As the BBC is penalising pensioners by taking away free licences, a Daily Express investigation today reveals how the corporation and rival broadcasters are losing hundreds of millions in potential revenue to a massive piracy operation. The cost to the BBC alone could be as high as a £100million a year. Every Saturday, millions of football fans in Saudi Arabia and North Africa cheer and cry over the fate of their favourite Premier League clubs. Whether it is the goal-scoring genius of Sergio Aguero or the heroics of Harry Kane, social media explodes as every key moment is argued over. Yet although fans are gripped by the highs and lows, they never suffer actually forking out cash to watch their beloved team play. For these millions of foreign viewers, the fiesta of football is free. All they need is a cheap set-top digital box and they can sit back and enjoy the spectacle.
But it’s not just Premier League. Wimbledon proved popular over the summer as did golf’s Open Championship. No doubt the Cricket World Cup was a hit, too. And there’s a wide array of films and light drama, including the best from the BBC, Sky, ITV and Channel 4.
Among others, Killing Eve, the BBC’s successful thriller, was seen for nothing, a severe blow as the corporation insists it needs to charge over-75s for their licence.
British viewers who also subscribe to Sky, BT or other services, might assume the money-soaked rulers of Saudi Arabia are footing the bill. In fact, Saudi viewers are simply taking advantage of the biggest television piracy operation ever seen.
A company called beoutQ, based in the Saudi capital Riyadh, is stealing programming from around the world from a rival, legitimate media company in neighbouring Qatar.
The Qatar media company beIN pays hundreds of millions of pounds to the UK in deals to screen a wide array of sports events and other programmes for paying customers. However, this content is snatched by beoutQ, which shamelessly gives nothing to UK federations or sports companies.
In May, the Commons digital, culture, media and sports select committee heard that beoutQ had taken content from “100 UK-based” channels.
British Embassy approaches in Riyadh have failed to yield a breakthrough. The channel is broadcast on Arabsat – a Saudi-based satellite network – and beIN Sports is convinced the broadcaster is supported by the Saudi government.
MPs demanded a “robust attack” on the pirate station. Tory MP Giles Watling asked then culture secretary Jeremy Wright what efforts were being made to stop beoutQ and Arabsat “misappropriating our industries”.
DCMS committee chairman Damian Collins said: “The issue of beoutQ is straightforward piracy.”
The over-75s will have to pay the TV licence fee from June 2020
He added: “If we want to see good-quality sport, we have to make sure that people are able to protect those rights so they can carry on delivering it to us; and those that are seeking to undermine those rights of course undermine that process.
“So that’s why we take an interest, it’s why we understand and sympathise with the concerns the Premier League and others have expressed and, as I say, there is activity underway.”
The beoutQ boxes can be bought throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and come pre-loaded with illegal web IPTV apps which provide access to live television and on-demand movie content from all over the world. But despite the injustice, there is very little any of the international broadcasting giants can do because law firms in Saudi Arabia are clearly too scared to take up the case.
The British television regulator Ofcom is aware but has no powers in the Middle East.
The BBC is quietly fuming but equally powerless, although a spokesman for BBC Studios told us: “The BBC Group is committed to combating piracy of its channels and content worldwide and actively work with our media partners in fighting against piracy.”
Even Fifa, football’s global ruling body and custodian of the World Cup, is struggling to shut down the illegal operation, which is costing it a fortune.
Earlier this year, a joint statement from Fifa, the European ruling organisation Uefa, the German Bundesliga, the Premier League, Spain’s LaLiga and Italy’s Serie A lambasted beoutQ. They raged: “We, the rights holders of various football competitions, collectively condemn in the strongest possible terms the ongoing theft of our intellectual property by the pirate broadcaster known as ‘beoutQ’ and call on the authorities in Saudi Arabia (KSA) to support us in ending the widespread and flagrant breaches of our intellectual property rights taking place in the country.”
At vast expense, lawyers have been trying to take legal action in Saudi Arabia. Over the last 15 months, they have spoken to nine law firms in the kingdom which all chose not to take up the case.
Egyptian fans watch a FIFA World Cup semi-final football match in Cairo
The statement continues: “As copyright holders, we have reached the conclusion, regrettably, that it is now not possible to retain legal counsel in KSA which is willing or able to act on our behalf in filing a copyright complaint against beoutQ.
“We feel we have now exhausted all reasonable options for pursuing a formal copyright claim in KSA and see no alternative but to pursue beoutQ and a solution to this very serious problem of piracy by other means.
“BeoutQ’s infringement of our rights inevitably harms every aspect of the industry, from the rights holders to legitimate licensees, consumers and fans, participants (including players, clubs and national teams) and ultimately, the sport itself.” Now they are “requesting” the Saudi government itself takes “swift and decisive” action, though this seems highly unlikely, especially with the World Cup being hosted by Qatar in 2022.
Saudi leaders know having the world’s biggest sporting event on their doorstep will raise the level of interest in the game.
Protestors outside the BBC last November
Leading football executives believe the only way of getting the message across would be to ban Saudi Arabia from even attempting to qualify.
Asked if a ban was on the table, a Fifa official told the Daily Express: “We are currently investigating various different options for tackling the issue.
“These include steps designed to increase the pressure on those involved in the infringements, and on the government of KSA, to take steps to prevent infringements.”
Undoubtedly, beIN executives would be delighted with any Saudi ban as they are losing hundreds of millions of pounds worth of revenue because of the piracy.
beIN estimates it has cost some £823million in revenue and legal fees in six months. The company has even been willing to pull the plug on coverage if the piracy threatens the financial viability of a sporting event.
For example, the company’s deal to cover Formula 1 motor racing in the Middle East and Africa was not renewed last year. Quite simply, they could not justify broadcast rights of £160million when their main rival could simply steal the coverage.
The threat to the Premier League should not be underestimated either – lucrative TV monies have funded the multi-million pound transfer market and made it the most popular national competition in the world. Up to £650million of rights packages for UK sports will eventually be at “significant risk”, beIN Sports has warned.
A drop in value of the Premier League’s domestic rights has been offset by foreign broadcasters paying 30 per cent more over the next three seasons. Yet piracy undermines those very same international rights.
Yousef Al-Obaidly, beIN’s boss, warns: “This is, without doubt, one of the largest and most damaging heists in corporate history.”
The Daily Express has approached both beoutQ and the Saudi government for comment.
MP Giles Watling says the BBC has ‘skewed priorities’
COMMENT: Giles Watling, MP and member of Commons Culture Select Committee
THE BBC has skewed priorities. The broadcaster has backtracked on its commitment to provide free TV licences for the over 75s, claiming the £745million cost will hurt other services.
This will affect law-abiding pensioners who have paid licence fees for decades and who often rely on their television for company.
This change also comes despite the generous 2015 funding settlement the Government agreed.
Moreover, while it cuts these costs, media pirates in Saudi Arabia are allowing international viewers to watch the very best BBC content for free.
A low-cost beoutQ box allows viewers across the Middle East and North Africa to steal content from UK broadcasters.
Perversely, you could argue this demonstrates the worldwide demand for BBC programming, underpinning why it is working with ITV to create the new BritBox subscription service to boast British content.
But this piracy will undermine any new revenue stream from BritBox, just as it already threatens the £240million the BBC made last year selling programmes globally.
Media piracy of this kind has the potential to strangle the BBC’s income and, ultimately, that impacts on British OAPs.
Clearly, the time
has come for these beoutQ boxes to be challenged, removed and destroyed.
Thankfully, I believe the BBC has the global clout to do this, given its partnerships with broadcasters around the world. The BBC should prioritise the fight against media pirates in order to preserve essential services, rather than targeting vulnerable British pensioners to balance the books.