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Television: Quiz Programmes

Volume 691: debated on Tuesday 1 May 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they are taking to prevent fraudulent practices on television quiz programmes.

My Lords, responsibility for the regulation of these services rests with the independent regulators Ofcom and ICSTIS. In response to recent concerns, ICSTIS has set out a range of actions aimed at restoring public trust in premium-rate services. In addition, Ofcom is undertaking a root-and-branch inquiry into the use of premium-rate services in television programming. Separately, ICSTIS and Ofcom are also investigating specific cases. If they expose serious flaws of compliance, the regulators have the power to impose a range of sanctions on service providers.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that one of the worst aspects was the complacent attitude of Ofcom when questioned about it? Will he remind Ofcom that the terrestrial channels are licensed for public entertainment and news, not gambling? Will he support the Gambling Commission, which has complained bitterly about the proliferation of phoney gambling quizzes on terrestrial channels, and tell Ofcom that it must pay attention to this and take much more drastic steps than it has planned?

My Lords, I accept what the noble Baroness says, but ICSTIS is the prime mover with responsibility for covering premium phone rates, the main anxiety in recent months. That does not mean that Ofcom ought to be complacent. It is not; it is also committing itself to action, but the initial moves will come from ICSTIS in investigating and establishing the nature of the problem. What is certain is that the whole of television, to say nothing of the viewing public, can only gain from full restoration of trust in the fairness of such programmes.

My Lords, the Minister rightly says that it is vital to restore public trust in these quiz shows. I welcome some of the steps taken by ICSTIS and Ofcom, but is he convinced that ICSTIS is pursuing these breaches of the code vigorously enough? Every major broadcaster has been guilty of a breach of the code, but no fines have been imposed on them. Is it not about time that ICSTIS started to impose fines?

My Lords, ICSTIS recently strengthened its regulations on these issues. However, in the more extreme cases it may have to construct a case that will stand up in a court of law; therefore, it is essential that it carries out its investigation with due diligence. However, I accept what the noble Lord says and I am assured that both bodies are all too well aware of the enormous public concern. That concern will show itself in a loss of trust in television companies and the loss of their revenues as the public turn away from these activities, unless trust is effectively restored.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on answering all four Questions so brilliantly on this May Day. It is also a red-letter day because I agree with every word spoken by the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, and the Liberal Democrat spokesman. That has never happened before. I urge my noble friend to have a word in the ear of Sir Alistair Graham and tell him to get his finger out and take some action. After all, he now has one less of his many quangos and he has time to get on with it.

My Lords, I am delighted to hear that there is consensus right across the House on my noble friend’s expression of agreement with what the noble Baroness said. She identified the issue very accurately in her Question. My noble friend is right but we should not personalise these issues; rather, we should make it absolutely clear that the regulatory authorities have a significant task on their hands. It is difficult to think of an instance in the past two or three decades of broadcasting where regulatory authorities were brought to the front in quite the way they are by public concern over these issues. At its worst, an element of fraud is involved. That is why I mentioned the potential seriousness of the offence. It is not a question of personalities but of whether bodies do their job properly. Ministers will insist that they do.

My Lords, did my noble friend warm to the normal practice of quiz shows whereby, if one contestant gets four questions right in a row, they normally qualify for an extra pint and a round of applause?