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£17,500 fine over 'spiritual healer' advert

The TV watchdog imposed a £17,500 fine today for "spiritual healer" advertising which was found to be capable of exploiting vulnerable people.

Ofcom disciplined licensee DM Digital Television Ltd in respect of its DM Digital service.

In February 2009 the Manchester-based digital station, which broadcasts mainly in Urdu to the UK Asian community, aired an ad for a "spiritual healer" called Professor Mohammed Zain.

Advertising regulator the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received a complaint from Manchester Trading Standards, which had been contacted by the social worker of a viewer who had approached Prof Zain after seeing the advert.

The viewer said she twice paid money to Prof Zain for help in finding a partner.

According to the viewer, Prof Zain told her to credit his account with £110 and to pray for one week and then to call him back.

When she did this, he told her to credit his bank account with a further £1,400 and in return he would find her "a prince" and the viewer transferred the requested cash.

The ASA found the advert breached the CAP (Broadcast) TV Advertising Standards Code.

It concluded that the advert was "likely to exploit the hopes and fears of vulnerable viewers".

The ASA can refer serious cases to Ofcom as the backstop regulator, which has powers to fine broadcasters for breaching advertising rules.

Ofcom considered the breach was serious because it resulted in actual financial harm to the viewer.

Ofcom also concluded that the breach showed a repeated failure by DM Digital to ensure that material met the requirements of the TV Advertising Code.

The watchdog's broadcasting sanctions committee said it was concerned "that this particular type of unacceptable advertising, that represented advice to individuals based on faith based practices for personal problems, was likely to exploit vulnerable viewers".

In October 2008, DM Digital was disciplined by the committee for a show called Health Is Wealth, which contained claims about being able to treat medical conditions like cancer, diabetes and hepatitis.

A £15,000 fine was imposed in this case for breaching Ofcom's Broadcasting Code and raising "serious concerns" about viewer harm.