U.K. broadcasters flunk phone-in quiz probe

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LONDON -- U.K. media regulator Ofcom has found broadcasters here guilty of "systemic failures" in their premium phone quiz services, claiming that they have been "in denial" about the extent of wrongdoing. Simultaneously the BBC suspended all phone-in competitions across the pubcaster's television, radio and interactive platforms.

Announcing the results of the first phase of its inquiry into the matter, Ofcom CEO Ed Richards warned broadcasters that he takes the issue "extremely seriously" and that they face continued financial penalties if found guilty of premium-line phone failures.

"To restore trust with viewers, broadcasters need to deliver and demonstrate strong consumer protection as well as quality programming," Richards said. "Ofcom's consultation will identify the best way to make this happen."

The scandal was triggered this year when it emerged that viewers of Channel 4's daytime quiz show "You Say We Pay" were being duped and asked to pay 1 pound ($2) per call to enter a competition that had already closed.

Soon after, other broadcasters admitted to irregularities. So far, the regulator has imposed fines on Five, Channel 4 and the BBC and is still working through the backlog of cases.

But Mark Thompson, the BBC's director general, moved to cease all of its phone-in games after at least six more incidents of editorial malpractice came to light Wednesday.

The pubcaster admitted faking competition winners on such high-profile, BBC1 charity-event shows as "Comic Relief," "Sport Relief" and "Children in Need," which were watched by millions of viewers.

The news was announced after the BBC's governing board, the BBC Trust, slammed top management for "significant failures of control and compliance" and deemed Thompson's interim report on the matter "deeply disappointing."

"The primary responsibility for ensuring the culture of the BBC properly reflects the requirements of a public institution which exists on the basis of trust rests with the senior management team," the Trust said. "The director general's interim report ... about additional editorial failings shows further deeply disappointing evidence of insufficient understanding amongst certain staff of the standards of accuracy and honesty expected and inadequate editorial controls to ensure compliance with those standards."

The director general also has ordered an internal inquiry into the events leading to BBC1 controller Peter Fincham showing reporters misleading footage of the queen of England apparently storming out of a photo shoot in the RDF Media-produced documentary "A Year With the Queen."

The investigation will result in a report in the fall, and the BBC will not commission any new programs from the independent producer until it is published.

In an address to all BBC staff Wednesday afternoon, Thompson said that attempts to mislead viewers will lead to dismissal and that a number of staff already have been asked to "stand back from their duties" until further investigations are concluded.

He also has ordered all 16,500 program staffers to attend a mandatory training program dubbed "Safeguarding Standards" and said there will be a "zero tolerance" approach to deceiving the public.

Meanwhile, the first phase of the Ofcom investigation, carried out by former BBC news deputy head Richard Ayres, found that compliance failures were "systemic." Ofcom recommends that broadcasters' licenses be amended to include greater protection for consumers.

"Phoning a TV show isn't like ordering pizza," Ayres said. "When you put the phone down nothing arrives, you just have to trust that your call was counted. If broadcasters want audiences to go on spending millions calling in, they need to show they take consumer protection as seriously as program content."

Five was fined 300,000 pounds ($614,911) for its "Brainteaser" show, while the BBC was fined 50,000 pounds ($102,500) for faking a winner in its kids show "Blue Peter." Channel 4 might have to pay back viewers as much as 2.5 million pounds ($5.1 million) after irregularities into its "You Say We Pay" show were exposed.

Investigations into major shows like ITV's "X-Factor" are still ongoing.
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