Broadcasting (Listed Sporting Events) (Scotland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:03 pm on 20 February 2024.

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Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Alba, East Lothian 1:03, 20 February 2024

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to expand the list of sporting events that must be made available for broadcast by free-to-air television channels to include all qualifying matches played by the Scotland men’s and women’s national football teams in the World Cup and the UEFA European Football Championship;
and for connected purposes.

Like many people throughout the United Kingdom, I look forward to watching the European football finals in June. Not just Scotland but England, and hopefully Wales too, will be there if they win their qualifier. I was fortunate enough to attend the Scotland games when the competition was held in England in 1996, as well as going to France for the World Cup in 1998. Scotland are my team. They represent our nation, and Steve Clarke and his lads have done us proud. We can dream of winning the competition, but in reality I shall be happy with our qualifying from the group. We have faltered and failed to do that before—sometimes through bad luck, although at other times it has been self-inflicted—but in Andy Robertson, John McGinn, Scott McTominay and others we have a squad who are skilled and determined as well as a canny manager.

The Tartan Army who are going to Germany will enjoy the spectacle, while others, including me, will simply watch the games on television. That, after all, is how most people watch their national team. Going to the game is either too difficult or too expensive, or else there is simply insufficient capacity for all to attend, so it is at home, on their TV screens, that most people follow their team. For quite some time, however, that has not been the case for Scotland fans in the qualifying matches for this tournament or the qualifying matches for international competitions, which is why this Bill is necessary. Like the World cup finals, the Euro finals are available on free-to-view channels—that is specified by law—but Scotland qualifying matches are not protected. They have been available only through Viaplay, a Swedish media company, and at a cost of £180 per annum. In these tough financial times, that is a cost that many cannot afford, no matter how much they would like to watch the games. It is a poll tax on Scots watching their national team.

The qualifying games—a number of which were enthralling, with wins at home against Spain and away against Norway, were not available to view for many people other than those fortunate enough to be able to go to the match itself or able to pay for Viaplay. That is as unfair and unjust as a refereeing error or VAR review which punishes your team. It has meant that Scots fans have missed out on the well-earned success of their team. Even worse, when these Euro finals are past and the qualifiers for the World cup in north America begin, Scots will again be deprived of the opportunity to watch their team on free-to-air TV. The games go on as another competition beckons, but many Scots are excluded from watching their team’s journey, and that is neither right nor fair. It is not the norm in Europe, where only seven countries including Scotland and Northern Ireland are in this situation; nor is it the case in England, where qualifying games have been free to air on ITV or Channel 4 since 2018. Even in Wales, where rights to the national team’s qualifying fixtures were also sold to Viaplay in 2022, access was available free to air on S4C.

The charging for viewing extends from the major competitions even to friendly fixtures. While they may lack the same bite as the competitive games, many wish to see their heroes perform or new stars be given an opportunity, but the four friendly fixtures arranged for Scotland’s warm-up for Germany are all to be behind a pay wall on Viaplay, so even these non-competitive fixtures will be denied to many Scottish fans. Meanwhile, England’s warm-up will be broadcast free to view on Channel 4.

The anomaly between Scotland and England international matches extends beyond the men’s international team. For the women’s game, ITV has the rights to the English national team, having recently taken over from the BBC. Scotland games are shown on BBC Alba, a channel I know and enjoy but which, although free to view, has neither the reach nor the resource of the bigger channels. Indeed, I have seen Scottish and English fixtures going head to head on the BBC and BBC Alba. Why is there pan-UK coverage of the England game, but restricted access to the Scottish one? Similarly, the BBC holds the rights to England under-21 internationals while Scotland’s are left to the Scottish Football Association website, which shows that it is not just in respect of the men’s team but across genders and ages that Scots are being deprived of the right to watch their national team. Those fixtures also matter to fans.

The Scottish football press were once described as fans with typewriters; now it seems to be the UK broadcasters who are fans with TV stations, but while the Scottish press supported the Scottish team, the UK broadcasters only seem to support England. UK broadcasters are revealing themselves not as UK television outlets, but as Team England only. That is happening whether we are talking about the state-funded BBC, publicly owned Channel 4, or the commercial ITV or STV channels that have broadcasting obligations beyond the border.

Some may blame the Scottish Football Association, which sold the rights to Viaplay. Let me say at the outset that I do not hold the SFA responsible; culpability rests with broadcasters, who have not just rights but duties, and who are failing Scotland. The SFA has a duty to the game in Scotland. That responsibility runs from the grassroots and football simply being a game to be enjoyed by youngsters, through developing pathways for people to continue playing at whatever age or standard, and on to those entering into the professional ranks and, ultimately, the pinnacle of the national team. The SFA is also required to nurture and develop not just the men’s game, but the growing women’s game and football among people of different ages and capacities. The men’s and women’s international teams are the pinnacle, but the SFA’s remit covers all.

All that comes at a cost, however, and the SFA is required to fund it. Money is tight for associations, as it is for individuals. Broadcasting money that applies in nations such as Ireland when Premier League games south of the border are shown is denied to Scotland. The reason is that the UK is classed as one broadcasting entity and international football divergence is of no relevance. Hence a cash-strapped SFA needs to maximise income, and the rights to show the national teams’ fixtures are its major asset. Viaplay offers more. It is something the SFA is required to do to promote the game from grassroots to international teams.

What about broadcasters? Why can the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV all have budgets to pay for England games, but not for Scottish ones? It is not that the SFA is seeking more than the FA—quite the opposite. The viewing rights fee for Scotland matches is significantly lower than for England matches, just as transfer fees in the Scottish Premier Leagues are lower than those in the English Premier League. But while UK broadcasters are prepared to pay top dollar to show England games, they are not prepared to fund a bawbee for a Scotland game. Indeed, that was stated by Simon Pitts of STV when he gave evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee. He said that there was

“very little prospect of a larger commercial return UK-wide, which in turn determines the level of bid.”

Scots TV licence fees do not, therefore, matter, and obligations to Scots viewers count for little. The licence fee paid by Scots and the rights given in Scotland to UK broadcasters are not being matched by coverage.

That is why this Bill is necessary. It must be mandatory that Scotland’s games should be available, and broadcasters must live up to their obligations. Scots fans have a right to see their team and to expect no less from their broadcasters.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Kenny MacAskill, Neale Hanvey, Angus Brendan MacNeil, Douglas Chapman, Martyn Day, Carol Monaghan and Jamie Stone present the Bill.

Kenny MacAskill accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 21 June, and to be printed (Bill 166).