GCap fined record £1.1m for phone line abuses

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The Independent Online

GCap is the latest media group to be targeted by regulators investigating the premium-rate phone line scandal, copping a £1.1m fine yesterday for deliberately misleading listeners on 30 of its local radio stations.

The size of the fine, a record for the radio sector, reflected the seriousness of GCap's breaches of broadcasting rules, Ofcom, the communications watchdog, said. Its investigation discovered that programme makers had run phone-in competitions and then deliberately put callers who they knew had incorrect answers on air, in order to prolong the contests and be able to feature further rounds throughout the day.

"[This] was a deliberate and premeditated means of preventing the prize from being won in that round," Ofcom said. "As a result, those listeners who had paid to enter the competition on these occasions had no chance of winning."

The regulator also criticised the behaviour of GCap once a whistleblower had brought the issue to light. While the company had held an internal investigation, Ofcom said this "did not appear ... to have been either thorough or extensive". No formal report was produced and GCap's board received only a "verbal report" on the affair.

Ofcom said that while GCap had promised to offer listeners a refund if they complained about the scandal, the group did not make it clear how compensation could be claimed. As a consequence, just one listener received a refund, of just £2.

Ofcom ordered each of the 30 GCap stations that featured the Secret Sounds competition in question to broadcast a summary of its ruling at least twice.

Global Radio, which bought GCap this year, said it had instituted procedures to improve controls, in addition to new measures put in place by GCap itself. The company said it took Ofcom's ruling "extremely seriously", adding: "The new management and owners look forward to building a strong future for the commercial radio industry where the trust of its listeners and of its regulator is of the highest importance."

The fine will make a sizeable hit on GCap's bottom line at a time when commercial radio is struggling in the face of falling advertising sales. It amounts to some 20 per cent of GCap's most recent half-year profits, which were £5.6m.