Media watchdog Ofcom has imposed an unprecedented £50,000 fine on the BBC over the Blue Peter phone-in during which a young studio guest posed as a competition winner.
It is the first time Ofcom has imposed a financial penalty against the BBC and it will be paid out of licence-fee money.
The broadcaster was found to have breached two rules: the first stating that ‘competitions should be conducted fairly’ and the second stating that ‘due care must be taken over the physical and emotional welfare and the dignity of people under 18 who take part or are otherwise involved in programmes’.
Nearly 40,000 children called the BBC1 show’s premium rate phone line on November 27 last year in a competition to win a toy.
But when a technical glitch meant no winning entrant could be selected, a member of the production team asked a girl visiting the studio with her parent to pose as a winning caller.
She was given the correct answer and put on air.
The girl said she was calling from London – in fact, she was in the same studio as the presenters.
Another member of the public visiting the studio on the same day observed what had taken place and blew the whistle in March this year.
In its ruling, Ofcom’s sanctions committee concluded: ‘The committee was conscious that the imposition of a financial penalty on the BBC was unprecedented.
‘However, in all the circumstances, and weighing all these matters carefully, the committee considered that these were serious breaches of the code by a public service broadcaster resulting, as they did, in the deception of the audience, including child participants who paid to enter the competition.
‘The breaches involved a pre-planned decision to fake a winner in the interests of ensuring the smooth running of a programme, and in doing so made a child complicit in events leading to the deception.
‘There were also a series of serious and avoidable management and compliance failures before, during and after the breaches occurred.’
Ofcom imposed a further £5,000 penalty because the programme was repeated in full, including the falsified competition, on children’s channel CBBC.
Although a caption was displayed stating that competition lines were closed, the telephone number was still visible and lines still open – prompting a further 3,500 calls.
Responding to today’s ruling, the BBC Trust said: ‘The errors which occurred around the Blue Peter programme on 27 November last year were particularly serious as they resulted in children being misled to participate in a competition they had no chance of winning and in a child in the studio being involved in deceiving the audience.
‘Ofcom has been given powers by Parliament to fine the BBC if Ofcom finds that a breach of its Standards Code has been serious. Ofcom has exercised that power in this instance.
‘The Trust expects BBC management to continue to demonstrate a commitment to learning from these breaches: we were pleased by the management’s swift response when the errors came to light and its frank and clear assessment of what went wrong. The culture of the BBC must be such that any proposal to mislead audiences is instantly dismissed as wholly inappropriate.’
The Trust has commissioned a policy review into the BBC’s use of premium rate services within programmes.
The BBC did not profit from the Blue Peter competition as proceeds went to Blue Peter’s annual charity appeal in aid of Unicef.
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