GMTV fined £2m by Ofcom over phone-in scandal

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The broadcaster GMTV has been fined a record £2m by the media watchdog Ofcom for "gross negligence" after it repeatedly allowed viewers to enter phone-in competitions after the lines had closed.

It is the highest fine the regulator has ever handed out, although its predecessor, the Independent Television Commission, fined Carlton TV the same sum over its faked documentary, The Connection, in 1998.

GMTV, 75 per cent owned by ITV and 25 per cent by Disney, has also been told that it must broadcast Ofcom's findings on three separate occasions. Ofcom accused GMTV of "extremely serious" breaches of its broadcasting code.

The watchdog launched an investigation after BBC's Panorama programme alleged that, between August 2003 and May 2005, the staff of the telecoms company Opera, which was employed by GMTV, had picked winners of phone-in competitions before the lines were closed. Opera was fined £250,000 by the premium-rate phone regulator Icstis on Monday.

The investigation showed that winners had been picked before phone lines closed over an even longer period between May 2003 and April 2007. During this time, there were 62 million entries to GMTV competitions, of which up to 25 million may be eligible for a refund. Between August 2003 and April 2007, GMTV made a total profit of £49.2m from viewer competitions.

When the misconduct came to light, GMTV offered refunds and donated £250,000 to a charity. If it had not done so, the financial penalty would have been even higher, Ofcom said.

GMTV said it accepted the Ofcom judgment and took full responsibility for the breaches. It added: "GMTV has announced a new code for premium rate competitions and we will not reintroduce them into our programmes until we are absolutely sure that the right compliance procedures are in place to enable our viewers to continue to enjoy the competitions knowing they are run fairly and honestly."