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Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting for allowing me to say a few words. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Selby on initiating the debate.
I very much hope that tonight the Minister can give us a real and absolute commitment to the 1998 listed events legislation and confirm that our Government, the Labour Government, will not be bullied by Kirch on this issue. We, the football fans throughout the United Kingdom, will stand up and say that the World cup in 2002 and in 2006 must be available across the UK on free-to-air TV. We can, as a House, send that clear message to Kirch tonight, and make it plain that, as The Guardian said, we do not want any auction swept under the carpet. Kirch should come clean and speak to the House of Commons, and specifically to Ministers, about its plans, which it has simply failed to do in the past few weeks.
Nine World cups have now been jointly covered by the BBC and ITV in this country, with growing audiences each time. It is clearly a successful formula for Britain, football fans and the United Kingdom. They say that football is the beautiful game. It is for me at the moment, because I am a Brighton and Hove Albion supporter, and not only have we been promoted but we are about to win our first championship for 36 years. But the World cup is the biggest event in football--the greatest football tournament in the world--and every single person in this country should be able to enjoy it on free-to-air television.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Janet Anderson): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) for bringing this very important issue to the attention of the House. I am only sorry that the Opposition Benches are empty, because I think it a matter of great importance to many people in this country. I am well aware of the considerable concern among Members of the House about television coverage of the football World cup finals tournament. That has been clear in the list of signatories to my hon. Friend's early-day motion on the subject, and I welcome the opportunity to address some of those concerns.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin) for his contribution. He has freely admitted that he is a football fanatic. I could not describe myself in that way--although my two sons could probably be put in that category--but I should like to take the opportunity to wish Blackburn Rovers all the best for the coming Saturday and look forward to its promotion to the premiership, which is where it truly belongs.
We all know the importance of sport--and particularly of football, our national game--to the everyday life of so many people. We also know that the health of sport in this country depends to a great extent on the broadcasting sector. Television income is used to develop sport at all levels. A number of major United Kingdom sports invest a substantial proportion of broadcasting revenue at the grass roots under the Central Council of Physical Recreation's voluntary code on broadcasting. Sport has also been vital to the development of many new television services in recent years. The emerging success of digital television has been largely driven by subscription services and, in particular, by coverage of major sporting competitions. The nation has a great appetite for televised sport, and that shows no signs of abating.
The Government do not intervene unnecessarily in the sports broadcasting market. Our main concern is to ensure that everyone has access to those events which have a clear national resonance. Those events, including the World cup finals tournament, form part of the national calendar and make an important contribution to our sense of national identity. They are included in the list drawn up for the purposes of part IV of the Broadcasting Act 1996. Those listed events have a central place in our national life.
Although the broadcasting rights to those occasions are owned by governing bodies, many people regard them as public property. People have come to expect to be able to see those events covered live without having to pay extra for the privilege.
In relation to the World cup, listing seeks to ensure that free-to-air broadcasters, with a reach of at least 95 per cent. of the population, are given a fair and reasonable opportunity to acquire the rights to broadcast live coverage of such crown jewel events. At present, those broadcasters are the BBC, the ITV network and Channel 4. Listing does not guarantee that any event will be broadcast live. Rights holders are not required to sell live rights and broadcasters are not obliged to purchase them or to show the events. However, the legislation clearly stipulates that where live rights are made available for the World cup, they must be made available to free-to-air broadcasters on fair and reasonable terms.
The Independent Television Commission is responsible for ensuring compliance with the 1996 Act and maintains a code on the operation of the legislation. Any United Kingdom broadcaster that obtains the rights to live coverage of the World cup cannot broadcast exclusively live in the UK without first seeking the consent of the ITC. The ITC will wish to be satisfied that broadcasters had a genuine opportunity to acquire the rights on fair and reasonable terms--it is important to emphasise that point--taking into account various criteria set out in its code.
There is no doubt that the World cup has a special place in the nation's heart, as my hon. Friends have mentioned. The whole tournament, which involved 64 matches in 1998, has been listed in its entirety since 1985. Interest in World cup matches goes well beyond those involving the home nations. FIFA requires that the opening game, the semi-finals and the final should be shown on free-to-air television, and we would expect those matches to attract large audiences in the UK and elsewhere, but the interest in many of the other matches is perhaps more surprising. During the 1998 tournament, the average UK viewing figure for all matches was 8.4 million. That is an astonishing figure and, even if the prime matches that I mentioned a moment ago are excluded, the average viewing figures for the rest was 6.7 million.
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend say that the British Government are taking a robust position. Does she agree that the signal that a robust defence of this country's crown jewel matches would send to the world is important in ensuring that it is understood that sporting events across the world should not simply be hoovered up by those who wish to restrict viewing to a minority audience who happen to have the wherewithal to see them? Does she therefore agree that what she is talking about could well be of much greater significance than just to the viewing public in the UK?