Reporting the Olympics in London

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Update 26/04/11: Outgoing NUJ General Secretrary Jeremy Dear, together with representatives from broadcast union BECTU and the TUC, has a meeting with LOCOG arranged for May to discuss issues including journalists’ access to the Olympics.

Can freelances still get a piece of the action on reporting the 2012 London Olympics? Or is the press accreditation already stitched up? The March meeting of the London Freelance Branch looked into Olympic coverage opportunities.

Maxine Newlands is convenor of the sports journalism course at the University of East London, in an Olympic Borough and senior lecturer on the "reporting the Olympics" module on that course. It being LFB, it turned out we had another expert in the audience, freelance athletics correspondent and LFB member Matthew Brown.

Branch secretary Tom Davies gave a brief summary of the "real bureaucratic nightmare" we'd had trying to get a speaker from the London Olympics people, which could be a "pointer to how the Games might go". We approached LOCOG (the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) over a year ago, and were told it was far too early. When we got back to them more recently, we were sent a 24-question "speakers' bureau" form with questions about our event, and told that as LOCOG were not involved in our event, we were not allowed to use "London Olympics" in its title as it was a copyrighted term (in fact trademarked) and we would have to change the name of our event.

When we went back to them a bit later they said the evening of 14 March would not be possible, that being the official starting of the Olympics countdown clock in Trafalgar Square. This response was signed by someone whose job title is "Trailblazer volunteer".

As luck would have it, one of the photographers covering the Olympics countdown clock start-up (and breakdown) was Julio Ethchart, who was able to briefly talk to Lord Sabestian Coe at the after-party about LFB's woes getting an official Olympics speaker, and Lord Coe promised he would be on the case.

Maxine said that at the heart of the Olympics is the scheme whereby top sponsors pay the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for a ten-year deal under which they get a "clean space" - only one soft drink company will be allowed to showcase its product within that zone; only one electricity supplier; and so on. A London butcher has already been asked to remove the Olympic rings from his commemorative sausages, and what was once the Stratford Olympic Hotel has now become the Stratford Hotel.

The same spirit pervades the rights to media coverage. US broadcaster NBC is by far the biggest payer, and therefore the biggest media player in the Olympics. It even has a say in the scheduling of events to suit US prime-time TV. They transmit only the Olympic events that US teams are good at - so no rowing, and not much boxing either: apparently women are a majority of Olynpic viewers among the folks back home in the US and they don't like boxing.

Within the UK, the National Olympic Committee (NOC) and the British Olympic Association (BOA), have a role in dispensing press accreditation. The Press Association (PA) has been made the "official national agency" for reporting of the Olympics in the UK, and they have already been given the lion's share of the press passes, although not exclusively, there are some leftovers for freelances.

Matthew Brown said that for previous Games he'd always been turned down for accreditation via the BOA and had to go through other routes, - and for London 2012 there's a lot of frustration among freelances turned down for the limited number of Olympics-accredited places, as a result of Britain's national newspapers sending more staffers than they usually do, "as they don't need hotels."

LOCOG are moving into the brand-new Stratford Olympic Media Centre soon, says Maxine, and they have already done some dummy runs there. Another channel through which freelances might be able to get a piece of the Olympic action is the Olympic Broadcast Service (OBS), which includes Maxine's students. OBS is sold as an a unique training opportunity for students, and it will engage 120 student journalists across six universities. As well as training, these will get hourly pay - just 1.6 per cent above minimum wage.

LOCOG also has its Olympic and Paralympic News Service - it has approached, for example, Manchester University to cover football events at the Manchester United ground. The News Service is there to promote the Games and to publish daily newsletters for competitors. It's also presented as a great one-off opportunity for student volunteers. Matthew says that it's been the preserve of student journalists since the Atlanta Olympics, and that bids for the Olympics factor in a reliance on cheap student intern labour on its News Service.

Maxine's own students will also be doing the daily Team USA newsletter for the US athletes who will be staying on their campus during the Games. (The campus will be shut down, and Team USA will be bringing their own food.)

There's an independent news centre for non-accredited journalists in the shape of the "Twitter hash-tag" #media2012 - see - the brainchild of Professor Andy Miah, which will be covering the Cultural Olympiad and legacy issues and is open to any journalist. Maxine saw something on the same model work very well during the Vancouver Olympiad. Expect further cutbacks to the promised "legacy" projects.

While most of the Olympic News Service on a shoestring, there will be a restricted number of paid positions available, but only for journalists with a track record reporting a specific sport. Each of the 26 events, each will a core paid team, supported by unpaid students. As LFB chair Dave Rotchelle noted, "It's extraordinary how paying salaries eats into the budget."

Matthew also advised that the BOA may get some more accreditation placese in from IOC in next few months. Try to contact the BOA, say you've missed the first round: what other opportunities are there? Ask to be put on their waiting list, as Matthew currently is.

It seems that the numerous outrages around the Olympics - legacy projects that turn out to leave no legacy, bans on street traders, Olympic-only VIP traffic lanes, exclusion zones reminiscent of the G20 - present the best opportunities for freelances. If you can't get to cover the Games themselves, "do some sniffing around. " The US "security people" for the Olympics have been in London for the past two years... doing what?

Tom Davies flagged up a story in the case of Frank Morris, an electrician apparently blacklisted from working at Olympic Media Centre for his union activities, and the subject of a demo there a couple of weeks before the meeting. (See

Alternatively, the Olympic legacy company seems to have some PR vacancies.

Photo © Matt Salusbury
Maxine Newlands (centre) discusses accreditation for the 2012 Olympics with LFB chair Dave Rotchelle (left)

Last modified: 23 Apr 2011 - © 2011 contributors
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