BBC fined £400,000 for faking winners of phone-in shows

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The Independent Online

The BBC has been fined £400,000 by Ofcom, the media regulator, for faking winners and misleading audiences in viewer and listener competitions.

The penalty, for flagship TV shows such as Comic Relief, Sport Relief and Children in Need as well as the Jo Whiley and Russell Brand radio shows, is a record for the corporation. Comic Relief and Sport Relief were each fined £45,000, Children in Need £35,000, and the children's show TMi £50,000.

Liz Kershaw's show had the biggest fine – £115,000 – the Jo Whiley show was fined £75,000, Russell Brand £17,500, and the Clare McDonnell show £17,500.

The regulator said: "These breaches of the [broadcasting] code were very serious. In each of these cases, the BBC deceived its audience by faking winners of competitions and deliberately conducting competitions unfairly."

Kershaw's show faked winners of listener competitions up to 17 times between July 2005 and January 2007 and Ofcom said it was "extremely concerned by the repeated instances of premeditated, deliberate deception in this case spanning nearly 17 months". Ofcom can fine the BBC up to £250,000 for each offence. Asked why yesterday's fine was relatively low, the watchdog said: "The committee recognised that any fine would be taken from monies paid by the public. Although viewers and listeners paid the cost of their calls to take part in these competitions, the BBC did not receive any money from the entries.

"Ofcom considers that the steps taken by the BBC to remedy the consequences of the breach were wide-ranging and timely. It had put in place compliance training for its entire staff, created a competition code of conduct, developed additional guidance on competitions and launched a new in-house centre of expertise for telephony."

In the Russell Brand show on 6 Music, a member of staff posed as a competition winner in a show that was billed as live but pre-recorded. Listeners who called or texted to take part had no chance of winning.

The Jo Whiley show on Radio 1 faked a competition winner on two occasions.

The BBC Trust, which holds the corporation to account, said it regretted that the fine would lead to a loss of licence-fee payers' money. It said the BBC made a public apology last summer and "a firm commitment to put its house in order". It added: "We recognise the penalty in these cases reflects that the breaches were serious, deliberate and in some cases repeated. Through our work, we are confident they have been taken seriously by those involved."

BBC management said: "We accept Ofcom's findings. We have taken these issues extremely seriously from the outset, apologising to our audiences and putting in place an unprecedented action plan to tackle the issues raised."

The watchdog said that, in some cases ruled on yesterday, programme-makers knew in advance that the audience had no chance of winning the competitions that they were going to broadcast but went ahead with them anyway.

Earlier this year ITV received a record £5.67m fine for the abuse of premium rate lines on shows including Ant And Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway. GMTV, which is 75 per cent owned by ITV, was fined a previous record of £2m.

In July last year, the BBC was fined £50,000 over a Blue Peter phone-in scandal in which a young studio guest posed as a competition winner.