Feeling 'Blue': BBC hit with first-time penalty

Ofcom fines for phone-in fakery

In an un-precedented move, media regulator Ofcom has fined the BBC £50,000 ($100,762) for faking the results of a phone-in competition on its flagship kids show "Blue Peter," one of the pubcaster's most enduring program brands.

Though the fine is relatively modest, it is the first time that the pubcaster has faced any kind of financial penalty for a program breach. The fine also is controversial because it will have to be paid out of the license fee — which comes from viewers — and handed to the Treasury.

Ofcom moved to make the unprecedented sanction be-cause the BBC had not investigated the matter itself, only becoming aware of the incident when a viewer complaint was made four months after the November 2006 incident.

The BBC1 show ran a phone-in competition to raise money for a UNICEF charity appeal in which producers asked a child visiting the studio to pose as a contestant and give the winning answer. The show was later repeated on BBC kids network CBBC.

Ofcom fined the BBC £45,000 (£90,700) for the initial incident and a further £5,000 ($10,000) for not removing or correcting it before the show was repeated.

In its ruling, Ofcom said the BBC was responsible for "serious breaches in the broadcasting code" resulting in "deception" on a program aimed at children. It went on to find that BBC executives were responsible for "a series of serious and avoidable management and compliance failures before, during and after the breaches."

In a statement, the BBC said it felt "regret" that Ofcom had deemed it necessary to impose a fine and said the regulator had taken note of its otherwise positive compliance record.

"We regret that Ofcom found it necessary to impose a fine on the BBC. However, we are pleased Ofcom's finding accepts that 'Blue Peter' always intended to conduct a 'genuine competition' and recognizes the BBC's good compliance record," the broadcaster said.

The response of the BBC's governing board, the BBC Trust, was significantly more harsh.

The board said that the editorial errors made 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."