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7.15 p.m.

Lord Howell: My Lords, we have had a most fascinating debate thus far, but we are not even halfway through as yet. Therefore, I shall do my best not to impose upon the generosity of the House. I should like to thank the Minister for the way that he approached his task and especially to welcome some of the new proposals being laid upon the governors, in particular as regards determining strategies.

I shall talk mainly about sport this evening. It has not had much of a look-in so far, although it has been mentioned here and there. I shall also talk about how we finance sport on the BBC, which in fact has had no look-in whatever in tonight's debate. I suppose that most of the sporting public--for example, the 16 million who watched the Cup Final--will regard our debate as having had an extraordinary absence of reality. I say that because, apart from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, who, if I may say so, dealt with his subject extremely well in a splendid speech, we have not got down to talking about what people actually see on their television screens. I wonder what all those millions of sporting viewers would actually think of the debate if they happened to read a report of it. They might think that it was academic, intellectual and almost esoteric in parts.

How can we have a debate on the future of BBC sport without mentioning the name of Mr. Rupert Murdoch? Indeed, his name has not been mentioned in today's debate. Nevertheless, he will determine what the future of BBC sport will be. As I said, I welcome the fact that the governors will now have to develop a strategy. I wish them well. Indeed, some of us would be happy to try to assist them, because it is essential for them to develop a strategy in respect of sport.

In his opening speech the Minister said that the Government were determined that the BBC should maintain its position in public service broadcasting and that it should do so mainly on the licensing revenue. The noble Lord looks puzzled; if he did not say those words, I am well pleased. If we are to rely on the licensing revenue to enable the BBC to broadcast sport, I have to that that is an impossible proposition. I do not direct those remarks just to the Minister; indeed, I do so also, with great care, to my noble friend Lord Donoughue who also talked about some of the difficulties of financing public service broadcasting without becoming too commercial. I am sure that that is an aim which we should all like to achieve.

In my view, BBC sport faces a catastrophic situation unless we can face up to the financing crisis which is afflicting it. Indeed, not a week goes by without us finding that the BBC has lost yet another vitally important sporting contract. The FA Cup has now gone to independent television, but that is a terrestrial channel so we cannot complain too much about it. However, it raises the question as to whether the BBC has the finances to compete even against independent television. Moreover, in many other sports that I shall mention shortly we find that the same story applies.

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We shall be discussing the Broadcasting Bill next week. In that respect, it will be absolutely vital in the interests of the BBC, and, indeed, of the other terrestrial channels, to discuss such questions as the listed events which we have to protect or expand if we are to be fair to the large number of viewers. It is our duty to protect those viewers through this Charter and through this debate.

I am particularly saddened that the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, is not in the Chamber at the moment because I wanted to take issue with him as he wished to sell 40 million viewers down the river as regards their television licences. He said they could all afford to pay for the licence and that he could afford to do so. Obviously some of us can afford to pay for it. I declare an interest as a director of a Birmingham cable company. I have two subscriptions to cable television, one in Birmingham and one in Westminster. My bill for the Westminster subscription arrived this morning. The bill for the sport and news channels, which is all I have, is £18.71 a month. That kind of figure is not within the reach of the 40 million people who do not have access to Sky Television or to cable television. It is our duty to defend their rights today.

We cannot allow the coverage of certain events to fall, one after another, to Mr. Murdoch. The situation will get worse with the arrival of digital television and pay television. That will aggravate the problem. One will only be able to watch first-class sporting events if one can afford to pay more than the normal licence fee. The BBC is starved of cash and therefore it cannot carry out its responsibilities. The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, and my noble friend Lord Donoughue referred to the matter of revenue. I think all of us would agree that the present BBC licence fee must be the best value for money in the land when we consider what we get for it in terms of radio, the World Service and television. Now the BBC must confront the high costs of technology and the threat of Mr. Murdoch and Sky Television.

We have to face the fact that new income is desperately needed. Therefore I do not rule out some form of pay television on the BBC that is available to the broad mass of people. However, I am much more interested in the development of sponsored programmes. I am not sure that all of my colleagues would go along with this line, but I cannot for the life of me understand why the BBC is not allowed to sponsor specific sports programmes, because the truth is that that is what it is doing now. Hardly a sports programme appears on our television which is not sponsored by someone. The people who receive the money are the leagues or associations, the governing bodies of the sport, the clubs and the players. All that is being broadcast by BBC Television as sponsored sport. The only people who do not get a penny out of it are the BBC, who are broadcasting the programmes into our homes. That seems to me to be rather a ludicrous situation.

We must ask from where the BBC can obtain more money, particularly for sports coverage. There should be a modest increase in the licence fee. That is important to protect public service broadcasting. However, it would seem to me that we should examine the matter of sponsored programmes producing an income for the

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BBC rather than for everyone else who is receiving the income now. As I have said, we have sponsored programmes now. We must consider how to finance the BBC in the new technological era of Sky Television and Mr. Murdoch.

We only have to consider what the BBC has lost. It has lost football coverage. Rugby League and Rugby Union have both been lost. Mr. Murdoch is on the prowl. I am told that he is after the Olympics and he is willing to negotiate for them. I would certainly want to protect the Olympic Games if we extend the list of protected events. The BBC has coverage of Wimbledon pretty well to the end of the century but let us make no mistake about it, Mr. Murdoch and Sky Television have set their sights on that too. Athletics coverage moved from the BBC to independent television a year or two ago and has now found that it has been left in the lurch by independent television, which will no longer televise those events. I hope that coverage of those events will return to the BBC if the BBC has the resources to pay for that. The same story applies to golf.

I would cite as an example of the competition that the BBC is up against the fact that Mr. Murdoch is trying to bid for the Five Nations rugby competition for a fee of £25 million a year. That is five times what the BBC can pay for the same event. That gives us an illustration of the size of the problem that is facing us. As I say, Sky Television and Mr. Murdoch are determined to devour BBC sports coverage first and independent television sports coverage next.

I wish to say a few words about the duties of the governing bodies of sport. That matter has quite rightly already been mentioned. The governing bodies of sport have responsibilities to the public, as have the BBC and the Government. However, in my judgment, many of those governing bodies of sport are not carrying out those duties in the way they should. They are selling their sports short for the highest amount of money they can get. They do not have enough sense to see that when Mr. Murdoch has gained coverage of all the sports he will drop his fees. They are making themselves hostages to fortune. Financially it is shortsighted nonsense for sporting bodies to have regard solely to the financial attractions offered by Sky Television.

Quite apart from the financial side, if anyone has responsibility for the broad mass of supporters of a sport it is the governing bodies just as much as the Government. I am told that often members of the governing bodies of sport find that their rights have been signed away, in many cases without any debate. I urge them to ask themselves what their duty to the nation is. An elementary consideration that does not seem to have occurred to many of those bodies is that, if coverage of all sport is on Sky Television, masses of young people may well be deprived of the opportunity of viewing a sport, getting excited about it and becoming future adherents of that sport. It is self-defeating nonsense to go down that road.

A balance needs to be struck. Of course the governing bodies want to earn as much as they can from television coverage of sport and of course the BBC does not pay them as much as it should. I urge the Government and

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everyone else to address that problem and to consider how the BBC can address that problem. However, at the end of the day, the governing bodies have a responsibility to ensure that their sport is broadcast to the nation and is available in the homes of those 40 million people, many of whom cannot afford Sky Television but have supported sport throughout their lives by attending sporting events in person. When they are elderly and perhaps infirm they are entitled to expect the governing bodies to think of their interests as viewers as well as their own financial interests.

I have tried to speak as briefly as I can. However, I should add that the precious quality of BBC broadcasting is being eroded before our eyes. We in Parliament in discussing this Charter, and the Government when we debate the Broadcasting Bill, have a duty to protect that quality for the broad mass of people in this country.

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