To gag or brag is the question

Despite being a Selector and Director of Cricket Australia, Allan Border has the freedom to do some media work.-R.RAGU

RECENT reports indicate the Board is engaged in serious thought about its media policy and some rethinking is imminent to sort out the issue of interaction between players and the media. This desire emanates from a feeling that the present arrangement, whatever it is, is unsatisfactory and needs a major revamp.

The matter has to be viewed from both sides, from the viewpoint of players and the media. Last few years the media has mushroomed, the growth of electronic networks and their aggressive stance of news gathering and reporting, dramatically altered the equation. With new channels sprouting all over the place, like gyms and STD booths, the race to provide khabar intensified, all want to break news however trivial even before it unfolds. Pushed by competition, there is a marked shift towards gathering information and gossip, peddling petty details. Cricket coverage moved beyond description and comment on action on the field long back, now what is important is news about cricketers, information surrounding the stars is of priceless value. Sadly, cricketers matter more than cricket itself.

What the media wants is unfettered and immediate access to players. For them this is a critical need, a matter of survival in a cut- throat world. But from the players' perspective, relentless media attention is a nuisance because their primary focus is on the sport, the press is only one more pesky and irritating distraction. The cameras and microphones of networks, the questions of persistent journalists are too demanding, too intrusive, too controversial, hence best kept at a bat's distance.

Players realise the media contributes towards building a player's image, influences public opinion and, to some extent, puts gentle pressure on selectors. It also benefits them in other indirect ways, clever projection in the press enhances commercial viability, increases chances of landing contracts and business deals. Still this is an area which has to be carefully tapped because a false step, leading to a flippant image, can really hurt.

Of course the media has a legitimate requirement of getting news and information, it is a crucial element of contemporary sport, as an ally and a partner who popularises the game, attracts talent and sponsors, delivers eyeballs that impact the money corporates pump into cricket.

Managing the seemingly conflicting needs of players/media is tricky. Earlier the situation was simple, then the BCCI disallowed any media engagements for players, forbade them from writing or accepting media related work. Only the captain was excepted, he could express his views in print, the thinking was he should have a platform for articulating the point of view of the team, specially when touring teams/captains freely expressed their opinion through the Indian media using newspaper columns to gain PR points.

This worked satisfactorily, the captain was happy writing lucrative columns and, in addition, meeting his mandatory obligations to the media in the form of pre/post match interviews. The captain's syndicated columns fetched him handsome amounts, he also made extra money from TV networks who raced to sign on the Indian skipper.

Soon newspapers/networks accessed others besides the captain, this trend visible in the increasing media commitments of different Indian players. Initially, again, this surfaced through newspaper columns, some self written and thus incisive and interesting, others ghosted, these efforts mostly low quality stuff, nothing more than careless words put together in a haphazard manner.

Kiran More with Rahul Dravid. As Chairman of the Selection Committee, More has neither the authority to announce the team nor the voice to explain the choices.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

These columns filled an economic need but it wasn't long before the thing went bust, like the dotcom boom which promised much but collapsed after a promising start. While this door shut another opened — fortunately for players — TV's rapid sweep triggered a fresh spell of demand, both past and current players found employment as channels had slots for expert opinion in their programming. Newspapers can conveniently pick up reports/news from agencies but TV has no such support system and is compelled to string together its own news gathering structure. All this is difficult because TV has to supply an interesting mix of cricket and controversy, produce programmes containing spice and sensation, that is why the steady dose of muqablas and mujrims after each day's play.

Recognising these developments, and perhaps alarmed by the rapid spread of the media, the BCCI included a reference to media relations in the annual contracts presented to the players.

Under the clauses of the contract the BCCI approved the right of players to have personal media commitments, a significant departure from its earlier position, but also made it obligatory for them to promote the sport and cooperate with the media during approved events.

This is similar to the practise in other countries where players are free to take on media commitments, write columns, even comment on matches. Such permission is given because cricket authorities concede players have a right to maximise earnings, not lose out on commercial opportunities available to them during their short careers. Some feel this arrangement is flawed, concerned freedom can cause damage, possibly create friction among players. To prevent this, the normal safety mechanism is all write-ups are cleared by the Board to ensure nothing offensive reaches the media.

The players respect these reasonable limitations on their freedom of speech, understand they must balance their liberty with the requirements of the sport and not violate the confidence of their team. This system works fine, Allan Border, Cricket Australia's Selector and Director, did considerable media work for TV and commented on matches, a position vastly different from that of India where Kiran More does not have the authority to either announce the team, or explain the choices made by his colleagues in the selection committee.

Indian cricket has to make its own rules, conditions here don't match up with those in other countries. Our officials are honorary, so are the selectors and practically everyone else. The media too is different, in slant and size.

Elsewhere authorities strive for securing a healthy balance between players/media, get them to interact to mutual advantage. But in India the feeling is the players need to be shielded from the excessive demands of the media.