ITV drops British Comedy Awards over allegation of phone-in scam

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The Independent Online

The British Comedy Awards have become the latest victim of the phone-in and fakery scandals that have swept through the television industry and will not be televised live by ITV this year after an investigation was announced into a public phone vote on the show two years ago. But last night the organisers of the UK's comedy "Oscars" pledged to carry on with the awards, with Jonathan Ross presenting.

ITV has brought in the media law firm Olswang to carry out the investigation, after learning that one of its own shows was chosen as a winner in a public phone vote in the 2005 comedy awards, before the lines were closed.

In a terse statement, the broadcaster said: "ITV have today asked media law firm Olswang to conduct an investigation into an issue that has arisen in respect of the British Comedy Awards 2005. Pending conclusion of the investigation, broadcast of the British Comedy Awards 2007 will be postponed. ITV will not make any further comment regarding this matter until the conclusion of the investigation."

At the centre of the inquiry is the "people's phone vote" – which was one of the 17 categories in the 2005 awards. It is believed that two years ago, Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway – an ITV show – was chosen as winner before the phone line was closed. Michael Hurll Television, the independent production company which produces the comedy awards had proposed dropping the category this year. But ITV chief executive Michael Grade is so determined to clean up the broadcaster's reputation that it was decided to axe the awards from this year's schedules.

"It's a sledgehammer to crack a nut," said a source close to Michael Hurll Television. "It's an opportunity for ITV to appear whiter than white. The event will take place. This will continue to be a public event for the industry and one would hope that another broadcaster will come forward.

"It's a sign of the witchhunt going on in television at the moment. This is a very small production company that's deemed to be able to take this hit," the source added.

ITV also released the conclusions of a separate investigation yesterday, carried out by Olswang, which blamed the documentary maker Paul Watson for the misunderstanding that arose over his documentary Malcom and Barbara: Love's Farewell. In its pre-transmission publicity material, ITV had suggested that Malcolm Pointon, who suffered from Alzheimer's, had actually died in the film. It later transpired that he died some days after the final scene in the documentary. Olswang concluded: "ITV wrongly understood that Paul Watson had actually filmed, and subsequently understood that he included in the version for transmission, the moment of Mr Pointon's death.

"This misunderstanding arose from the ambiguity in the language used by Paul Watson to describe his film, and also the ambiguity of its final scenes."

While the report said that Watson was the primary source of the misunderstanding and that he had not taken advantage of opportunities available to him to clear up the misapprehension, it added: "Olswang do not conclude that Paul Watson acted with any intention deliberately to mislead ITV. The Olswang report notes that Paul Watson has steadfastly maintained his honesty and integrity in this regard."

The television industry has experienced a crisis of trust following a series of incidents ranging from a £2.5m fine imposed by Ofcom on GMTV for misleading viewers over premium-rate phone lines, to the BBC's row with the Queen over a publicity reel which appeared, falsely, to show her storming out of a photo shoot with the celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz.

This week, a former editor of Blue Peter lost his job at the BBC after the results of an online poll to choose the name of the show's kitten were overridden by the production team, and a child studio guest was asked to pose as a competition winner.

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