Government routed over TV sport

Double setback for Murdoch
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The Independent Online
JOHN RENTOUL

and MATHEW HORSMAN

The Government was routed in a humiliating vote in the House of Lords yesterday as peers voted by a majority of 117 to deny Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB exclusive rights to the eight "crown jewels" sporting events.

The vote is a severe embarrassment to Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for National Heritage, who tried to head off the rebellion by launching a consultation document last week. She was accused by Lord Peyton of Yeovil, a former Conservative minister, of defending the commercial interests of Mr Murdoch, a naturalised American "who owes this country no allegiance".

The Lords defeat followed an announcement from the Office of Fair Trading that it was referring the Premier League's television broadcasting arrangements to the Restrictive Practices Court, in a move that could have wide implications for the broadcast of all sport in the UK.

The reference, which caught Premiership officials by surprise, will mean a thorough investigation of the exclusive contract by which BSkyB, the satellite broadcaster 40 per cent owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, airs matches of the 20 Premiership clubs.

In addition, the OFT's director-general, John Bridgeman, is concerned about clauses in the Premier League's own contract, agreed by member clubs, which restricts the rights of individual members to sell television rights to their matches without the consent of the league.

The scale of the Government defeat ensures a U-turn, with ministers expected to bring forward a similar amendment to the Broadcasting Bill to tidy up the rebels' wording.

Of the 16 peers who spoke in the debate, only Lord Wyatt of Weeford - a columnist in Mr Murdoch's News of the World - defended BSkyB. Three others, including Viscount Whitelaw, a former Tory Home Secretary, supported the Government by urging delay. The Lords voted by 223 to 106 in favour of an amendment in the name of Lord Howell, the former Labour sports minister, to keep the eight main sporting events on BBC or ITV. It was the biggest government upset in the Lords since the 133-vote defeat over the poll tax in May 1988.

Lord Callaghan said ordinary people wanted to be able to watch "great national events" and it would be a scandal if that right were denied "because the power of money was so great". He rejected Mrs Bottomley's argument that attempts to preserve events on BBC and ITV would be overtaken by technology such as digital television. "We have to take a decision about the situation as it is now," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of National Heritage later conceded defeat, saying: "We will want to consider how we might give effect to peers' wishes in a way that is enforceable and practicable."

Lord Archer of Weston- super-Mare, the Tory best-selling author, admitted the Government would have to cave in: "After listening to the arguments, I am bound to say our opponents won the debate fairly and squarely. The Government will have to have a re-think on this. They can't just charge on as if nothing has happened."

The amendment would keep eight events accessible to all licence-payers - the Olympics, World Cup football, the FA Cup and Scottish FA Cup finals, domestic Test cricket matches, the Wimbledon finals, the Grand National and the Derby.

The size of the Lords defeat will add to the pressure on the Government to add more events, such as golf and rugby, to the protected list when the Bill comes to the Commons.

The Office of Fair Trading is particularly concerned about BSkyB's right to extend the present contract for Premier League football by a further five years, matching the highest offer of any competitor.

The arrangements have been in place since 1992, when 20 top clubs broke away from the rest of the Football League to form the Premier League. The OFT said it took "considerable time to see the implications of the contract."

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