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The case for free football

Let me put it straight and plain: Maltese consumers have the right to watch on TV, free of charge, all the World Cup matches that will be played in Germany.

The Broadcasting Authority has made a positive step forward by deciding that the last eight games in the competition should be broadcast free-to-air and not via pay television. Nevertheless, it has not been bold enough. I submit that the BA had the legal grounds for ordering all the 64 matches to be broadcast free.

In a statement issued to justify its decision, the BA claimed that regulation 6 (1) of Legal Notice 158/2000, which transposed the Television Without Frontiers Directive (89/552EEC), was open to interpretation.

The said point spells out a list of events considered to be of central importance to society and which cannot be broadcast against payment in a manner that a substantial part is denied access to it. The list mentions specifically "All the games in the final stages of the European championships of national football and the World Cup".

I had reacted immediately to the BA's statement, praising it for the positive decision but stating that it had not interpreted the legal notice and directive in the right manner. Competitions such as the European Championships and the World Cup span over a two-year period, with hundreds of matches being played. The "final stages" of such competitions is the month-long tournament held among the finalists.

An ideal occasion to test my interpretation came during a public hearing on professional football organised in the European Parliament within the context of a report which will deal with numerous issues having to do with the economic context of professional football. Among these issues are the marketing of broadcasting rights. I am shadowing this report on behalf of the Group of European Socialists.

As the discussion narrowed down to the technical aspects of negotiations of broadcasting rights, I asked UEFA's CEO Lars-Christer Olsson for his interpretation of "final stages" within the context of the Television Without Frontiers Directive and his background as key player in such broadcasting rights deals. For fair play's sake I alerted him that there is a dispute on the matter of interpretation in Malta.

While stating that he is aware of possibly differing interpretations, Mr Olsson's answer was unequivocal. The "final stages" are all the matches in which the finalists are involved. The finalists are all those who qualify for the final tournament. In the case of the World Cup, this is the tournament taking place in Germany between June 9 and July 9.

I took the opportunity to mention also the issues relating to the broadcasting of the Champions League matches and Formula One races.

Stefan Kurten, director of operations at the European Broadcasting Union, said that free-to-air broadcasting should not play second fiddle to pay television when it comes to such popular events.

Mr Olsson came back on this issue too and stressed that in the case of the Champions League, UEFA wants that a number of matches be broadcast free-to-air especially when matches are played simultaneously.

The Broadcasting Authority should take note of these statements and go back to the drawing board. At the same time, I renew my call for a holistic review of broadcasting regulations. The piecemeal approach is no longer tenable.

Mr Muscat is a Labour member of the European Parliament.

www.josephmuscat.com

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