Inside Parliament: Peers threaten to rock the boat over TV sport

Government set to resist attempt to preserve more 'Crown jewel' highlights
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Indy Politics
Despite a warning that half-a-million Tory votes could be lost, the Government yesterday set its face against a cross-party move to ensure the highlights of all sporting events remain universally available to viewers and listeners.

Raising the spectre of the "Murdoch millions" snatching yet more sporting occasions from the screens of the great majority of viewers, peers, led by former Labour sports minister Lord Howell, tried to build on Monday's concession guaranteeing "crown jewel" events for "free" television channels.

The eight "listed" events include the FA Cup, the Olympics and England Test matches. But as the Broadcasting Bill was considered on report, Lord Howell rattled off another seven premier events which he said "could well disappear from the television sets of millions" unless action was taken.

Rupert Murdoch's Sky Sport had already offered pounds 24m for exclusive rights to the Open Golf Championship, he said. The others were golf's Ryder Cup and the European Tour, horse racing's Cheltenham Gold Cup and Royal Ascot, the Five Nations rugby tournament and the Rugby League Cup.

Without rubbing too much salt into the Government's wounds over its 117- vote defeat to stop satellite and cable TV buying up the listed events, Lord Howell said peers would try to extend the list if highlights generally were not protected.

"There would undoubtedly be an uprising around the land, if all this sports excellence was suddenly removed from the TV screens in the homes of so many people," he said. "The Murdoch millions could remove a great chunk of British sport from the TV screens of the great majority of British viewers."

Dire political consequences were seen by the Conservative Earl of Harrowby, who warned ministers: "I can think of no better way of losing for my party 500,000 votes at the next election than by denying the general public the opportunity to watch not the finals of Wimbledon but the whole of Wimbledon."

But his party colleague Lord Aberdare, chairman of the Football Trust, said the proposal interfered with the rights of sports bodies to negotiate freely with broadcasters.

The market approach was endorsed by Lord Inglewood, Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage, who made plain that the "unbundling" or highlights amendment would be resisted. The amendment would guarantee for BBC and ITV highlights on non-listed events shown on satellite channels, and vice versa. The amendment was not pushed to a vote last night, but peers are threatening to return to it when the Bill comes up for Third Reading later this month.

Lord Inglewood saw it as an intrusion in the legitimate rights of sporting bodies. The financial effects on them could be considerable, "with corresponding damage to investment, facilities and training".

And anyway, the broadcasting minister added, there was already, on average, seven hours of sport on terrestrial channels. "I don't honestly think viewers can seriously think themselves seriously deprived of sport, and we must not overlook that large proportion of the public which doesn't like sport and wants to look at other things on TV."

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