Leading article: Viewing displeasure

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In the annals of UK television broadcasting there has never been a more damning charge sheet. Yesterday we learned that the true winner of the public vote at the 2005 ITV British Comedy Awards was denied the prize, apparently for the sake of pleasing a celebrity award-giver. Also on ITV, a public phone-in competition on Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway was rigged, with winners selected purely on the basis of where they lived.

On another Ant and Dec vehicle, winners were chosen on how entertaining they sounded. On yet another show hosted by the pair, producers overrode the viewers' vote so the wrong participants were put forward for eviction. Yesterday's £5.7m fine for ITV from Ofcom seems barely adequate as a punishment for such a grotesque betrayal of viewers' trust.

It is tempting to argue that this is a problem with a single cash-strapped and failing broadcaster. But the BBC has also been found guilty of similar casual deceptions on their audiences in recent months.

It is clear that there has been something rotten in the ethics of television broadcasting. Dishonesty has been regarded as acceptable so long as it is done in the cause of keeping the show on the road.

But now the broadcasters have been given notice that such behaviour is most certainly not acceptable. If they hope to survive in the new competitive digital market place, they must ensure that these squalid episodes of betrayal are not given a repeat screening.

Otherwise a combination of audience disgust and regulatory punishment will pull the plug on them for good.

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