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BBC to face questioning from MPs over switch to shared F1 coverage

BBC, 2011BBC chiefs are to face questioning from MPs about the controversial move to share Formula 1 coverage with Sky from 2012, following a furious backlash from fans about the broadcast plans.

Ahead of a meeting of the Commons' Culture, Media and Sport select committee next month, where it is understood the subject of F1 will be discussed with seniors BBC figures, the corporation's director general Mark Thompson has now been asked by a senior MP to come clean about the background to the deal.

Don Foster MP, the Liberal Democrat spokesman for Culture, Media and Sport, has written to Thompson to seek answers about how the BBC/Sky contract came together - and especially if the BBC acted in the best interests of the fans.

In particular, Foster is concerned that there appear to be contradictory views about the background to what he thinks is a 'very poor' deal for F1 fans.

One version of the story is that the BBC brought Sky along in a bid to prevent coverage going to a rival terrestrial channel, while another version, suggested by BBC Sport's chief adviser and business manager Neil Land in a leaked document, was that it was Ecclestone who chose the Sky option.

In the letter to Thompson, which has been seen by AUTOSPORT, Foster says he is worried that the new deal is not good for licence fee payers or those who follow F1 - and thinks the BBC owes an explanation to clear up the situation.

"I do not believe this result promotes the best interest of license fee payers and motor racing fans," he wrote in the letter. "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."

He added: "In particular I am concerned about the apparently divergent views of FI and the BBC about the sequence of events and the desired outcome.

"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).

"In fact, Bernie Ecclestone seems to claim 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. He says 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 'The 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 gulf between the two versions has led to disappointment and anger among fans and now they have to sift through completely contradictory accounts of who decided what. The least fans deserve is a clear explanation of what happened. I urge you to give it."

In the letter, Foster adds that he believes the fact the BBC is still showing half the races is of no real benefit to hardcore fans, because if they want to watch the entire season they will still need to pay a full subscription to Sky.

He wrote: "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 paying the full price for access to F1."

Foster also wrote to Ecclestone to discuss the matter.

Speaking about his motivation for writing the letter, Foster told AUTOSPORT: "I'm really deeply worried about the divergence of accounts being made, comparing what Bernie Ecclestone said and what Neil Lamp said. They are basically poles apart in what they are saying has happened.

"I also have to question whether it is a good deal for licence fee payers. They are getting half of what they got before, although the BBC argue at a third of the cost. But if you are an F1 fan and want to see all F1, you have no choice but to get the whole of Sky - so you are not benefitting at all. It is a very, very poor deal."

The BBC's decision to share coverage of F1 with Sky has prompted a wave of unhappiness from fans, who face being forced to pay out for a subscription to Sky if they want to continue watching the sport.

The BBC is hoping to show tape-delayed full reruns of races on the same day as the grands prix in a bid to appease fans who feel they have lost out in the deal.

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