BBC fined £400,000 over 'unfair' phone-ins

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The Independent Online

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

The penalty, for flagship 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.

The regulator said: "Ofcom considered that 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."

The watchdog said that in some cases ruled on today, 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.

It said: "The investigations found that, in some cases, the production team had taken premeditated decisions to broadcast competitions and encourage listeners to enter in the full knowledge that the audience stood no chance of winning.

"In other cases, programmes faced with technical problems made up the names of winners.

"Overall, Ofcom found that the BBC failed to have adequate management oversight of its compliance and training procedures to ensure that the audience was not misled.

"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."

A member of the production team posed as a winner on a phone-in competition on Comic Relief on BBC1 in March last year, and a similar scenario featured on a Sport Relief phone-in in July 2006.

On Children in Need, in 2005, the name of a fictitious winner was read out on air.

Earlier this year ITV was hit with a record £5.67 million 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 £2 million.

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

Channel 4 was also fined £1.5 million for misconduct involving phone-in competitions on Richard And Judy and Deal Or No Deal.

In the Russell Brand show on 6 Music, a member of staff posed as a competition winner in an edition of the 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.

Other BBC shows involved in today's ruling include the Liz Kershaw Show on 6 Music, the Clare McDonnell Show on the same digital station, and TMi on BBC2 and CBBC.

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 said: "Ofcom's decisions today relate to cases considered by the BBC Trust in 2007 which led to remedial action by the BBC and significant changes in the way the BBC compiles competitions and programmes.

"The Trust regrets that these serious breaches by the BBC have led to a financial penalty being applied by Ofcom and the loss of licence fee payers' money as a result."

It said: "We recognise that the penalty in these cases reflects that the breaches were serious, deliberate and in some cases repeated."

The Trust added: "These editorial failures were serious and, through our work, we are confident they have been taken seriously by those involved.

"Our concern now is ensuring that the highest editorial standards are maintained to safeguard the public's trust."

BBC management issued a separate statement, saying: "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.

"This includes a comprehensive programme of training for over 19,000 staff, rigorous new technical protections, new guidance to programme-makers on the running of competitions and a strict new Code of Conduct.

"Ofcom has recognised that neither the BBC nor any member of staff made any money from these serious editorial lapses.

"Whilst we must never be complacent and must remain constantly vigilant, audience research suggests the comprehensive action we have taken is rebuilding the trust of viewers and listeners."