The Government was last night threatened with an embarrassing Lords defeat for its Broadcasting Bill, amid claims that Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, backed Sky TV's right to poach flagship sports events from the BBC.
Angry Opposition peers accused her of an unconstitutional attempt to bypass the Upper House's consideration of the Bill by rushing out a discussion document that they believed dwelt disproportionately on the potential financial advantages to sport of exclusive deals with Sky.
Faced with mounting parliamentary pressure to change the law to ensure that viewers without cable and satellite can continue to enjoy national sporting occasions, Mrs Bottomley's discussion paper warned against "ill thought-out" changes designed to exclude Sky from exclusive access to premier sporting events.
It would be "folly to do so" without "proper consideration," the paper said.
Labour peers were last night optimistic of attracting enough cross-bench and dissident Tory support on Tuesday to force through amendments guaranteeing continued access for the BBC and ITV.
Despite what Opposition peers saw as the document's pro-Sky tone, some senior Tories believe John Major and Mrs Bottomley are resigned to conceding a five-year ban on Sky from exclusive coverage of the main events. They believe their tactic is to wait until the Bill reaches the Commons after Easter, to leave MPs little time to other changes. Mrs Bottomley was said last night to sympathise with changes to the law, but to believe the Lords amendments were dogged by practical problems, and that anational debate was needed.
Ministers' hopes that the issue would not come to a head in the Lords on Tuesday appeared to recede last night amid signs of anger on the cross- benches and among some Tories over Mrs Bottomley's discussion paper. Lord Weatherill, the leading crossbench peer and former Commons Speaker, was unavailable to comment on suggestions that he was furious.
Lord Peyton, a former Tory Cabinet minister, said Mrs Bottomley's move "makes me more likely to vote for the [Opposition] amendment". He added: "It is a rather dubious manoeuvre, late in the day."
The BBC is understood to be furious about the document, which appears to draw heavily on BSkyB data. It is understood that both the BBC and Sky, represented by its chief executive, Sam Chisholm, met officials at 10 Downing Street last week, to discuss sport on television.
Mr Chisholm refused to comment on the talks, but said: "Out of the current political process, sport must be the winner. Sky's position all the way through has been that we are backing sport."
Mrs Bottomley threw down the gauntlet in a statement that warned: "It is easy for anyone to dream up a wish-list of favourite events which should be on free-to-air television.
"But the crown jewels of British sport could quickly become devalued if sport does not have the money to reinvest in the superstars of tomorrow."
The Opposition, supported by the BBC and ITV, wants the Government to ban subscription TV services, such as Rupert Murdoch's Sky Sports channel, from acquiring rights to the eight "listed" events.
These are the Derby, the Grand National, the Olympics, Wimbledon, the FA Cup Final, the Scottish FA Cup Final, cricket Test matches involving England, and the World Cup.
These cannot be shown exclusively on pay-per-view television. Crucially, however, the restrictions under the 1990 Broadcasting Act do not exclude subscription channels such as Sky Sports, which has been able to outbid the ITV and BBC for numerous events.
The paper claims satellite and cable services have quadrupled the amount of sport on television to 12,000 hours since 1988 and says the income from television rights has greatly helped investment in sports.
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