Listed Events (Sports)

– in the House of Commons at 10:18 pm on 31 January 2005.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Gillian Merron.]

Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby 10:33, 31 January 2005

For the many, not the few is one of the principles on which this Government are built, and I would contend that, in a modest way, listed events in their various guises since their inception in the 1950s reflect this aspiration. I would not argue that this is one of the most important debates to come before the House—it is not a matter of war and peace or poverty, or concerning the many threats to our environment—but it does affect the quality of life of many of our citizens, young and old, rich and poor, throughout the land.

As I said, listed events have come in many guises down the years. They first came about through the Television Act 1954, which prevented any one broadcaster from obtaining exclusive rights to certain sporting events of national interest. Of course, in those days there were only two broadcasters: the BBC and ITV. The Broadcasting Act 1990 prevented listed events from being shown on a pay-per-view basis. Then the Broadcasting Act 1996, recognising the threat of subscription as opposed to pay-per-view television, protected the availability of live coverage of listed events on free-to-air television channels with national coverage. That is the basis of the current rules, which were enshrined in the Communications Act 2003.

Although the legislation has changed down the years, the general principles underlying it have remained the same—that is, that some events are of such national significance, and in some cases of such international significance, that a large part of the nation wants to be part of them. People want to feel that they are in the stadium watching the Olympics, the grand national or the World cup finals. These events in some way bind the nation together.

No one is saying that the terrestrial TV stations should have these events for free. They must pay a fair and reasonable price, and if there is a dispute, the price could be judged by the regulator, currently Ofcom. It is interesting that down the years the list has largely policed itself. As far as I am aware, there has never been a case in which Ofcom has had to deliberate on a fair and reasonable price.

The recent history of the football World cup and the broadcasting of it illustrates the importance of the list to our nation. Some hon. Members may recall that the rights to the 2002 and 2006 World cup were sold by FIFA to Kirsch, a German broadcaster that tried to find a way round our listed events legislation—any possible loophole. In the end it did a deal with the BBC and ITV whereby both those broadcasters paid far more than they had paid in the past—undoubtedly a fair and reasonable price—but everyone in Britain will be able to see all the matches in Germany in the football World cup. That will not be true, incidentally, in Germany, where such stringent rules do not exist. Even though much public money will have gone into the stadiums in Germany, many of those matches will not be seen.

At some stage in the next Parliament we need to review the list, particularly the A list consisting of events that must be shown live. It is live sport that quickens the blood, thrills the nation and inspires the young. The list was reviewed in 1990 and in 1998. The event that led me to seek the debate tonight occurred just before Christmas, when the England and Wales Cricket Board sold itself lock, stock and barrel to BSkyB. That came as a shock to many people. There were editorials about it in most of the national papers.

The Prime Minister often says to the parliamentary Labour party—and of course I listen to everything the Prime Minister says—that one of the best things in government is the small decisions one makes that can affect people's lives in various ways. I believe we made the wrong decision, though it was a small decision, when in 1998 the Government decided to remove test cricket from the A list—from live coverage. BSkyB and the ECB lobbied for that. Subsequently the Secretary of State at the time, my right hon. Friend Mr. Smith, said he thought he had a gentlemen's agreement with Lord MacLaurin of the ECB that at least some cricket would remain on terrestrial television. That happened for a while under the subsequent television deal, and Channel 4 covered test cricket very well.

However, as some of us warned, once my right hon. Friend and Lord MacLaurin were long gone from office, the next deal came around and the ECB sold out, as I said, lock, stock and barrel to BSkyB, and not for a great deal more money. The best figures that I have seen suggest that the difference between the Channel 4 bid, which was much the same as its previous bid, and the BSkyB bid was perhaps 10 per cent.—not a large sum. Cricket will rue the day the deal was signed, for a number of reasons, the first of which is financial. When a sport sells out to satellite TV or subscription TV, sponsorship tends to decline. We have seen that in rugby. The Heineken cup has gone to satellite TV, and apparently Heineken is thinking of pulling out of the sponsorship. English rugby union sold itself entirely to satellite TV, but then stepped back.

Photo of Andy Reed Andy Reed Labour/Co-operative, Loughborough

Does my hon. Friend agree that the financial costs are not the only consequence? More important is the fact that by removing itself to, say, Sky, with an audience of 400,000, compared with the 9 million that the Rugby Football Union would have got on BBC with the six nations tournament, it is denying the next generation of sporting heroes the opportunity to see the current sporting heroes? Often, people get involved in sport because they see Kelly Holmes or Martin Johnson doing their work week in, week out. That encourages people to get involved at local community level. The trend is dangerous because of its effect on sporting access for the future.

Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby

My hon. Friend puts his finger on the key point in this debate. We are all looking forward to the test match series this summer, when England will play Australia for the Ashes, and it is instructive to see how our major cricketing rivals deal with this issue. They have what they call anti-siphoning legislation, as they do not want their top sporting events to be siphoned away so that only a few people can see them. The extensive list that has been drawn up includes not only test matches in Australia, but test matches involving England and Australia that take place in England, as well as all cricket world cup matches.

This year's series will be shown on Channel 4, because the old contract will still apply, but the next Ashes series will be shown only on BSkyB. Perhaps the Australians realise that some poor boy in 2009 in some Australian suburb may get up in the morning, watch the end of the test match, perhaps at Headingley, and be inspired to go out and play cricket. Even if he sees the match on a battered television set and his parents will never be able to afford subscription TV, he may go out and play a makeshift game all day long and perhaps one day open the batting for Australia. Is it not sad that, when that same series and Headingley test match take place, a lad from not well-off circumstances in Hunslet or Harehills, just miles from the ground in Leeds, will not be able to be inspired by watching the match live? Highlights are not really the same thing; they do not quicken the blood in the same way.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

My hon. Friend is making a very strong case. Does he agree that the problem is that we have lost not only test cricket, but all cricket, from mainstream television? Even with rugby or football, there were opportunities to watch the games, whether they were in the FA cup or different cup competitions in rugby. That will not be true of cricket, which has sold its soul completely in respect of terrestrial television. That really is unacceptable.

Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The only cricket that will be shown is highlights on Channel 5, which is not available in some parts of the country. It is sad that the only listed event that was not shown even in highlights form on terrestrial TV was the cricket world cup in 2003, which featured on the B list. Perhaps it would be appropriate to say a gentle word to the BBC, suggesting that it may have a role in the televising of cricket in future and should perhaps bid for the highlights of the cricket world cup in 2007 as a way back into cricket. If Parliament puts these events on the list, our major public service broadcasters have a responsibility to at least try to show them.

Photo of Andy Reed Andy Reed Labour/Co-operative, Loughborough

Particularly with the advent of BBC 3 and BBC 4, does not digital television give the BBC a significant opportunity, bearing in mind the difficulties of broadcasting cricket and the length of the game, particularly in comparison with the capabilities on Sky? Would my hon. Friend encourage the BBC to look at using BBC 3 and BBC 4 as sports channels so that sports fans can have genuine access on terrestrial television?

Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby

The BBC needs to use all its channels to show some sport. Indeed, there have been some very good sports documentaries on BBC 4, and a few sporting events have been shown on BBC 3. As we move into the digital future, BBC 3, which is aimed at least partially at the youth market, would be a natural home for some sports.

Before I mention a couple of other sports, I wish to underline that cricket gets a lot of public money each year. Between 2000 and 2004, cricket at national and club level got more than £50 million of Government and lottery cash. If public money is being used to build some of the stadiums, it behoves the cricket authorities to ensure that people can see a little bit of what goes on inside them. The fear must be that cricket has sold its soul to BSkyB. Who will bid next time? Will the terrestrial broadcasters do so, or will BSkyB be the only bidder?

I said that I would mention a couple of other sports. Tennis is worthy of mention, because it might be the next sport under threat. In Britain, only the Wimbledon finals are listed, not the Wimbledon fortnight. It was listed until 1991, but is now on the B list, not the A list. In Australia, strangely, the whole of the Wimbledon fortnight is listed and must be shown on terrestrial television. What a tragedy it would be if we could not see Tim Henman at Wimbledon. He may make the finals one day, but so far he has appeared only in the earlier part of the two weeks, when matches are not listed.

The same applies to golf. Again, it is strange that the British Open is listed in Australia but not in Britain. There is also a case for listing the last day of the Ryder cup. Europe may be at its most popular in Britain during the Ryder cup, and it is a pity that we cannot see it live.

I want briefly to mention the Central Council of Physical Recreation. I was rather distressed when I received its briefing for tonight's debate, although it was kind of it to provide it. It says that

"sport has never accepted the policy logic behind 'Listed Events'. This has always seemed to be a policy driven by broadcast considerations, as opposed to what is best for the sports themselves."

I am not concerned with broadcast considerations, but with ordinary citizens—sports fans, and sportsmen and women who play their sport in a village or suburban team for many years, then make the teas, coach, and try to find the next generation. They will never sit on the CCPR or in hospitality boxes, but if they are not well-off in their old age, should not they—and their grandchildren—be able to see the great events live? I think that the CCPR, which calls itself, "One voice for sport and recreation", but is really one voice for sports administrators, should rethink its policy.

I want to draw the Minister's attention to two specific points. First, we need to review the legislation in the run-up to digital switchover, because it is not clear that it will all work, technically speaking, when that happens. Secondly, the European television without frontiers directive is to be reviewed in the next year or so, and I hope that during their presidency the Government will ensure that the clauses affecting listed events are retained.

There is no better measure of the success of the policy of sporting listed events than that of the TV programmes that did well in viewing figures last year. The England-Portugal game had 20.7 million viewers, peaking at 24 million during penalties, and was the most watched TV event of last year. The England-France game had 17.8 million viewers. Other events that feature in the top 50 are the never-to-be-forgotten Saturday night of the victories by Kelly Holmes and the 4 x 100 m relay team; the Olympics opening ceremony, and the grand national. If those events were not listed and went to the highest bidder, much of the nation would not talk about them at the bus stop, in the school hall and in the office, because they would not have been able to see them. That would diminish our nation.

My requests of the Minister are modest. We are approaching the election, and I suggest that it would be appropriate to include in our manifesto a couple of sentences about listed events. That would show, first, that we are proud as a Government of our record on keeping and, indeed, extending them, and that we are committed to them post-digital switchover; and secondly, that at an appropriate time we will review them and decide whether there is a case for adding to them.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State (Arts), Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts) 10:49, 31 January 2005

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Grogan on securing the debate and the duo whom he has brought with him, my hon. Friends the Members for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew), on participating in it at this late hour.

I acknowledge the interest and expertise of my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and the part that he played in scrutinising the Communications Act 2003. Although that measure offered no major changes to the aspect of communications that we are discussing, it considered it.

I join my three hon. Friends in acknowledging the importance of sport on television. The instances that my hon. Friend the Member for Selby gave, for example, of Kelly Holmes—her first victory was named the top television moment of 2004 by viewers—clearly brought the nation together during the Olympics. Two and a half times as many people watched England lose the match that my hon. Friend mentioned. I was interested to hear that the number of viewers increased during penalties. I suspect that if the people who genuinely watched the penalties were counted, the figures would drop dramatically, because it was a case of watching with our eyes shut. However, it was a special evening that brought the nation together.

Indeed, when we think back to 1966, such occasions provide several moments that we continue to talk about. They can still be unifying factors even three and four decades on. There is no difference of opinion between my hon. Friends and me about that. Sport is about national identity and national pride. When we get it right, sport at its best allows us to be different and to support different teams in a collegiate and friendly manner. I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the list and sport.

My hon. Friend, however, began by referring to the many, not the few. It is important to emphasise that even 21 million are the few, not the many. We must remember that a majority chose not to watch the penalties in the European championship match when England was knocked out. We must ensure that terrestrial television offers something for all viewers, whatever their interests. It is not a matter for Government, but perhaps terrestrial channels sometimes do not bid for some sports, especially cricket, because the matches last far longer than 90 minutes, plus 30 minutes for extra time and 15 minutes for penalties.

Let me outline Government policy for listing sport. My hon. Friend reasonably mentioned the future. He made a generous speech, and although he expressed his unhappiness about the England and Wales Cricket Board's decision, he looked to the future and to safeguarding something important. Let me therefore bring us up to date by stating Government policy. As my hon. Friend said, it is important that key sporting events are made available to all television viewers, including those who cannot afford or choose not to spend their money in that way. That has led to the solid protection by law of the listed events.

We all agree that we cannot possibly list all sports. The listed events are those that are believed to have a special national resonance. There is a danger—and an understandable trend—among sports enthusiasts that they want their sport listed so that they can watch it free on terrestrial television. However, that is not the purpose of the list, which is to involve the nation and ensure that the unifying factor can be brought to bear.

The listing process was reviewed in 1998 to ensure that it was as open and transparent as possible. As my hon. Friend said, the Government consulted on the criteria and then appointed an independent advisory group to make recommendations on listing. It is worth putting on record the criteria on which consultation was held and that were subsequently agreed for listing events.

Listed events must have a special national resonance and not simply be significant to those who follow the sport. They should unite the nation in a shared point on the national calendar. The Wimbledon finals are key examples. Consideration should be given to events that are likely to command a large television audience, such as pre-eminent national or international sports events and those involving the national team or national representatives.

The advisory group to which my hon. Friend referred considered the number of events. At that point, the notion of groups A and B came into being. Perhaps if we had not split the list into groups A and B, we would not be conducting a debate today that is based on dissatisfaction about the decision about cricket. However, it could have appeared on list A, although obviously it was put on list B. That meant that it would no longer be guaranteed to be shown live on terrestrial television, and although I accept that cricket is popular, I believe that lists A and B as a mechanism have provided an alternative in sometimes difficult times for audience share and pleasing everybody. As well as list A, which guarantees live coverage, we have list B, which guarantees showing highlights at some point. And of course, Channel 5 was able to do that with cricket. I accept the argument that Channel 5 is not as readily available throughout the nation as other terrestrial channels, but the establishment of groups A and B has enhanced the number of opportunities for our citizens to watch key events, rather than reducing it.

There is another side to this argument. When we talk about what sports terrestrial television is not able to broadcast, we must also remember that BSkyB is able to broadcast them. We should not therefore say that everything is lost if BSkyB gets a particular contract, as long as the rules are followed. Because of the way in which the market works, the price being paid for the television rights to both live broadcasts and recorded highlights is going up and up. I suspect that that is one factor that causes difficulty for the BBC and other terrestrial channels when they are considering their need to ensure that the wider audience is catered for. In regard to terrestrial channels other than the BBC, advertising revenue might be put at risk in certain circumstances.

I hope however that my hon. Friend will consider it a good thing that, following the signing of the Central Council of Physical Recreation's voluntary code on sports broadcasting rights in 1997 by major organisations including the England and Wales Cricket Board, those organisations are now pledging 5 per cent. of their revenue from television to grass-roots schemes.

We can always argue about which determining factor might have made a future captain of Australia's cricket team become the brilliant player that he or she might be. They could have watched great matches on television, and I do not argue with the contention that there is nothing like watching a live match to enthuse people and to allow them to dream. For young people, such dreams are important. Equally, however, the enhanced sports facilities at grass-roots level, paid for by that 5 per cent. of the television revenue, might have been a determining factor in that young person's life.

This is a time of great change. Ten or 15 years ago, the issues involved would have been significantly different. At issue today is the number of viewers who can watch BSkyB and who have access to digital television. My hon. Friend rightly asked why the Government did not review the list in the light of the changes, and whether we would give an undertaking to do so. I certainly cannot give him an undertaking to put such a commitment into the manifesto, as he asked. However, I could give him an undertaking to review the list, because that is absolutely essential.

We know from other deliberations that we have had in the House that, as we move towards 2012, and as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State carries out her review of the BBC, we are in a time when things move fast. Predicting the future is becoming increasingly difficult. However, there will presumably be an increase in the number of people subscribing to Sky and other digital outlets in the next few years, alongside the growth of freeview. That will naturally change the landscape. Nevertheless, sports rights contracts run for a number of years, and I do not see a pressing need to pledge to review the list now, or to feel under pressure to do so, given that it was reviewed in 1998. But I recognise that the list has to reflect not only the changing views of broadcasting. I do not want to fall into the trap that my hon. Friend mentioned. This is not a policy for broadcasters; it is a policy for sport and for most people who watch sport through the medium of broadcasting, so the list also has to reflect the changing views of the sports concerned. Successes in certain events resulting in increased viewer loyalty could mean that the 1998 list should be reviewed in due course.

Looking back, it is amazing how little the sports and events that one would assume to be the most popular have changed. My hon. Friend mentioned the most popular sports and they are, in the main, the same ones that bound the nation together when I was a teenager, which was more years ago than I care to remember. We must always bear in mind, however, the potential for changing views in sport. The switch to digital broadcasting, and the move towards a multi-channel environment—whether subscription or free to air—change the landscape. I think it not unreasonable for the Government to pledge to take that into account, and to announce, at the appropriate time, what they will do about reviewing the list. I do not know when that will be. Things may be changing too quickly for us to be able to predict it, and certainly the Government have no plans to make an announcement or name a date yet.

The debate is timely. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Selby for initiating it, and thank my other hon. Friends for contributing. I think it behoves the Government to make it clear to broadcasters, citizens and sports players that although the arrangements may be set in stone now, they will not be set in stone for ever. We shall want to ensure that we make the necessary changes, so that the fundamental idea that live television coverage of these key events should be a great unifying force for the nation continues to hold.

No doubt in future years my hon. Friend will be back, asking when the Government will review the list. Long may he continue to do so. I am grateful for the opportunity to put the Government's case during this short but important debate, and to confirm their commitment to listed sport.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Eleven o'clock.