ED Miliband is set to pledge a change in the law to ensure that the Scottish national team’s football matches and iconic events such as the golf Open Championship are shown on free-to-air television, in the biggest shake-up of UK broadcast rights for sport in 20 years.
Labour is expected to include a commitment in its general election manifesto to ensure that major sporting events such as World cup qualifying games involving the Home Nations and events such as the Open Championship are shown on terrestrial TV and protected from being sold off to pay subscription channels such as Sky Sports.The move came after it emerged that the BBC could controversially lose the rights to show the iconic golf tournament The Open, which is this year being staged at St Andrews, to Sky, with a decision expected within the next few weeks.
Sky Sports currently holds the rights to both home and away qualifiers for Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup involving the national side. But that deal expires after the 2018 qualifiers.
However, Scotland on Sunday has learned that Miliband is set to include a specific pledge for his manifesto to be published this spring, which would return international football matches to free-to-air view, when the existing Sky contract expires in 2018.
Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy last night threw his weight behind the move as he said viewing live major sports events like the Open and international football “shouldn’t be a minority sport for only those who can afford satellite television subscriptions”.
Murphy, who last year penned a book on football - The 10 Football Matches That Changed The World - said he would support the move if he is re-elected as the East Renfrewshire MP in May’s election.
He said: “There’s a real optimism about Gordon Strachan’s Scotland team. But our national team shouldn’t be a minority sport for only those who can afford satellite television subscriptions. I want all Scotland national games to be shown on free to air terrestrial TV. Everybody in Scotland should be able to watch national team games without having to pay extra or go out to the pub.
“Scotland national games can unite everybody across the country. They are one of the sporting occasions that should be available to all.”
Under Labour’s plan events such as the Golf Open, the World Cup and Euro qualifying games of the footballing Home Nations and some Test match cricket would be protected for terrestrial TV. A senior source on Miliband’s Westminster staff stated the Labour leader viewed the plan as a “good idea”, which shadow culture and broadcasting minister Chris Bryant is now working on in time for the launch of the party’s manifesto ahead of the election on 7 May 2015.
The move would represent the biggest overhaul of the law on TV rights for major sports matches since 1992, when Sky controversially acquired the rights to the English Premier league.
Scotland on Sunday previously reported that the SNP would use the powers of an independent nation to apply to the European Union to have Scotland’s national football matches shown on free-to-air TV, if there had been a Yes vote.
However, Miliband is expected to pledge that the next Labour government will itself use EU rules that allows member states the option to draw up a list of sporting or cultural events – their “Crown Jewels” – which are of major importance to society, to be broadcast on free-to-air TV, such as The Open and international football.
Miliband is understood to be keen to follow the example of nations such as Denmark, Ireland and Belgium, which all have their national football teams’ World Cup and Euro qualifying matches protected for network TV.
The terrestrial TV station RTE in the Irish Republic has the same rights as Sky to show the national team’s matches, in an arrangement that means the Football Association of Ireland does not lose revenue from the pay-per-view broadcaster.
John Grogan, who served as the Labour MP for Selby in three parliaments, campaigned for the inclusion of sports such as Test Match cricket on the list presented to the EU, although Gordon Brown’s government failed to introduce any legislation on the issue.
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Grogan, who is a key Miliband ally and Labour’s General Election candidate in the Keighley constituency, said he had now received written assurances from the party leadership at Westminster that it is set to include the pledge for a sports broadcasting shake-up in its manifesto.
He said: “There is real urgency about this issue with the reports that the rights to the Open could be sold to Sky.
“I’ve been given very positive and very firm signals from senior Labour shadow cabinet members that the listing of major sports events such as the Scottish national side’s World Cup matches and the Open are being actively looked at for Labour’s programme for government.”
Labour MSP Richard Baker, who is standing as his party’s Westminster candidate for Aberdeen North, said he would help the party pursue the plan to ensure major sports events are on free-to-air TV, if he is elected as an MP.
Baker, welcoming the move, said: “This proposal is a very important one for Scotland. If major sporting events such as the national side’s football matches and the Open are only available to those who can afford pay for subscription TV, then it clearly reduces the numbers of people who can watch them, despite a massive national following for these events.
“On an important issues like this I hope we can get consensus, but it’s now clearly only going to happen with a Labour government at Westminster rather than Scottish independence.
“Given the speculation about the loss of the rights to the British Open this is an even more pressing issue and I’m keen to be part of taking that forward.”
Under EU rules governments are effectively protected from legal challenges over sporting events given protected status.
The list of events available for Scottish viewers on network TV includes the Challenge Cup final for rugby league, which mainly involves teams with a fanbase in northern England.