Friday, 2 September 2011

Senior MP's Letter To Director General Of BBC

Don Foster MP, the Liberal Democrat spokesman for Culture, Media and Sport, letter to BBC director general Mark Thompson below in full courtesy of http://bathlibdems.org.uk/en/ .



Mark Thompson

Director General

Broadcasting House

Portland Place

London

W1A 1AA

31 August 2011


Dear Mark,

I am writing regarding the announcement that Formula 1 races will no longer be broadcast exclusively on a free to air channel, and in particular the explanations that have been offered about how this deal came about.

I do not believe plans to share coverage between the BBC and Sky promote the best interests of license fee payers and motor racing fans. I believe the best result would have been for the rights to remain with a free to air broadcaster, even if this was not the BBC. Neil Land's "Secondary Stage response to complaints" addressed this and other points, and I understand you will be commenting on his explanation shortly. As part of your considerations, I hope you will be willing to look at a number of difficulties I have with what he has said.

My main concern is that your account of who made the key decisions behind the agreement does not agree with the version of events given by Formula One Management.

Bernie Ecclestone made clear that, "We want Formula One to stay free to viewers […] That is 100%" (quoted in The Times, 20 June).

He added, "If they [Channel 4] had said they wanted to sign a contract today to start broadcasting for £45m a year, then we would have probably done it" (quoted in The Mirror, 19 August).

Bernie Ecclestone seems to argue that it was the BBC who forced Sky's involvement. The BBC apparently "held all the cards" as there was still time left on the existing contract. He says that Sky were brought to the table by the BBC in the first place: "[the BBC] got to grips with Sky themselves. I spoke with ITV too, and came up with the same problem as Channel 4 had. We had a contract with the BBC which didn't run out until 2014." He has gone as far as saying, "My hands were tied".

By his account, the rights ended up with Sky and the BBC because "[T]he BBC brought Sky to us with the idea of a joint contract […] It was not us who made that decision."

This is in marked contrast to the argument put forward by the BBC and Neil Land, who said:

"Ultimately, it is the responsibility of FOM [Formula One Management] to decide which broadcasters cover the sport. FOM must decide what is in the best interests of the sport, its employees, manufacturers, sponsors and viewers - when choosing its broadcast partners. On this occasion, FOM decided that a broadcast partnership between the BBC and Sky was in the best interests of the sport."

This deal has led to disappointment and anger among fans, and now they have to sift through completely contradictory explanations of who was responsible. The least they deserve is a clear account of what happened. I urge you to give it.

I am also unhappy with how the BBC has contextualised this deal to fans. There are many points I wish to make but for brevity's sake I will settle for three:

1) Neil Land points to shared rights agreements in other sports such as football. But F1 is not the same as football. There are 380 Premier League matches a year, on top of internationals, the Champions League, the FA Cup, the Carling Cup, and so on. There are numerous playing hours to be shared. Putting part of this behind a pay wall does not result in fans being unreasonably denied, as there is still plenty of content for them to enjoy on free-to-air. By contrast, F1 has just 20 races a year. Putting half of them on a pay channel significantly diminishes access to the sport, even with highlights freely available later.

2) Whether F1 is or isn't on the "crown jewels" list is irrelevant. Just because a sport's broadcast rights do not have legislative protection, it does not mean they are fair game under any circumstances.

3) The BBC may broadcast half the races, but this means nothing to fans who want to watch the whole season live. They cannot buy half a Sky package. For them, all of the rights may as well have gone to BSkyB, as it will cost them exactly the same. But this would have violated the Concorde Agreement and the many public statements that FOM have made about the importance of free to air, meaning that the BBC have legitimised the otherwise indefensible situation of fans being denied access to F1.

I am not complaining about the realities of the BBC, BSkyB and FOM having their own interests. Nor do I doubt that those involved in this arrangement worked hard to balance their competing aims. But I am concerned that F1 fans in the UK, who are also licence fee payers, had no-one speaking up for what was in their interests. I am also particularly unhappy at claims that the BBC was the main facilitator of the end result. I very much welcome the steps the BBC has taken to answer criticisms so far but think there remain some glaring problems with the explanations we have been given. I hope you will now be willing to clear up these confusions. I will also be writing to Bernie Ecclestone in the same terms.

Yours,

Don Foster MP

  

 
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