In what will come as a surprise to many and perhaps not so to some, the venerable British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), the world's oldest public-service broadcaster, has been fined £400,000 ($793,000) by media watchdog Office of Communications (Ofcom) for misleading its audiences by "faking" phone-ins.
"The BBC deceived its audience by faking winners of competitions and deliberately conducting competitions unfairly," Ofcom said in a statement issued yesterday. The fine is the largest penalty the media watchdog has ever issued to the British broadcaster.
Eight BBC programmes were specifically cited by the regulator and issued individual fines (which when tallied total £400,000):
- Liz Kershaw Show, for episodes that aired on BBC 6 Music between May 2005 and January 2006 - fined £115,000.
- Jo Whiley Show, for episodes that aired on BBC Radio 1 in April and May 2006 - - fined £75,000.
- TMi, for episodes in September 2006 - fined £50,000.
- The Comic Relief charity telethon, which aired on BBC One in March 2007 - fined £45,000.
- The Sport Relief charity telethon, which aired on BBC One in July 2006 - fined £45,000.
- The Children in Need charity telethon, which aired on BBC One in Scotland in November 2005 - fined £35,000.
- Russell Brand, which aired on BBC 6 Music in April 2006 - fined £17,500.
- Clare McDonnell Show, which aired on BBC 6 Music in September 2006 - fined £17,500.
Some shows invited callers to participate in contests despite having pre-recorded segments with its own production staff posing as winners. Others were found to have read out fictitious names as winners. Ofcom noted that several shows were repeat offenders.
Ofcom said some programme-makers knew audiences had no chance of winning competitions, but broadcast them anyway.
"In some cases, the production team had taken premeditated decisions to broadcast competitions and encourage listeners to enter in the full knowledge that the audience stood no chance of winning," the watchdog said. "In other cases, programmes faced with technical problems made up the names of winners.
"Overall, Ofcom found that the BBC failed to have adequate management oversight of its compliance and training procedures to ensure that the audience was not misled."
In a statement the BBC said it accepted the findings. It said the issues had been taken "extremely seriously" all along, with apologies made and "an unprecedented action plan" to deal with the matters raised.
These plans included training for more than 19,000 staff, new guidance to programme makers on the running of competitions and a stricter code of conduct, it added.
''Ofcom has recognized that neither the BBC nor any member of staff made any money from these serious editorial lapses,'' the broadcaster said. ''Whilst we must never be complacent and must remain constantly vigilant, audience research suggests the comprehensive action we have taken is rebuilding the trust of viewers and listeners.''
A number of UK broadcasters were fined in the past year. RTL Group's Channel Five was fined £300,000 in June last year and Channel Four was fined £1.5 million in December, both for irregularities at phone-in quiz shows.
In May, ITV Plc was fined a record £5.68 million for misleading viewers by letting them enter phone-in competitions they had no chance of winning. In June, Ofcom fined 30 local radio stations of GCap Media Plc's One Network a total of £1.1 million for unfair conduct in listener competitions.