Watchdog presenter caught up in row over ‘£20,000 air-miles racket’

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The Independent Online

The BBC presenter Julia Bradbury has stepped down from hosting Watchdog after police opened an investigation into allegations that she enjoyed £20,000 worth of free flights in a suspected air-miles racket.

Ms Bradbury said she would leave the consumer rights programme, which exposes scams, until the fraud and theft inquiry is completed by Sussex Police.

It is claimed that Ms Bradbury and her sister and agent, Nina Fox, wrongly benefited from at least 10 long-haul return flights each, having been awarded hundreds of thousands of free air miles.

A Virgin Atlantic employee has been dismissed for allegedly awarding air miles in return for Marks & Spencer vouchers.

Virgin Atlantic has closed Ms Bradbury and her sister’s frequent-flyer account while its auditors comb through records of “suspicious activity”. It is understood that several other high-profile individuals may be drawn into the investigation.

The BBC initially issued a statement saying that Ms Bradbury denied any wrongdoing. Following a police statement on the investigation, however, Ms Bradbury’s publicity agent, James Herring, released a statement on her behalf announcing that she would be standing down from Watchdog.

“I am very concerned about these allegations,” the presenter said. “Although I have not been contacted by the police, I understand that my Virgin Atlantic account details have been passed over to the authorities as part of an internal fraud investigation at the airline regarding frequent-flyer miles. I understand that my name appears on a list that includes several Virgin passengers with discrepancies in their frequent-flyer statements.”

The presenter continued: “I have done nothing wrong and will, of course, willingly co-operate with any enquiries. I have asked the BBC to take time off from my presenting duties on Watchdog until the matter has been resolved.”

Asked whether the BBC had put pressure on Ms Bradbury to step down, a spokeswoman said: “It was her decision.”

Ms Bradbury’s withdrawal will cause another headache for the BBC. The current series of Watchdog is half-way through an eight-month run until 25 May. The corporation is still recovering from the three-month suspension of Jonathan Ross for abusing the actor Andrew Sachs and intense criticism of its refusal to screen a humanitarian appeal for Gaza last month. As well as presenting Watchdog, which reported on the airline industry in October, Ms Bradbury presents several other BBC shows, including Kill It, Cook It, Eat and Wainwright’s Walks, and Channel 5’s travel show The Rough Guide To…

According to the Daily Mirror, police are expected to look at whether Ms Bradbury was awarded Virgin’s air miles on at least 10 occasions.

Her sister allegedly took 15 free flights worth £35,000.

The newspaper claimed that since May 2006, frequent-flyer points were added to Ms Bradbury’s Flying Club account rather than being deducted, as would have been the normal practice. She is also alleged to have taken two flights – worth around £8,000 – without losing any points.

The flights were to Miami, Cape Town and Johannesburg. Ms Bradbury allegedly accumulated 238,000 and her sister 429,000 Virgin air miles by the time Virgin suspended their accounts last month.

Richard Branson’s airline allegedly became suspicious after examining communications allegedly made between one of its staff and Ms Fox.

Ms Fox told the BBC: “We haven’t been contacted by the police. She [Julia] hasn’t booked a ticket. Either the production company has booked it or I have booked it for the past five years. Certainly I have not ordered or been part of anything that is fraudulent.”

In a statement, Virgin Atlantic confirmed it had passed information to detectives. “Virgin Atlantic can confirm that it has closed a number of accounts belonging to some members of its frequent-flyer programme, Flying Club, due to suspicious activity relating to earning miles and tier points.”