THE relationship between rugby league in Australia and its former overlord, News Corporation, changed significantly at the beginning of the week.
Players across the game were upset with a story last week in News’ Sydney tabloid, The Daily Telegraph, which quoted from a leaked report into alleged drug use at Cronulla in 2011.
The independent report expressed concern that the substances used may have triggered a relapse of of Hodgkin Lymphoma in prop Jon Mannah. The disease claimed Mannah’s life at age 23 in January.
People are upset with different elements of the story. Some believe even the core facts should not have been published. Others didn’t like the way it was displayed, pulling heavily at the heartstrings. And then there were those who thought the reporters should have asked the family for a comment by phone and not gone to their home to meet them, armed with the report.
After NRL CEO David Smith told club bosses on Monday that senior players wanted the journalists involved banned, they opted for the less petty option of a press release criticising elements of the story and its compilation.
This would probably not have happened until News Limited divested itself of rugby league – one subsidiary of the media giant issuing a media release criticising the other. Given that it still owns the Brisbane Broncos and Melbourne Storm it must have been a big call by the CEOs of those clubs to agree to the censure.
According to South Sydney CEO Shane Richardson, the Telegraph hit back by cancelling a positive story on membership which was to run on Thursday. The story will now appear in the rival Sydney Morning Herald.
There were signs that the battle was going to get a lot nastier than this but so far it hasn’t.
Here’s what I think: newspapers should not involve themselves in wars, battles or campaigns. They should not even stand up for themselves if attacked.
Yes, I am willfully naive but I believe newspapers should be observers not participants, stoically serving their readers each day. They should not concern themselves with what they published yesterday and should give those who seek to discredit their earlier stories the same platform as those who offer support.
As UK readers know all too well since Leveson, newspapers have been able to not just participate in, but shape, public life due to their influence. And that influence has been brought to bear on democracy itself.
But newspapers are dying.
The scrutiny afforded by social media holds a mirror up to the hubris and churlishness that is endemic in the newspaper business – and it’s not a nice reflection. People won’t tolerate it anymore – because now they don’t have to.
If the Daily Telegraph had refused to cover rugby league for the rest of the week, for instance, the loser out of that would have been the Daily Telegraph. The same goes for the Fairfax press, for whom I do a fair bit of work (um, if Rugby League Week refused to cover rugby league….) The mood of the clubs now is that they don’t care if a media outlet “wages war” on them. They have a $1.035 billion tv deal. It’s a war they are convinced they would win in a canter.
This is an important turning point in the history of the game in Australia, where the Sydney media has pretty much always called the shots.
The traditional media now needs the game now more than the game needs it. If most people get their news from websites, why should sports leagues give newspapers preferential treatment over other websites?
And if newspapers are going to behave like commercial entities – retaliating to perceived slights by making editorial decisions based on issues other than news value – then what separates them from radio and television?
Radio and television pay for the right to cover rugby league. The best argument against charging papers right now is that they can no longer afford it.
FOR the most part, the likely influx of English players to the NRL next year is being greeted positively.