Bottomley retreat on 'jewels in the crown'

TV sports rights: Lords call a halt to Murdoch buy-out
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The Independent Online

Media Correspondent

Virginia Bottomley yesterday retreated in the face of a Tory revolt in the Lords by announcing a change of policy to stop Rupert Murdoch's satellite television corporation buying up the exclusive rights to the "crown jewels" of British sport. The National Heritage Secretary bowed to pressure after a defeat last month by a 117 majority in the Lords to keep open access to Britain's main sporting events on BBC and ITV.

It was an embarrassing climb-down for Mrs Bottomley; campaigners were jubilant at the victory by the cross-party alliance which forced the change on the Government in the biggest upset in the Lords since the poll tax in 1988. The Heritage Department said it proposed bringing forward an amendment to the Broadcasting Bill to guarantee that live coverage of the "listed" sporting events was available on BBC and ITV.

The events are the Derby, Grand National, Wimbledon finals, FA Cup Final, Scottish FA Cup Final, the soccer World Cup, Olympic Games and England's home cricket Tests.

The same group of peers, including Lord Weatherill, the former Speaker of the Commons, are threatening to defeat the Government again today with an amendment to the Bill which would give BBC or ITV the right to highlights of national rugby or golf events, such as the Ryder Cup, bought up exclusively by BSkyB.

Lord Inglewood, the broadcasting minister, announced the policy shift in a written answer after a hastily announced consultation exercise which many saw as an attempt to head off the Lords' rebellion. He said the concession followed government recognition of "the strength of public and parliamentary concern".

The move was welcomed by the BBC and ITV, although Labour's national heritage spokesman, Lord Donoughue, said he wanted to see more sports given protection, not just the eight listed events.

Sky was believed last night to be claiming victory, saying the Government's only concession had been over the "crown jewels", none of which it has broadcast or bid for in the past.

The issue of sports rights has been red-hot since Sky Sports began outbidding terrestrial channels for rights to screen sports events such as next season's Endsleigh League and Coca-Cola Cup matches. Other broadcasters said Sky was building a sports monopoly using funds they could not match.

It has been able to do so as a result of what some have portrayed as an oversight in the 1990 Broadcasting Bill, which prohibited listed events being shown exclusively on pay-per-view television but, crucially, did not also exclude satellite channels such as Sky.

Lord Inglewood also gave the government line on another amendment to the bill, due to be debated in the Lords tomorrow, to oblige sporting bodies to "unbundle" broadcasting rights. It would require sporting bodies to offer highlights of an event to another broadcaster if, say, a rival television station had bought exclusive live rights.

Today the Lords debate on the broadcasting bill is expected to consider another bone of contention: whether cable broadcasters should be legally obliged to carry BBC and ITV.