Fraud without end, Amen. 

30 September 2010

A Panorama on BBC One earlier this year investigated the world of television quizzes and competitions that employ the use of premium rate phone lines. Learning which programmes were implicated may not have been a huge surprise to readers but the total extent of the problem now seems much wider than previously realised.

The worrying thing is that Panorama managed to uncover without too much difficulty a stack of evidence for systemic abuse of premium rate phone line services relating to competitions and quizzes over many years, for which legal experts seem to think that there’s a possible case for prosecuting individuals.

This has been retrospectively uncovered despite all major broadcasters carrying out their own supposedly thorough retrospective checks (often employing the use of external auditors) and even taking some programmes off the air while this happened. It now seems likely that some broadcasters may not have wanted to delve too deeply into the past for fear of what else might emerge.

Judging from the Panorama report the bulk of the problems seem to relate to external firms that actually handle the phone lines for both the production companies and the broadcasters, a function long since outsourced by the actual TV stations. This means that some networks could possibly have been too trusting of these outside organisations and their ability to deliver a legally compliant service.

Or maybe (perish the thought) certain broadcasters might have at some point suspected that a problem was occurring but chose to turn a ‘blind eye’ to any suspicion that they may have had on the basis that they earn too much revenue from these calls to start asking awkward questions.

Even this does not take into account the world of specialist ‘quiz TV’ channels and their non stop ‘interactive’ programming, with obscure answers to what appear to be simple questions and their habit of allowing viewers to infer that the odds of winning any prize are better than they really are. The broadcasters are certainly culpable in this regard.

In a few cases we have seen the use of production staff or other known people as fake “prize winners” either to maintain an illusion that nothing has gone wrong when it has or, worse still, when the network wishes to give the appearance that someone has actually won but in a misleading way in that the company actually manages to avoid paying out the ‘prize’ . This is potentially serious enough for police investigation.

One Panorama programme has achieved a more thorough investigation into certain aspects of use by broadcasters of the premium rate phone line industry than most broadcasters and their so-called “independent” audits. Given Ofcom’s policy of only punishing broadcasters if evidence is available, it’s no wonder that it benefits broadcasters to remain tight-lipped if they can.

Meanwhile Channel 4 is reluctant to take it’s investigation of the Richard and Judy show’s “You Say We Pay” competition further back in time than 2005 despite the fact that Panorama independently managed to obtain evidence of irregularities that date back over a year prior to this.

A Richard and Judy viewer had contacted ICSTIS with their concerns over this premium rate competition more than a year ago but got the distinct impression that they weren’t at all interested in pursuing the allegations any further. This all seems to point to major flaws in the current regulatory structure that can facilitate widespread abuse of the system.

To summarise, we have evidence of widespread fraud, misuse and neglect relating to several high profile programmes along with substantial evidence of abuse relating to part if not all of the premium rate quiz industry.

Given the ease with which instances of fraud can be committed behind closed doors, such as picking a winner of a competition before the phone lines are closed, it would require incredibly tight levels of regulation to ensure that this never happens. This might require the use of several independent adjudicators – though even they could be deceived with appropriate trickery.

We can safely conclude that it really would be far easier to ban this sort of competition altogether to remove uncertainty over such calls, since there are far too many variables involved (broadcaster, production company, production staff, call centre staff, telecoms company) and too much at stake for all of this to be trusted with self-regulation.

One approach could be for the Gambling Commission to reclassify all of this as a lottery, with a percentage of the proceeds going to charity. That won’t do anything to remove the risk of fraud, since it’s much easier to audit the sale of lottery tickets, betting shop or casino takings than is regulating several competitions with the variables involved.

There’s another important issue to be addressed which isn’t a financial one: the relationship between broadcasters and their viewers. After reviewing the evidence you could be forgiven for thinking that television producers don’t care about propriety as long as viewers watch their programmes in sufficient numbers and so provide a source of easy income.

In most cases, it now seems that you would be right.

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