What on earth was the BBC thinking?

Times Online, March 16, 2007

The phone-in fiasco plumbed new depths this week. The presenters of the BBC’s much-venerated children’s show Blue Peter apologised on air for what Richard Deverell, the BBC’s Children’s Controller, describes as “a serious error of judgment”. I think it’s more than that and, moreover, that serious legal issues are raised, but first, here are the facts.

Nearly 14,000 children called up Blue Peter towards the end of last year to answer a question that they might well have answered correctly, but in vain. A “technical hitch” occurred during the show that prevented staff from selecting any of the callers, who had spent 10p a call to enter the competition. A quick bit of lateral thinking saw an unnamed girl – a Blue Peter Team Player visiting the studio after winning an unrelated competition – asked to phone in with the right answer. She was told to say that she was “calling from London,” which was true given that she was within the BBC’s premises. In fact, she was in the same studio as the presenters.

It seems that none of this would have come to light had a witness to the incident not emailed a Radio Five Live debate on the phone-in controversy last week. The BBC has now rushed to investigate what happened, with Jana Bennett, the BBC’s director of vision, commencing an “emergency review”. Meanwhile the presenters have apologised and the BBC has published an online statement in which it avers that no other Blue Peter competitions have been fixed and says that the unnamed girl did – no doubt in common with many other entrants – know the answer. Mr Deverell has issued an “unequivocal apology”.

My lawyer’s mind, allied with my experience as a parent, reacts badly to what looks to be more than a mere catalogue of incompetence. This incident seems worse, indeed, than the scandals affecting the Richard and Judy show, X-Factor and Saturday Kitchen. For here the credulity of children is at stake. So, too, their ability to consent to what is, in effect, a legal relationship.

It may have been panic on behalf of a BBC employee that saw the unnamed girl hoisted into the studio to give the right answer, but how does she feel now? Were her parents asked if she could do so? Leaving aside these questions – which are as vexed as any – panic is no excuse for misrepresentation. As soon as the technical hitch was apparent, Blue Peter should have suspended the competition. Funds accrued from the phone-in could still have been despatched to charity (as, indeed, they were, save for £727.25 retained by the line provider), provided that those who had made the calls consented to their 10p being put to this use. But here is where the whole exercise falls down.

What on earth was the BBC thinking of in inviting children to participate in a phone-in competition, at cost to the households in which they live? The law says that in most situations children under 18 cannot enter into legally binding agreements of their own volition; parental consent is necessary. If and when a child does so, a contract will be void or voidable. Perhaps the BBC envisage a world in which all children watching Blue Peter do so with at least one of their parents, who then gives them consent to enter into the contract that occurs when they enter a phone-in competition. The reality, though, is that children will often be watching afternoon television while their parents complete any number of chores. Their offspring will be all too tempted to rush to the phone and enter into a contract that, in the absence of parental approval, they are not capable of forming.

That the BBC appears to have done nothing about the incident until a Radio Five Live debate leaves it open to a charge of deliberate rather than panic-driven misrepresentation. This, though, merely adds salt to the wound. The fact is that children should never be asked to participate in phone-ins. The law says they’re too young, and the law is right.