle-upon-Tyne when negotiations ended abruptly and prematurely, told me: "An industry that is so important to the public, that massively increases its revenue year on year, yet is incapable of managing its finances begs the question as to whether it should be Government regulated."

Normally I wouldn't concern myself with such financial squabbling, but aspects of the new agreement wanted by Football DataCo seem more over-the-top than David Beckham's penalty as England exited Euro 2004.

Prohibitive time-schedules dictating when papers and websites can publish match reports and photographs on the internet and on mobile phones have been a sticking point. So has a move to ban newspapers from freely distributing such add-ons as posters and sticker cards. The NPA claims the other side has been totally inflexible. Certainly Football DataCo appears to see the agreement as a golden goose to be held upside down and shaken until the very last egg has been dislodged and melted down.

This sort of behaviour reeks of opportunism when exhibited by super-efficient corporations with more "intellectual rights" than football has left feet. But it is particularly galling to be held to ransom by ruling bodies whose stewardship has seen all but the biggest and most powerful clubs walking a financial tightrope and some, in the lower divisions, tumbling into insolvency.

The game is awash with money, mainly supplied by television, most of which goes into the pockets of the Premiership's elite players and their avaricious agents. A prominent sports journalist observed to me recently that it is scandalous what some players are paid -while so very little of the vast revenue pouring into the game has filtered down to the financially-strapped clubs struggling in the Football League basement.

If the game as a whole is financially unstable, its morality is at best dubious and at worst shameful. With players continuing to hold their drink no better than pubescent schoolgirls and behaving with Neanderthal insensitivity towards sad, star-struck, young women ready to remove their clothes at the drop of an alcopop, the main ruling body has also decided to get a piece of the action. Sexual shenanigans at the FA - not involved in this dispute - have put the whole sorry sport into perspective.

A public besotted with "the beautiful game" - with such irony does the phrase now ring - appears not to care about its excesses. Newspapers, suppliers of the oxygen of publicity that helps sustain the golden goose, must fiercely resist its gluttonous money-grubbing.

As for Barclays, Coca-Cola and Nationwide, they should consider investing their cash in something more wholesome. Lap dancing, perhaps.

Freedom clearly has its limits

Attacking a freedom of information act that does not become law until next January is, as the Society of Editors' new chairman Keith Sutton pointed out to the body, a futile exercise that would further alienate a public whose opinion of journalists has already plunged to mine-shaft depths.

What's more, Sutton said, the act arrives on "a tide of public indifference". What editors and reporters hope will be liberating legislation, kicking down the doors that have stood between them and unhindered investigations into corruption in public life, is of minimal interest outside the media.

The image of the reporter as "some kind of unwelcome, alien con man invading people's privacy" needs swiftly to be repaired, said Sutton - a sentiment I have expressed in this column often enough.

For all that, the long-awaited FoI package patently has its fingers crossed behind its back in some areas. Despite the Lord Chancellor's welcome announcement that disclosure will largely be free of charge, there will still be exemptions hiding behind the shield of public-interest justification. Janet Paraskeva, of the Law Society, has pertinently asked whether, if the act been in force at the time, the Government could still have refused to disclose advice it received on the legality of the war in Iraq.

You can bet on it. Combined with the often ludicrously applied Data Protection Act, FoI could provide as impenetrable as Fort Knox.

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