HC Deb 09 July 1984 vol 63 cc802-8

The Grand National

The Derby

In addition to the above, the Secretary of State may add events to this list by order. '.

Mr. Freud

Some Opposition Members are concerned that it must not become too easy at any time for a cable company to secure for itself an event which the public have a right to see. Subsection (3) states that a 'listed event' means a sporting or other event … which is for the time being included in a list maintained by the Secretary of State for the purposes of this section and published by him in such a manner as he considers appropriate". In the best of all worlds there would be open government, and such a list would be published for all to see and would be discussed from time to time. The new schedule includes sporting events such as the FA Cup Final, Test Matches, international matches, great races and, presumably, Wimbledon, the Boat race and state occasions.

The clause states that a 'protected event' means a sporting or other event which, in the opinion of the Authority, is one of a series of similar events". I should like an assurance from the Minister that there will be no occasion when a national event will be allowed to be bought by a sectional interest.

The Coronation would not be an event within a series, nor would the death of a Prime Minister or a royal wedding such as might occur if Prince Andrew gets married. Although that might be thought to be one of a series, I am sure that it would be no such thing.

Mr. Hurd

I think I understand what the hon. Gentleman is after. He clearly understands the clause, but unwittingly he is introducing a confusion into the mind of the lay reader about what the clause tries to do. It contains provisions about listed and protected events. The hon. Gentleman is creating a possible confusion by providing a first list of protected events, whereas I think he is seeking to give guidance to my right hon. and learned Friend about what should be on the list of listed events. I congratulate him on a helpful try.

If the hon. Gentleman looks at subsection (3), he will see the definition of a listed event. My right hon. And learned Friend will have to consult all the interested parties about what should be on the list. He already has the advantage of the hon. Gentleman's view. I appreciate that the list leaves out Wimbledon, but this is the sort of thing that ought to be discussed. We have the hon. Gentleman's suggestions, and we shall now need the suggestions of others. My right hon. and learned Friend will then be able to draw up his list.

Mr. Denis Howell

While I do not exactly agree with the amendment of the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud), I support what he is trying to achieve, which is to ensure that a cable company operating in one part of the country cannot buy up, particularly with the help of a sponsor, an attractive national sporting occasion and show it exclusively on its own channel. If that is what the hon. Gentleman is concerned about, I fully support him. It would be wrong if that were to happen.

I take comfort from what the Minister has just said about it being unlikely that that would be allowed to happen because of the negotiations involved.

I also noticed that Wimbledon was excluded from the list. That is an odd omission by the hon. Gentleman, in view of the exciting two weeks which we have all just enjoyed.

I notice that the hon. Gentleman included in his schedule a reference to The National Westminster Bank Final". I remind him that only a year ago that was known as the Gillette Cup Final. The sponsors move in and out of these great events. Although we hope that the National Westminster Bank will support this 60-over competition into infinity, the chances are that it will not. Therefore, it would be quite odd to include a reference of that sort in an Act of Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman has done a great service to the House in raising this matter and for drawing attention to the dangers if what he fears were allowed to happen. However, the Opposition take comfort from the Minister's statement that it will not happen without general consultation and the agreement of all the authorities concerned.

Mr. Freud

In the best of all worlds, of course, the schedule would be published and we could discuss it. If the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) reads on, he will see that it says: In addition to the above, the Secretary of State may add events to this list by order. Mine was simply a specimen list and, of course, the Boat Race and the Olympic games would be included.

I, too, am reassured by the Minister's statement. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Brinton

I beg to move amendment No. 43, in page 14, line 42, after 'services', insert 'on conditions which in the opinion of the Authority adversely affect the financial terms on which a broadcasting authority could acquire rights to those events'. The amendment seeks to clarify a matter that we debated in Committee about the prohibition from pay-per-view. In my amendment it comes into force only when it is the excessive financial terms which preclude the broadcasting authorities from covering an event and not because they have ceased to carry that event, anyway, and pay-per-view has negotiated the rights on straightforward commercial terms. The amendment seeks free competition, provided that the protected event has been dropped by the broadcasting organisations.

As I understand the Bill as amended, it defines a protected event as one the whole or part of which it is the practice of the BBC and the IBA to cover and which they would still want to cover but for the fact, if they could not, that cable had acquired rights over the event. Am I right in thinking that these restrictions would apply to any new events or even one-off events?

From the point of view of cable, pay-per-view is not prohibited from part or all of an event where the broadcasters are also able to maintain their own coverage. I think of Wimbledon, for example, and wonder whether, if that became a protected event and was listed, cable could get a look in. I wonder, too, whether it is correct that so long as broadcasters are able to secure the coverage of a protected event, cable can screen part of it.

I tabled the amendment to clarify matters. I understood my right hon. Friend to say in Committee that only when the financial terms of a deal with a broadcasting authority were such as to prevent the broadcasters from taking it should the protected event be invoked. If it had been dropped by the broadcasters, it should be open to free market negotiation. That is the clarification that I seek.

Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)

I take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Brinton) and refer specifically to the Wimbledon tournament, which is still fresh in our minds.

There is a degree of confusion about the effect of this legislation upon a sporting event such as the Wimbledon tournament. It does not consist of a single game of rugby or football, or even a race. There is a fortnight of several hundred different events taking place on a range of different courts. Each one may be of some attraction to a different viewing public. For example, on court 13 on the Wednesday of the first week, the Scottish champion could be playing against some well-known player. That will not necessarily be regarded as an event which the national media would wish to included in their broadcasts under the terms of their negotiated contract, but it would be of great interest to, perhaps, Scottish cable, to show to viewers in Glasgow or Edinburgh.

10.45 pm

Am I right in thinking that, Wimbledon being one of the possible listed events, whereas a contract may be struck between the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club and, say, the BBC or ITV for the fortnight's proceedings, would it be possible for cable companies to negotiate separately for a varied number of the other rather interesting matches taking place on the outside courts?

Mr. Freud

By the same thought process, would the hon. Gentleman expect cable companies to be able to buy the dressing room at Wembley during a cup final?

Mr. Hannam

If the hon. Gentleman considers that to be a particular attraction to some other regional cable companies, obviously they might wish to tender for it. I doubt whether that would be a negotiable property, but I suppose that it is conceivable.

My point, and it is a serious point, is that a football match is a single event for which a contract can be negotiated but Wimbledon is comprised of hundreds of individual matches, all with a different appeal on different courts, many of which will be of no interest whatever to the contractor—the BBC or ITV. Therefore, it seems perfectly feasible that the All England club having secured a contract with the BBC should, with the BBC's agreement, be able to offer subcontracts for those courts to regional cable companies. Will that be possible under this legislation?

Wimbledon can negotiate with any cable company outside Britain as of now. It can negotiate to sell for amounts far greater than that which it receives from the BBC the right to show matches, as we saw with the final of the men's singles match where a fantastic number of countries received the transmission. Will the Minister clarify that point?

There is also confusion surrounding the contract. At present the BBC has an unwritten and unpublicised agreement with ITV. The BBC can negotiate a contract with the All England club and ITV can have access to certain pick of the day matches for the 10 o'clock news. That results in a low contract price being offered to the All England club. The figure is in the low hundreds of thousands rather than the possible million or so which that tremendous sporting event should command in real market terms. If one takes into account the fact that the profits made from the tournament are ploughed back into British tennis through the Lawn Tennis Association and other bodies, it is vital that we ensure that a proper market price is paid by the broadcasting authority which negotiates the contract. At the moment that is not so.

If, in future, cable becomes well enough established for it to offer a price for the contract of Wimbledon, will it be made apparent by my hon. Friend the Minister that that price will determine the eventual contract with the BBC or the ITV?

At the moment, there is an artificial situation, because of the power in the 1981 Act, which is referred to in the other place as the whip behind the door, to allow regulations to be made, whereby the national broadcasting media can secure the coverage of an event. This is holding down the true market value of the contract, and it is important for the interests of tennis as a whole, the bringing on of young players and the helping of the clubs, that the main source of revenue should be established through a proper price being paid for this contract.

Mr. Denis Howell

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is correct. To start with, Wimbledon is one of those events that both the BBC and the IBA can televise if they so wish. However, the IBA has opted out and left the BBC to do the televising. That is due not to an Act of Parliament but to a decision of ITV. The same thing is happening with the Olympic coverage. It is available to the IBA, which has chosen, for reasons that we understand, although we may disagree with them, not to be in competition with the BBC.

The All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club and the BBC are two free partners negotiating a price. All sports bodies negotiate their own prices. I told the Football League long ago that I thought that the price that it got was far too low, but it has the remedy in its own hands. It can either sell the product that it produces or not. In the case of Wimbledon, there is a complication, because much of the negotiation is done by the International Management Group and other firms, certainly for overseas contracts. The price for that is probably higher than that which the BBC pays.

Cable television can come in and negotiate when the main contract is negotiated, and can compete against the BBC, the IBA, or anybody else. We discussed this at length in Committee, but agreed that that was the point at which cable television has the right to put in a rival bid to that of the BBC. However, once the BBC has the contract, it wants the right to show any match from any court that turns out to be interesting on any day.

Mr. Hannam

The right hon. Gentleman has raised the very confusions that exist in the minds of myself and the All England tennis club, and that is why I raised them tonight. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to clarify the position, so that we can believe that a market price is being established. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that that is not the case at the moment.

Mr. Hurd

If my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) studies, as perhaps he has, the debates in Committee, he will see that both sides of the Committee were anxious that sporting organisations should benefit, and should not be at a disadvantage, from the Bill. We were under pressure, but the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) and I were agreed that it is important not to prejudice the ability of sporting organisations to make the best of what they had to offer. Too many restrictions on that should not be imposed.

If Wimbledon was an event listed by the Bill, I draw my hon. Friend's attention to clause 14(1), which covers such events. It says: The Authority shall do all that they can to secure that no licensed service provided by any person includes a programme which consists of or includes the whole or any part of a listed event, unless the Authority are satisfied that both broadcasting authorities have been given an opportunity to acquire broadcasting rights in respect of that event on terms comparable to those on which that person"— in this case, the cable company— acquired the right to include it in that service. There is a protection for the sporting organisation, in this case the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.

We have ensured that broadcasters must have access to listed events on terms comparable to those available to cable companies should they wish to cover them. The protected category merely imposes a restriction on a particular form of pay-per-view which could constitute unfair competition.

Mr. Neale

The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) said that there was a fear, certainly in football, that if cable were allowed to compete or, more particularly, to come in at the same time, that could reduce the overall amount available to a sport.

My hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) has mentioned a case in which an undervalue was being paid, because a deal was done between the two major broadcasting operations, with one opting out—on the basis that it could show BBC coverage on news bulletins —leaving the BBC free to make a lower offer.

The BBC and a cable authority could both do a deal. They would have different audiences and the sporting organisation would get more. That would be perfectly proper. It seems from what my right hon. Friend the Minister has said that if the BBC offers a price comparable to what the cable companies would pay, those companies would be excluded. Will my right hon. Friend clarify that point?

Mr. Hurd

Only in terms of clause 14(1). We are talking only of the relatively small number of listed events. Before authorising the provision of a cable service, the Cable Authority must be satisfied that the broadcasting authorities have been given the opportunity to obtain broadcasting rights for that event on terms comparable to those that a cable operator would pay. There is no question of the provision driving down the price. Even with listed events, the sporting organisations will not find that the provisions work in a way that is prejudicial to their natural efforts to get the best price for their wares. The Bill has been drafted with that point in mind.

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Brinton) that the restrictions on protected events cannot apply to new events. We clarified that with an amendment in Committee. The event has to be one of a series that it was the practice of the broadcasting authority to show before the commencement of the Act.

I should make a final attempt to clarify clause 14, which I found to be the most complicated clause in the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham is concerned about the circumstances in which a broadcasting authority loses interest in an event and the Cable Authority has to decide on the consequences.

If a broadcasting authority loses interest in an event solely for programming reasons, the Cable Authority would have to decide, under clause 14(3) whether it would otherwise still be the practice of the authority to broadcast". The Cable Authority might well conclude that it would not be, and it would then allow cable to offer the event on pay-per-view. If the broadcaster drops out for purely financial reasons, the Cable Authority will presumably maintain the protection and prohibit pay-per-view. The difficulty arises when the reasons for the broadcaster dropping out are mixed — partly programming and partly financial. The authority has then to decide which reason is predominant and come to a view on pay-per-view.

11 pm

The Bill as drafted allows the authority to reach its conclusion in a broad-brush commonsense way. The authority will have to ask itself whether the acquisition of the rights affected the broadcaster's practice, or whether he would have dropped out anyway. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham tries to narrow the criterion, in order to clarify it. The result might be more restrictive than he intends. If the broadcaster could satisfy the authority that financial reasons played even a small part in his decision not to cover the event, the authority would be obliged to maintain the pay-per-view prohibition—or it might read the Bill in that way—even though, in truth, the main motive for the broadcaster's decision had been a programming one and therefore the protection against pay-per-view would not be sensible. In trying to clarify the situation, my hon. Friend has narrowed the definition. The effect produced by his amendment might be the reverse of what he has in mind.

Although the position is complicated, the practical implications of clause 14 are sensible and, on this point, it provides the authority with greater flexibility to move in what my hon. Friend would regard as the right direction than would be provided under his amendment.

Mr. Brinton

I have listened to my right hon. Friend's comments with great attention, and have been comforted by some of them. However, I must again make plain my anxiety that we are not allowing totally free and fair competition after the protected event has been taken out of the issue. That is what concerns my hon. Friends and myself in considering what may be, as my right hon. Friend says, the most complicated clause in the Bill.

There are doubts—

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

They are shared by other Conservative Members.

Mr. Brinton

My amendment may be defective, but I hope that there is the ultimate chance that my right hon. Friend will reconsider the matter. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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