National debate over TV rights to sports events

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Political Editor

Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for National Heritage, will today seek to open up a national debate on whether Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB should be legally denied exclusive rights to key sporting events such as the FA Cup Final and the Derby.

The surprise move will be seen as an attempt to prevent amendments barring subscription TV from taking over big national sporting events going through by default when the Broadcasting Bill goes into the Commons after Easter.

An amendment that would give terrestrial broadcasters, and therefore standard TV licence payers, automatic access to such events appears certain to go through. The amendment will be promoted by the former Heritage Secretary, David Mellor. A number of Tory MPs as well as the Opposition parties have lined up behind it.

While the discussion paper that Mrs Bottomley will launch today will not take sides, it will outline the various options which have been drawn up by MPs and peers it will also give a detailed account of the drawbacks of legislating to keep out satellite broadcasters.

At present the FA Cup Final, the Scottish FA Cup Final, the FIFA World Cup Final, the Derby, the Grand National, and the final weekend of Wimbledon are among listed national events. For technical reasons a new clause would be needed to ensure that exclusive rights for such events could never go to subscription TV. But there are also moves to extend the existing list to cover golf's Ryder Cup, which last year was exclusively broadcast on Sky, and the rugby union Five Nations tournament.

On the rugby union event, for example, the paper will point out that a deal with an organisation such as Sky may be one of the few ways in which the sport can raise money for facilities - and also that there will be international complications in legislating because France and Ireland are participating countries. The paper will cover advantages and disadvantages for the sporting bodies, as well as for broadcasters and licence payers, of legislation.

Mrs Bottomley intends to invite all broadcasting organisations, sporting authorities, consumer groups, and regulators to hold discussions with officials in time for the Government to come to a view on the amendments before the Bill leaves the House of Lords at the end of March.

n Ninety-nine per cent of Britons believe major sporting events should be available on mainstream television, a survey for the BBC has revealed.