MPs to break Murdoch grip on TV sport

Parties unite to tackle tycoon
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The Independent Online
JOHN RENTOUL

Political Correspondent

Legislation to stop Rupert Murdoch buying up exclusive rights to top sporting events seemed inevitable last night as a cross-party alliance against the media tycoon formed in both Houses of Parliament.

Labour, which has been building bridges with Mr Murdoch, yesterday delivered what amounted to a snub by announcing it would back an amendment to the Broadcasting Bill in the House of Lords next month.

The move appears to guarantee a government defeat on the issue, as David Mellor, the former national heritage secretary, said yesterday that he and other Conservatives would support a ban in the Commons, where the government's majority is at present only three. "If the people who want a change get together, the change will be made," he said.

Jack Cunningham, Labour's heritage spokesman, said an existing list of eight events, including the Olympics for which Mr Murdoch's News Corporation is bidding, should be preserved for viewing on the main terrestrial television channels.

The eight events - the Olympics, the World Cup, FA Cup and Scottish FA Cup finals, domestic Test cricket matches, Wimbledon, the Grand National and the Derby - are protected by the Government from being shown on "pay-per-view" channels, where viewers pay a fee to watch individual programmes,.

However, exclusive rights can still be bought for showing on the main satellite and cable channels. Nine out of ten households do not have satellite or cable , and the rights to sporting events have increasingly been bought by Sky TV, the dominant subscription television provider.

Dr Cunningham said: "A Labour government would also review the size and scope of the list." Obvious candidates for inclusion are Ryder Cup golf - already bought by Sky TV - and Five Nations rugby - in which Sky is said to be interested - but Labour would not make firm commitments yesterday. Mr Murdoch recently broke new ground by "buying up" and revolutionising rugby league by turning it into a summer sport.

The ban, which has obvious electoral appeal, cuts across attempts by Tony Blair to woo Mr Murdoch, which took the Labour leader to News Corp's retreat on Hayman Island, in Australia, last July. Mr Murdoch, owner of the Sun, Times, News of the World and Sunday Times as well as of Sky TV, has said he could imagine supporting Mr Blair at the next election.

David Elstein, head of programming at Sky, said the list of protected sporting events was an "anachronism from the 1950s". Sky had built up a successful business without any of the events, and a ban would only damage sport. He asked: "Who is going to compensate sports bodies for the losses they suffer as a result of this?"

While proposing the new restraints on Mr Murdoch, Labour still tried hard yesterday to avoid giving him offence. Lord Donoughue, Labour's heritage spokesman in the House of Lords, said: "We are not interested in any campaign against Rupert Murdoch or any other newspaper proprietor. All we are concerned about is the principle of fair access."

He told peers, who gave the Broadcasting Bill its second reading: "The poor, the old, and the unemployed will certainly not be able to afford much subscription or pay-as-you-view television; the BBC and ITV will not be able to afford to buy the rights to broadcast." He was backed by Lord Thomson of Monifieth for the Liberal Democrats, and is believed to have wide support among independent cross-benchers. If the Bill is amended in the Lords, it is unlikely to be reversed in the Commons.

The Prime Minister hinted in a written answer on Monday that the Government might accept the change: "I am aware of public debate on this issue, and we are keeping it under close review." Mr Mellor, who introduced the 1990 Broadcasting Act, said last week that he had not foreseen that satellite subscription services would generate the revenue needed "to buy up the Crown Jewels of sport".

It was disclosed last week that Sky TV was ready to offer pounds 1.2bn to secure exclusive European rights for the Olympic Games between 2000 and 2008.

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