The debate about the public’s right to watch great sporting events
without having to pay through the nose to BSkyB is one of the most
cynical I have witnessed for some time.
What is really happening is that the canny BBC has taken advantage of
the Government’s wafer-thin majority and whipped up a populist storm to
protect the eight ‘listed events’. With the backing of Labour and some
Tory MPs led by David Mellor, the lobbyists may well succeed in forcing
an amendment into the Broadcasting Bill now going through Parliament.
But a small victory on this front will not stop the logic of the
marketplace or turn back the clock to a time when 24-hour pay sports
channels did not exist, or pay-per-view not loom. And the intellectual
case such a victory would rest upon is flimsy in the extreme.
The list of sports events is rooted in the 1950s, when television was in
its infancy, and is as out of date as the Morris Minor. One of the eight
‘gems’ - the Boat Race - can hardly be termed a national event any more;
and there are no top golfing or snooker events on it.
This approach also assumes that major sporting events bind the nation
together and that this is a good thing. To many women this sounds like a
But the real issue is whether Parliament and the law should be dragged
into the rapidly changing market for sporting rights on the rocky
pretext of the public interest? Should the market be rigged to give
terrestrial broadcasters special privileges in perpetuity at the expense
of the holders of sports rights?
And why should we assume that top sporting events should be freely
available, when we pay to view great British-produced films and expect
entertainers and talent to migrate to the channel which offers them the
best deal. If Pavarotti decided to perform in Hyde Park again, should we
petition our MPs to force his agents to negotiate with the BBC this
time, rather than Sky?
The best argument in defence of the public interest is that some of
these sports, such as football, belong in a wider sense to the public:
they are games nurtured over the years by school teams and loyal
The BBC is opening up a second attack, by arguing that the sports bodies
should be forced in future to ‘unbundle’ sports rights into component
parts, pay television, free-to-air recorded highlights etc, spreading
coverage outwards. What it objects to is the way BSkyB can buy
‘monopoly’ rights and then decide whether or not to whistle up a junior
dancing partner (the BBC or ITV) for secondary rights.
There is merit to a limited degree of unbundling. It would temper
BSkyB’s power, without destroying the value of exclusive live coverage,
and by allowing access to those without pay television, pander to our
ever-present sense of fair play. Surely a set of voluntary ground rules
could be devised?