HL Deb 20 April 1998 vol 588 cc1002-22

8.7 p.m.

Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their response to the report and recommendations of the Advisory Group on Listed Events.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am deeply grateful and indeed privileged to have the opportunity this evening to speak in your Lordships' House and to draw the Minister's attention to the report and recommendations of the Advisory Group on Listed Events, which is chaired by my noble friend Lord Gordon of Strathblane. Any comments I make are no criticism of my noble friend or any members of the advisory group. I am satisfied that they have looked at the overall situation and have come out with recommendations which on the evidence available they believe are the correct ones.

Before I present my case I just want to say to the House that over the weekend a note was sent to my home telling me that my late friend Lord Howell was to support me and speak in the debate tonight. I can do no more than associate myself with the many wonderful tributes which we have seen in the national press this day. He was a personal friend of mine for many years and he was a friend to many other people in this Chamber. We all mourn his loss and we shall miss him greatly.

I shall attempt to speak on two issues in relation to the recommendations of the report made by the advisory group. The first is the principle of listing events. The argument against listing events is that sporting bodies are quite capable of managing their own affairs and have the sense to be able to dispose of their television rights in a manner which is lucrative and which affords them widespread coverage. That is understandable to a point.

However, these are times when the numbers of children participating in sport are falling and when youngsters need more than ever to be exposed to the influence of sport for the good of their own health and that of society. The prime marketing tool for any sport is for it to be freely available on television at the press of a button. Children in particular are especially impressionable and acknowledge as their heroes those whom they see on television on a regular basis.

There is a fear that, if sport disappears from free to air television, then children will not be captivated by sport and will not be drawn into wanting to emulate their sporting heroes. I certainly share that view. In that respect, the benefits of sporting activities for youngsters, both in terms of their healthy well-being and of the social co-operative virtues which team sports especially convey, are well established. For children to opt out of sport would be for them to miss out on those benefits and so become more and more unhealthy and undisciplined. An extra burden would then be placed on the state, which must pick up the pieces of this decline.

The comparative viewing figures achieved by sport on terrestrial and satellite television speak volumes for what is at stake. As an example, in Rugby League the Silk Cut Challenge Cup-ties broadcast live by the BBC regularly attract an audience of between 4 million and 5 million. In contrast, the Super League matches on Sky Sports average between 150,000 and 200,000. Similarly in Rugby Union, while as many as 7 million watch England internationals on BBC, the matches shown on satellite television have viewing figures similar to those I referred to on the Rugby League scene.

The marketing effect, then, of terrestrial television making sport freely available is colossal. Its potential impact on youth and the health of the nation is huge. Can we really trust sport to realise the unseen benefits in that regard or are the administrators blinded by the huge sums of cash which are offered by satellite television in exchange for their rights? Do we require instead legislation to save sporting governing bodies from themselves to guarantee that the next generation of British youngsters sees sport for itself and is inspired by its example?

The second point I would like to present to the House is the national spread of Rugby League, which means that the Challenge Cup Final is indeed an event of national importance—contrary to the findings of the Advisory Group on Listed Events. I form the opposite view to the review. I do not believe that the group has done enough in-depth research into the case for Rugby League. I must emphasise this evening that I am putting the case for only one match a year—the Rugby League Cup Final.

There is also the international spread of Rugby League and the fact that 16 nations now play the game, with 10 recognised as senior test-playing countries, which is more than for cricket. Rugby League in this country has 26 full-time development officers working to spread the game at junior and youth levels in places such as the North East (Gateshead), South Wales (Cardiff), Scotland (Glasgow) and Ireland (Dublin). Each of these target development areas has a thriving amateur league at junior, youth and open-age levels, which gives the lie to the theory that the game is confined to Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria.

Through the Rugby Football League and the British Amateur Rugby League Association, known as BARLA, there has been created a league called the Rugby League Conference, which draws together 16 leading amateur clubs in the Midlands and the South in a competitive environment—which will in time take them to semi-professional status—including towns such as Birmingham, Oxford, Worcester, Bedford, Ipswich, Cheltenham, Chester and Leicester. That is the spread of Rugby League football in our country today.

Rugby League is the fastest growing sport in universities and institutes of higher education, with 68 student teams now playing the game in all parts of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and the first national development officer for the women's game, Jackie Sheldon, was appointed only last year.

BARLA itself in a quarter of a century has increased the number of teams playing Rugby League from 200 to 1,400 teams. That is success. We wish that success to continue, but we do not believe it will if the youngsters who today are keen on playing Rugby League are denied seeing the jewel in the crown, the Rugby League Cup Final. That will be helpful for their advancement.

I say to my noble friend Lord Gordon that each of the factors I have described bears witness to the wrong done by the Advisory Group on Listed Events in denying Rugby League a place in the national consciousness. It does and it will continue to grow apace in future years as the professional and amateur arms work in unity together.

The Rugby League Challenge Cup is an English institution, despite its perceived parochial northern base. As such, the annual final at Wembley goes out to a worldwide audience of millions and is part of the high profile British sporting heritage and should therefore be protected for the benefit of the people.

The foundation of the sport is the amateur game under the jurisdiction of the British Amateur Rugby League Association. I have already described its progress. It is estimated that there are nearly 100,000 people playing the amateur game throughout this country. One can imagine the contribution of recreational hours that that gives to many young people who enjoy playing this wonderful game. Many of the players taking part are unemployed due to the industrial decline in the areas where the game has been traditional. Terrestrial TV is the perfect vehicle for promoting this "all-action sport" to the nation. The Rugby League Challenge Cup is probably the most famous rugby competition in the world. The final is staged in the country's national stadium, Wembley, and is watched by a worldwide audience.

I bring my contribution to a close to enable others to have more time to make theirs, but first I must say that, apart from the issue of encouraging youth interest, a major problem has developed especially in the strongholds of Rugby League but also, I believe, throughout the country. In my own area, which I was privileged to represent in another place for many years, most of the Rugby League teams received financial help from the mining industry. Many former miners who are now elderly are disabled as a result of chest diseases or have other disabilities. Many are lifelong Rugby League supporters who love the game. They cannot get out of their houses because of their disabilities, but they are being denied the right to see the game that they have supported and loved all their lives. Why? Because they cannot afford commercial television. That cannot be right. Of course, I acknowledge that finance comes into most things and that, when somebody like Murdoch comes along and offers millions of pounds, the clubs are under a great temptation to accept. In many ways, I think that that is ruining a great game, though I can understand the temptation. However, people are much more important than finance and generations of people, and many old people, are now being denied the right to see sport simply because Murdoch has control.

I was worried when I read the Answer to a Question that had been tabled in another place by Sir Raymond Powell about who had given evidence to the group. I noticed that Mr. Maurice Lindsay was among the names. That same Mr. Maurice Lindsay was the main negotiator in the Murdoch deal.

According to the Guardian, the other day, a recent poll asked whether such sports should be protected, and 73 per cent. of the public agreed that they should be. I am being nodded at and it is time for me to sit down. I have gone over my 10-minute limit, but as we all sat in the Chamber waiting for the other debate to finish, we now have an hour and a half instead of one hour for this Unstarred Question, so I do not think that I need apologise.

8.23 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we must all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract, for initiating this debate. I join the noble Lord in paying tribute to the late Lord Howell whose contributions to your Lordships' debates on sport we all greatly enjoyed.

I must congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, on his useful report. There is much with which one can agree, but it also gives me an inviting target as I believe that its main conclusion is flawed and wrong, but for very different reasons from those put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse. So I shall attack the report from the opposite end, as it were.

There seems to be a view that free-to-air sport is diminishing and that the public are losing out. I believe that nothing could be further from the truth as ITV alone has increased the amount of sport shown this year by 50 per cent. A quick glance at the newspapers for last week reveals that BBC1 put on "Match of the Day", showing Blackburn v. Arsenal, on Monday. That was followed by the UEFA Cup semi-final on BBC1 on Tuesday. On Wednesday, ITV scheduled the Champions League semi-final and on Thursday it showed the European Cup Winners Cup, Chelsea v. Vicenza, both live. There is plenty of high quality sport on BBC, ITV and Channel 4, and I advise any noble Lords who do not want to listen to this debate that there are two hours of snooker on BBC2 tonight.

Television has transformed sport. It has provided money but, even more importantly, it has made sport more popular. Sporting events are now more accessible to the public; they are safer; and many more people attend them. Yesterday I went to Watford football ground to watch Saracens and Newcastle play rugby. There was a crowd of nearly 20,000—a record for a club game. The match was shown on BSkyB with highlights on terrestrial television. Television and its investment in sport have made rugby popular.

I believe that the report was right to point out that many take differing views. Some believe that there is too much sport on television and that the logical place for live coverage of events of long duration should be special channels catering for those who want to watch such sport. However, the report also pointed out that it is right to say that the enjoyment of sport on television is a force for cohesion in society where events are of national interest or importance. We had a long debate on that during the passage of the Broadcasting Bill in 1996. I believe that the results of that Bill have worked. The voluntary code, adopted by the Central Council of Physical Recreation, has worked. Indeed. I understand that in the past 18 months no complaints have been made to the monitoring committee.

The report attempts to take a voluntary code, which is working, and to place it in regulations, ruled by the ITC. I believe that that would be a wrong and retrograde step. As your Lordships are aware, sport and broadcasting are rapidly changing worlds. We shall have digital terrestrial television later this year. The report's proposals could be detrimental to its success. The direction in which sport on television is going means that sport will be available in a way that the viewing public actually want. There will he live coverage for those who wish it, with highlights for those who do not want to watch hours of sport. There will be a mix for others. Parts of some events will be shown on specialist channels with, say, the final on free-to-air networks. There will be a mix of events on both free-to-air networks and specialist channels. That mix is wanted by both the sports rights holders and the viewers.

I agree with and fully support one suggestion in the report. I refer to the unbundling of sporting rights. Again, we have had a debate on that in your Lordships' House. I believe that we should have gone further. Broadcasters should be able to bid for the sports and particular events that they want to show.

However, all is not had because changes are already happening, driven by the sports themselves which want unbundling. The market is solving the problem. I realise that those on the Benches opposite regard it as strange that the market should solve a problem, but that is what is happening—and it is working. I refer to what is happening in English cricket. The English Cricket Board wants a mixture. It is clear that it wants to negotiate a fair price for broadcasting rights, but that does not mean that it will simply sell them to the highest bidder. It does not want to walk away from terrestrial television. The bodies believe that they must decide what to have and that the mix must be right.

The report dealt with this matter in a rather strange way. It suggested that if a sporting body was free-to-air somehow it would achieve better sponsorship contracts and matters of that kind. The right balance must be for the sporting bodies themselves.

The report is what one gets if one puts together people of differing views on a committee. They come up with a recommendation which to an extent is a compromise. I do not believe that that compromise is generally welcomed by the sports bodies or the commercial broadcasters. I am not sure that it will produce better viewing for the public. The noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, questioned whether one could trust the sports bodies. We can and should trust those bodies. I accept that in the past some have made mistakes, and they realise that. They also realise that in some cases they do not appeal to youth, which they know to be important. The Broadcasting Act works. I believe that the concept of a B list means more regulation and is detrimental to sport. The report speaks about an acceptable level of secondary coverage on generally available terrestrial channels to be decided by the ITC. I believe that that gives to the ITC a role that it does not want.

Having said that, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, must be pleased by one matter. His report has been attacked by both sides. Perhaps it means that his report is rather sensible because it has been attacked by both sides. It would be a pity if it was attacked by only one side or, even worse, by nobody. There are differing views, but each has merits. I recognise the merit of much of what the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, said. I hope that the Secretary of State will take serious note of all the views expressed this evening in your Lordships' House and the views expressed in the report.

8.31 p.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, for giving us the chance to discuss this important subject. I also join in the tribute to Lord Howell. One would always listen to Lord Howell on a subject of this kind even if one did not agree with him. The fact that one always listened to him is perhaps the greatest compliment that this House can pay him.

As to the final recommendations in the report, I do not agree with the list but, I would not anyway. I am a Rugby Union fan. I believe that Rugby Union should come higher up the list. That is my prejudice out in the open. The little graze on the top of my forehead proves that I am still playing the game although not quite as fast or as well as I once did. When we talk about sport we always have this kind of disagreement. If the committee had been appointed by others perhaps the list would have been slightly different. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, said that it was a very good list if one liked association football or soccer. There is a lot of it about at the moment and I have been rather inundated by it. It is always washing around at the back of events.

A good deal of the concern in this area is that we are attacking a situation in which certain sports have their moment of glory compared with the main spectator sports in this country such as association football. For example, the five-nation rugby tournament extends over four or five weekends a year when everything revolves around that sport. Rugby League has its one great day and then its test series. There is a sampling process in which people are exposed to certain sports on certain days and they are shown in a good light. This is not always to one's taste. Up until the age of 10 I did not believe that anyone played tennis other than for two particular weeks in the summer. I also believed that they wore only white outfits. Wimbledon created that impression. There was a great concentration on sports in blocks which meant that every sport had its moment in the sun.

The current arrangements for the broadcasting of sports is beginning to attack that. If one does not have access to cable or satellite systems one begins to feel that one is losing out. The fact of the matter is that television works and can create tremendous interest. One example of its power and limitations occurred 10 years ago when everyone expected Rugby Union, Rugby League and association football to be swept aside by American football. We were all told that it would happen. Ultimately, the game was ruined when people saw the whole game instead of just the highlights. I do not believe that a sport which appears to last for one hour and takes five hours to play will ever fit into our sporting culture. But everyone was told that that game would take over. Both Rugby Union and Rugby League have said at various points in the past that one will sweep the other under the carpet. Neither of them will do that. A cultural base is required to attract a sport and we have proven that quite satisfactorily.

We are in danger of pushing certain sports off the broadcast air waves altogether or into little ghettoes. Ultimately, the multi-channel approach may save us because there will be so many channels readily available that virtually all sports will be available at all times. There is also a danger that a sport will become a series of glossy jerseys running around and marketed like soap powder or soft drinks. The exciting bits of the sport will be priced out of people's reach. One will see it only secondhand. The fact is that highlights do not and cannot convey the whole of the sport. Sports are about pressure and how people react to it; it is about how people develop games. A sport is a contest which takes place over a period of time, possibly with very short bursts of activity. But the highs and the lows must be seen to get the whole drama and excitement, and highlights do not do that.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Viscount who have spoken have referred to the fact that steps must be taken towards unbundling. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, said that the marketplace might already be doing that. It is right to say that the marketplace created the problem in the first place. We must allow events at least to be recorded as live even if they are not live, because that is what the sport is really about. Unless one manages to do that in one's broadcasting, ultimately one misses the essence of it.

The report responded to the framework given to it. Thus, it could make recommendations only similar to those that it did. I hope that the noble Lord who is to speak next agrees with me. We must try to take a step forward in this matter and consider why we are interested in it. Sport is a huge part of the cultural and social life of this country. It means different things to different people, but it is watched for a variety of reasons, one of which is its internal drama. Thus, to cherry-pick the greatest moments is pointless. It is like having a video of the 100 greatest goals and watching it 20 times. The ball always goes into the back of the net. If one has the highlights one knows that the ball will always go into the back of the net. That is not about sport; effectively it is all about repeating an exercise. As the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, has pointed out, the health and social benefits of sport, particularly for the young, are incredible. They give a sense of belonging to a group and a sense of achievement and pride and can instil discipline in order to achieve a result in constructive competition. That is something that we must encourage.

Television is the mass media par excellence and it is the one that most people look to. Unless we get the coverage of sport on television right ultimately it will be damaged. One may well drive certain sports into tiny ghettoes which are watched by only a small number of people. We must achieve sporting democracy in this country. One does not play a sport because one is brought up in a certain area or goes to a certain school; one plays it because one wants to try it. Television took steps towards this but it has now stepped back from it as a result of financial pressure on sporting bodies who never have enough money for all that they want to do, be it the development of the particular sport or whatever. They grab the money to meet the needs and problems that they face at the moment. Ultimately, they may destroy themselves by turning themselves into tiny participating groups. I hope that for the foreseeable future the structure can be changed to address this problem.

8.40 p.m.

Lord Gordon of Strathblane

My Lords, all previous speakers have paid tribute to the late Lord Howell and I am happy to join them. The noble Lord, Lord Astor, referred to the memorable debate on the 1996 Act when Lord Howell's amendment was carried by a huge majority. That effectively marked the turning of the tide. Death is never timely, but it is particularly cruel that Lord Howell was not spared for another few days to participate in the debate. I say so out of no self-interest because I strongly suspect that Lord Howell would have felt that the report of the committee of which I was chairman did not go far enough and that we should have listed every sporting event and put Sky and cable television out of business. That is a perfectly respectable view, and one which has been hinted at in the debate. I, however, think it is a wrong view.

First of all, let me take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington. He is correct to point out that our report was produced in response to stated criteria. I say that not to shelter behind the criteria. I support the criteria, and the Secretary of State was wise to consult separately on the criteria against which we should judge whether an event should be listed and then appoint a separate body—our committee—to look at which events met the criteria.

It is important to realise that, even if an event is listed, we do not control whether or not it is seen on terrestrial television. If an event is listed but the terrestrial broadcaster does not offer a fair price, then the event is not seen on terrestrial television.

If the bodies running the sports referred to share the views expressed in this House that the missionary activity, as it were, of terrestrial television is all important, then even if the price offered by Sky is higher they will opt for terrestrial television. Let me point to one example, the Open golf championship. The Royal and Ancient has deliberately stayed with the BBC despite a higher offer from Sky.

As to the criteria, the main criterion is that the event has a special national resonance, not simply a significance to those who ordinarily follow the sport concerned. It is an event which serves to unite the nation, a shared point on the national calendar.

I should declare an interest. As chairman of the committee which produced this report, I am very happy to justify its recommendations and urge the Secretary of State to accept them.

Let me refer to the changes we have made to the status quo. At the moment the status quo provides for the events listed, thus protecting full live coverage. If an event is not listed, nothing is guaranteed. I concede the point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, that we have a voluntary code which is working well. I pay tribute both to the CCPR and the sports bodies for making it work well. It is, however, rather early to judge whether it will survive the test of full market forces.

One also has to bear in mind, without being unduly cynical, that perhaps people are on their best behaviour at the moment. There has been a change of government, and the election of a government which perhaps has not been as favourable towards non-terrestrial broadcasters as their predecessors. The fact that the Government looked immediately at this issue might have persuaded some sports organisations to behave slightly more responsibly than they might otherwise have done.

As to the changes that we have made to the criteria, the most publicised change is that we have removed full live coverage protection from Test cricket and placed it on to the secondary coverage protection list. We have done so for a very simple reason, which I hope does not cause offence to aficionados of cricket. It is very difficult to defend 30 days of cricket as a fixed point in the national calendar. It is a shared summer, not a shared point. If you list Test cricket then, logically, you should list Premier League football which, in total, takes up less time than the summer Test matches.

Another change we made, in response to one of the subsidiary criteria, was that the national team should be involved. I am a great fan of the World Cup—I would watch every match—but we cannot say that a match not involving one of the home nations is something of national resonance. Therefore we have said that World Cup matches which do not involve the home nations are not listed, with the exception of the semi-finals and final.

We have added, entirely logically, coverage of the European championships. In many ways they are just as important as the World Cup and, without being unduly pessimistic, perhaps the home nations stand a greater chance of progressing further in that tournament.

That is what we have done in terms of the listed events. Nothing else has been changed. We have added considerably to the protection afforded to sports which were previously denied any protection whatsoever other than that provided by the voluntary code. We thought that the existing system was inflexible in that it was all or nothing and we were anxious to reduce the impact of exclusivity.

Exclusivity is not the epitome of market forces. It is a denial of market forces. Why people who want a free market should think of exclusive coverage—which means paying more to keep the other fellow out and not compete—I do not know. Taking an analogy, if I owned a supermarket chain and bought up the entire supply of milk and said "You cannot buy milk even in a corner shop; you must come to my supermarket to get milk. Not only that, we will not sell you milk on its own but you have got to buy butter, eggs and bacon when you come in", would the Government of the day stand by idly and do nothing? I suggest that it would be regarded as unthinkable.

There is a danger that we can carry this too far. I do not think it is necessary to ensure that every store is allowed to stock a particular brand of trainer shoe for children. We might allow people to have a monopoly to sell one product like that, but not if the product is important enough, like milk. As the noble Lord mentioned, it is a force for the cohesion of society if certain sporting events are generally available on terrestrial television.

The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, mentioned that the market was doing this to some extent. I agree that there are some forces working in the direction of what we are trying to achieve. The point made in the report about advertising and sponsorship is important. The revenue gained by the broadcaster from selling broadcasting rights is only part of the equation. If that means that he puts his sport on a cable or satellite channel with much smaller audiences, as the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract, has pointed out, then the advertiser or sponsor would feel cheated and say "I want a wider audience for my product".

If sports are shown on terrestrial television they will secure more sponsorship and bigger advertising deals, which are equally important in raising revenue. Let me give an example from my own part of the world. We had a tournament called the Bells Scottish Open—sponsored, as the name indicates, by Bells Scotch Whisky—which took place at Gleneagles and was building up in importance because it was held the week immediately prior to the Open. Then the owners of the television rights decided to sell them to Sky. Bell's withdrew its sponsorship and the event no longer took place at Gleneagles. It lasted one further year, limping along at Carnoustie and now no longer exists as an event. That is a salutory lesson.

Even those who are not inspired by the altruism of making the sport available to young people—the missionary activity to which the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, referred—may well feel that, in their own self-interest, terrestrial television is the right way ahead. But there is a difficulty here. Knowing that the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, will be intervening later in the debate, I will simply refer to the rules of public service broadcasting. It is up to public service broadcasters to provide a wide range and balance in their programming. I must ask noble Lords, in all honesty, can we really say that ball-by-ball coverage of Test match cricket for 30 days in the summer does not despite the schedule, which should be serving a much wider audience than simply cricket lovers? I think the answer is that full coverage of certain events of long duration properly belongs on channels devoted entirely to sport. I agree that it is perhaps regrettable at the moment that such channels are only available by payment of an extra subscription.

Lord Orme

And it is a large one as well!

Lord Gordon of Strathblane

My Lords, it may well be a large one, but that is exactly why we have made sure that the alternative for those who do not want to pay that large subscription is not nothing but secondary coverage, which should be quite meaningful.

I therefore feel that the ITC is the proper body to administer this. We considered, obviously, the report of the DEMOS think tank which recommended that we should have an "Ofsport" just as we have Oftel and Ofwat. We decided that the ITC was the proper body to do this. But we must ensure that the secondary coverage provided is a meaningful alternative for the viewer who does not subscribe to cable or satellite. By meaningful coverage, I mean that within perhaps an hour of the finish of the event proper edited highlights are available. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that in many cases that is not perfect. I accept that, but there are many cases where it is slightly better. Those of your Lordships who have watched the Open Golf Championship will be aware that in the last few minutes there is only one couple coming down the fairway. The whole thing slows up. Highlights can remove the long hours. Talking of long hours, I take the broad hint that I may be indulging in them unless I finish rather quickly, so I will.

It is important that the Secretary of State accepts the recommendations. It is important that the ITC ensures that secondary coverage is meaningful. As a final point I would simply say that if eight people drawn from widely different backgrounds, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, says, reach a unanimous conclusion, perhaps that augurs well for the general acceptability of our report.

8.53 p.m.

Lord Orme

My Lords, I believe that my noble friend's analogy with supermarkets cornering the milk market could get him into some difficulty because that market is being cornered already in certain products and certain areas.

I am very disappointed with this report. It has weakened the case for national sporting events to be on television, both terrestrial and independent as a right. That is a blow to millions of people on small incomes who cannot afford cable television. I can afford it and so can many other people, but many people from inner city areas, who I represented when I was in the other place, cannot. People complain about the cost of a television licence for BBC, which is £92 a year, but to watch sporting events on Sky costs me and other people £360 a year. Many people cannot afford to have cable TV.

I should like to deal specifically with the issue of cricket. My noble friend mentioned cricket coverage 25 days a year. That is exactly what Sky intend to show if it takes control of the coverage. It will put cricket on a sports channel. I would like to know why BBC and ITV cannot have a sports channel. Why should it just be Sky? Let us face it, at the back of all this we are dealing with the Murdoch millions. That is where the pressure is coming from; he is capturing markets. One can already see in pay-to-view television, for instance, how boxing started out at £15 for an evening's entertainment. That has gone up to almost £17 and is increasing all the time. What would happen if the company finished up with a complete monopoly? There is a real problem in that regard.

I turn to the issue of cricket. I declare an interest here as a member of Lancashire Cricket Club and a lifelong cricket supporter. I believe that Test Match cricket is second to none in its appeal to millions of people. But, compared to soccer and rugby, cricket is a minority sport. We want to get more people playing and more people watching, but the one way not to do so is to put it on Sky or cable television because they will remove it.

I know that those involved in cricket want more money. I know that they lobbied my noble friend's committee very strongly with regard to cable TV companies being able to buy out television companies. In the short term, they may receive the money, but in the longer term there is the question of attracting young people into watching and playing cricket like many other sports.

We can see what is happening now in soccer; how it is being handled and diverted into certain areas where it is impossible for people to watch. I know that cable television operates very professionally, but there is a real danger here. It is a danger that the advisory committee, in my opinion, did not take into account. I believe that it has seriously weakened the case for listed events, and I believe that is the thin end of the wedge.

If we give cricket to cable television it will be game, set and match so far as the major sporting events in Britain are concerned; that is, soccer, rugby, tennis, which is going in that direction, and cricket. That is the area where it will have an effect upon our national viewing. For instance, on the question of 25 to 30 days coverage of cricket, many older people watch Test Match cricket in the daytime. Many of them are retired, many are on low incomes. They cannot afford Sky or cable TV and therefore have to rely on terrestrial television. I do not believe that the committee took into account the effect of moving Test Match cricket away from that particular area.

I shall be interested to hear what my noble friend has to say about the Secretary of State. I believe that the Secretary of State must take into account the many views which have been expressed in reply to my noble friend's advisory committee. He must look at the issue from the point of view of what is best for the majority; what is best for those who cannot afford cable television; what is best for those who want to see such events. I hope that the Secretary of State rejects many of the proposals.

9 P.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, has done the House a good service by introducing this timely debate on an extremely important report. I very much agree with the noble Lord and other noble Lords who have spoken that it would have been an even better debate had Lord Howell been spared to take part in it.

The noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, and his colleagues have made a courageous attempt to balance the intensely opposing and difficult conflicting interests in the broadcasting of great sporting events. From these Benches, we broadly support the conclusions that the committee has reached.

I am a Scot and I speak about cricket, as did, no doubt, the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, conscious that cricket is not a major sport in Scotland. But I should say to noble Lords who are concerned about it that there is a real practical problem about cricket in the modern broadcasting scene because of the length of each match—a Test Match is a five day match—and the cumulative effect of 30 days. If only cricket were like Wimbledon, for example, where you could have a final day or two with the climax of the event as operates in relation to Wimbledon, it would be a different matter. But sadly cricket is a very special sort of game which does not lend itself to that kind of finality. Given the present state of the England cricket team, generally the fifth day is not required for that purpose.

Therefore, I personally support what the committee has recommended to the Government in that respect. However, I do not underestimate the courage that the Secretary of State may require if he is to remove the home Test Matches from among the "Crown Jewels" of protected events. I hope that he will have that courage.

As the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, emphasised—and I very much agree with him—the price of the kind of proposals which the committee makes, and which applies in particular to the major changes that there would be in relation to cricket Test Matches, is that there should be effective arrangements for secondary coverage. I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, and his committee had the terms of reference and the framework set for them. But we on these Benches take the view that the report itself does not and, indeed, could not really go to the root of where the public interest lies in achieving the right balance between the free-to-air viewing on terrestrial channels, which is still the major source of broadcasting for the large majority of viewers and will be the major source of broadcasting for quite a long time ahead, and the pay-to-view television of satellite or cable.

The heart of the problem is that paid-for broadcast sport has been allowed to become a virtual monopoly of one operator; that is, Rupert Murdoch's Sky Television. In the absence of effective statutory regulation, Sky Television has naturally made the most of its monopoly. We should not complain about it acting as a monopolist does act, but we do complain about the inadequacy of the legislative arrangements to deal with that.

The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, mentioned the English Cricket Board. The information which the BBC has given to me—and perhaps has also given to him—is rather different from the view which the noble Viscount expressed. In relation to next year's cricket world cup, the BBC reports that, the ECB sold all rights into one market, effectively making Sky the broker for the extent of live coverage on terrestrial television. Their interest, naturally, is to release as little as possible free to air—for instance should England reach the semi-final, only those with the ability to pay will see any live coverage". That is a very unsatisfactory situation.

Therefore, within the two-tiered system that the committee has recommended to the Government, it will be vitally important to have effective arrangements for secondary coverage. That was the issue with which we wrestled during the course of the 1996 Broadcasting Bill in which Lord Howell played such a prominent part. The result of that was the voluntary code and the compromise arrangements which arose out of that.

I do not follow those matters as closely as I once did, but I do not know whether I am pleased or puzzled by the fact that the code and monitoring arrangements do not seem to have been needed to be brought into operation at all. I feel very sceptical about the way it is operating and I feel that there is a great need to strengthen those arrangements. Speaking personally, I know only that to watch live Premier League football, I not only have to subscribe to BSkyB but I also have to buy a bundle of other channels to which I do not wish to subscribe. I only know that to watch "Match of the Day" on BBC—and that is a poor substitute for live BBC football—I have to sit up too late on a Saturday night for a septuagenarian like myself, or get up too early on a Sunday morning, which is even worse.

Even within the limits of the report, it has the aim of ensuring that, there is good secondary coverage available on free-to-air channels". That will demand, I believe, more vigorous implementation of the code by the sports rights holders and more vigorous regulation by the broadcasting authorities. If I read the report rightly, I believe that that was the thrust of what was said.

However, it probably demands more than that. Indeed, I was encouraged by the fact that the committee in its major recommendation about secondary coverage said that the Secretary of State, should investigate the possibility of such a revised framework", which the report describes and, if its implementation proves impossible … he [should] introduce early legislation to facilitate it". From these Benches we strongly endorse that aim. In fact, I would go further. I believe that what is required to deal with the new broadcasting landscape with its proliferation of channels is a new broadcasting Bill, which will deal quite fundamentally and fairly with the present distortion that exists in broadcast sport between pay television and public service television.

Surely in a world where the digital channels are now going to proliferate—and I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Orme, said—it should be practicable and possible as a matter of public policy to ensure that some of these new digital channels can be dedicated free-to-air channels, covering the sports that substantial sections of the population enjoy. It is my hope that what will eventually arise from this useful report will be the Government's acceptance of its recommendations.

9.8 p.m.

Lord Skidelsky

My Lords, perhaps I may, first, add my tribute to those already expressed to the late Lord Howell, whose contributions on sporting matters will be sorely missed in this House, not least tonight. I, too, welcome the report. I believe that the Government are in a quandary over the live coverage of sporting events on television.

The Secretary of State has given a commitment that major sporting events will remain on what is mistakenly called "free to air" television. I say, "mistakenly", because of course it is not free. On the other hand, the Government are under pressure from sporting bodies to allow them to strike the best deal that they can. That deal will almost certainly be with Sky, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who naturally wants to increase the number of subscribers to his programmes. It is a nice circle to square, and the Government sensibly set up a committee which has produced a sensible report—a report, which the noble Lord, Lord Lofthouse, has given us the opportunity to discuss tonight.

As the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, reminded us, his report was in response to published criteria which had been issued. A-listed events must be broadcast live on BBC, ITV or Channel 4—the main ones being the Olympics, international football championships, the Wimbledon finals, the Grand National and the Derby. There is a further category of B-listed events which can be broadcast live on satellite TV, provided that edited highlights are also available on free to air terrestrial channels.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, objected to edited highlights. I must confess that I am an unrepentant highlight person, except for Jimmy Connors of whom I can never get enough; indeed, I buy all full-length videos of his matches. I even hold the heretical view that edited highlights of our own debates in this House are rather more enjoyable than the live, full-length versions. Test matches have been moved to List B because the time that they take presents serious scheduling problems. That seems to be a sensible compromise.

I said that I welcome the report, but I wish it had been a bit more forward looking. I shall return to that point later. I agree with the report when it says that sporting events which have a "national resonance" and represent a, shared, fixed point on the national calender", should continue to be listed. Such events provide unifying moments which reinforce our sense of national identity in an enjoyable and perfectly harmless way. In ancient Greece they interrupted wars to enable the Olympics to take place. We have turned our great sporting occasions into substitutes for war, which must be an improvement.

However, the fact remains that these events would not be available to the whole population if they were shown exclusively on a subscription or a pay-per-view basis. Indeed, 97 per cent. of households have television but, whereas the licence fee is £91 a year, Sky Sports costs £300 a year. I did not quite agree with the noble Lord, Lord Orme, that people have an unlimited right to watch as much cricket on television as they like. That seemed to be the thrust of his argument. But I believe that other viewers have rights. Public service broadcasting has to strike a balance between the rights of aficionados and those who want to watch other programmes.

Lord Orme

My Lords, I said, in effect, that there will still be 30 days of that viewing if it passes to cable television, as cable has three sports channels. The point I was making, which I think the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, endorsed, was that ITV and BBC should have their own sports channels; in that case the viewing I mentioned would not impinge on other programmes.

Lord Skidelsky

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that intervention. That may well become possible when digital television is introduced. I shall discuss that in a moment. I am presenting one side—the side for listing. On the other hand, it is undoubtedly true that more money would come into sport if franchises were auctioned off to the highest bidder. Funds from satellite television have transformed football finances, the current contract being worth £742 million a year to the clubs. The noble Lord, Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, argued last year that the Government should lift restrictions on the sale of test match rights on exactly those grounds. The ECB has commended the advisory group's report which proposes in effect to do that.

The broader context for this debate—as my noble friend Lord Astor has pointed out—is the huge increase in choice of programming that the new technology makes possible. I believe that will help to solve many of the problems of access which have troubled some noble Lords this evening. The current analogue terrestrial broadcast technology offers five channels. Digital terrestrial television will offer 30 channels from the autumn. Digital satellite will offer the possibility of up to 200 channels from this summer; in theory, cable could support up to 1,000 channels. That will break up the Sky monopoly in due course. The reason for this proliferation is that digital compression allows use of the spectrum to be much more efficient than current analogue technology and will hugely increase the capacity of the different delivery platforms. This does not necessarily mean that there will be more choice of what to watch, but there will certainly be more of whatever it is you choose to watch. As satellite sports channels have shown, some people are willing to pay a significant premium to get a lot of what they are interested in.

A general, all-purpose TV channel, which is all the current analogue terrestrial channels can ever be, cannot compete with the scope for specialisation which the new technology offers. The likely growth of subscribers to digital terrestrial will surely undermine not only the monopoly of Sky as at present but also the case for the old licence basis of financing. Eventually people will pay for whatever package of channels they want. In the meantime I wish to congratulate the advisory group on a balanced report. I am sure that the Government will give serious thought to its recommendations as well as to the views expressed here tonight.

9.17 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, this debate is, of course, overshadowed by the sudden death of Denis Howell. I cannot hope in any way to emulate his lifetime of experience, skill and knowledge in sporting matters. I remember that he never took himself too seriously and was always willing to accept or even make jokes about himself. I was reminded by an obituary today of his story about refereeing a match in which the young Jimmy Greaves played. He had cause to be in dispute with Jimmy Greaves and asked, "Who do you think is refereeing this match?", to which Jimmy Greaves replied, "I don't know but I'm sure it isn't either of us." Denis Howell was a great man and we would have benefited greatly from his presence tonight. He had intended to be present.

I suppose that I have peculiar qualifications to speak in this debate in the sense that I vary between having a small interest in sport and no interest whatsoever, with no interest in sport being the dominant characteristic. Perhaps that is a good thing, as I can be entirely neutral as between the claims of different sports for attention and coverage. As noble Lords know perfectly well that my response to the Question of my noble friend Lord Lofthouse will be to stonewall rather than to give the Government's response to the advisory group's report, I can do so with a good deal of conviction without any personal prejudices coming into the matter. I suppose I also represent a group referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky—those who are interested in other subjects on television or radio; those who believe (to adapt the famous phrase) that coverage of sport has increased, is increasing and should be diminished. I hasten to say that that is not the view of the Government.

The advisory group's report is a quite remarkable document in a short space. It recognises the argument for wide availability of sport. At the same time it recognises the needs of the sports themselves. Noble Lords are right to demand that the Government should think carefully about the recommendations of my noble friend Lord Gordon and his colleagues before coming to a conclusion and making that conclusion public. I can confirm straight away that this debate will be an important part of the consultation process. For that reason again I shall not attempt to pre-empt the conclusions the Government may draw.

It is significant that my noble friend's report was unanimous despite the wide variety of membership of the group—a deliberately wide variety consisting of members of great distinction in all matters relating to sport and broadcasting. Reference has been made to the criteria which the Secretary of State set down for the report. Minimal criteria are prescribed in the Broadcasting Act 1996, but after extensive consultation the Secretary of State felt—I have heard no disagreement with that tonight—that it was necessary to be more explicit in setting out the criteria for listing than was possible in legislation.

Of course the advisory group could have taken the populist view and simply recommended a much longer list, as my noble friend Lord Gordon rightly said. But the group recognises that, whether or not we like it, sport is now big business. It requires investment in facilities, in providing for the safety and comfort of those who go to see sporting events, and in particular in training and bringing new people into sport. When I read some of the reactions to the report, and having heard some of the contributions tonight, I wonder whether it follows that the best deal, as the noble Lord. Lord Skidelsky, said, will almost always be Sky. I thought that the example given by my noble friend Lord Gordon of the Scottish Open was a good one.

It is important to remember that, in considering the best deal for them, the governing bodies of sports in this country will not simply take the largest amount of money available from the deal itself but will be concerned with the possibilities of sponsorship, advertising support and, above all, the popularisation of the sport. As has been rightly said, that is more possible from terrestrial television with its much larger audiences than from Sky. Sky, pay-to-view and subscription television will always be more restricted to fans for obvious economic reasons—and, as my noble friends Lord Lofthouse and Lord Orme rightly said, on the whole to the better off fans. That is a serious problem. But the popularity of sports will be very much greater if the boards of control take into account what can be achieved indirectly by making their sports available on terrestrial free-to-view television. I do not know any alternative to that phrase.

At the same time, it is quite right to say that none of these issues is set in concrete; they are not going to survive the arrival of digital television from the end of this year—although I suspect it will take much longer to be fully operational than some people now think. Clearly, digital television will need attractive programmes in order to justify investment by viewers in the set-top boxes or in the new television sets themselves. Clearly sport will play some part. But a very large part of digital television is going to be free-to-view and will overcome some of the problems of competition between sport and other subjects on our television screens, whether terrestrial, satellite or cable.

So I do not accept the view of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, that somehow my noble friend's report is detrimental to the development of digital television. I take rather the view of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, that we shall have to see how digital television advances. It may well be that whatever decisions we take now in relation to listed events will have to be changed when digital television takes root.

There have been a number of references to individual sports—notably and most powerfully to Rugby League by my noble friends Lord Lofthouse and Lord Orme. We recognise the devotion of many thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands or millions, of people to Rugby League. However, it is important that we should not get into the habit of thinking of listing, in the sense in which it is used here, as an honours list, and that if an event is listed it is somehow a better or more important sport. That is not the issue at all—

Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract

My Lords, perhaps my noble friend will give way. I certainly appreciate the point that he just made. However, does he not think that the request that I have made on behalf of rugby—namely, one match a year, to the massive benefit of the youth who have an interest in the game and the elderly who want to watch television—is a rather modest request and that serious consideration should be given to it?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, of course I understand the powerful emotion behind that idea. The point that I want to make about all the reactions to the Gordon Report is that listing does not mean that any particular match will be shown on terrestrial television. It is simply not true to say that if an event is listed it will be shown on terrestrial television, and that if it is not listed it will not be shown. I sought to argue that the case for a wide audience for Rugby League, and for the Challenge Cup in particular, does not depend on whether or not the event is listed. It seems to me highly unlikely that, even if it is not listed, the Rugby League authorities themselves will go for an exclusive deal with Sky which would stop the event being shown on terrestrial television. There are failures in logic, at least in some of the press discussion that I have seen. Listing gives no certainty of showing on terrestrial television, and non-listing does not give certainty of exclusive pay-to-view or subscription deals, or the exclusion of terrestrial deals. That is the context in which we should be examining the whole issue of listed events.

I recognise of course the force of the arguments for the importance of Rugby League football and the force of the arguments by my noble friend Lord Orme for cricket; but I remind him that the noble Lord, Lord MacLaurin, the Chairman of the English Cricket Board, has himself said that, whether or not there is listing, he wishes to keep English cricket on terrestrial television. Since he is a member of the body that makes decisions about the deals that are done with broadcasters, I believe that that should be taken with a considerable degree of seriousness.

No one will be satisfied with everything that is said in any report, particularly a report which obviously has within it an element of compromise because it is unanimous. However, I believe that the welcome which my noble friend Lord Gordon has received from the Liberal Democrat and Conservative Front Benches ought to weigh with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. He will make his own decision. I am not in any way pre-empting that decision, but I believe that the debate we have had this evening will help him to do that. I hope that it will be possible for him to make his decision responsibly and after proper consideration, within a very few weeks. I repeat the expressions of gratitude which have been made to my noble friend Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract for introducing this important subject.

House adjourned at twenty-nine minutes before ten o'clock.