Nobody told a Radio Essex listener that she hadn’t really won a shopping trip to New York at all after answering the competition question correctly. What did Ofcom think and what were the legal issues?


Topic: Games of chance and skill
Who: BBC Essex
Where: Ofcom
When: November 2005, reported January 2006
What happened:
Issue number 51 of Ofcom's broadcast bulletin reported on a complaint by a BBC Essex listener in respect of a competition which the radio station ran. 

The complaining listener had entered the competition believing the prize to be a shopping trip to New York.

She correctly answered a question about the title of a particular pop song and she was told she had won.  When she was called back by the broadcaster and taken to air, the fact that she had won the prize seemed to be confirmed when the presenter asked her if she had ever been to New York.  When, later on in the on-air conversation with the presenter, she was told that he could not afford to send her to New York, she thought he was just being silly and still fully expected to receive her prize. 


She was therefore disappointed to say the least when a few days later she received her prize, which consisted of a CD, a car sticker and a card with pictures of BBC Essex DJs. 

The listener complained to Ofcom believing she had been humiliated on air and that the presenter had "abused the trust and reputation of the BBC".  Ofcom considered whether there had been a breach of rule 2.11 of the Broadcasting Code.  This requires that "competitions should be conducted fairly, prizes should be described accurately and rules should be clear and appropriately made known".

In its submissions, the BBC explained that part of the presenter's style was to introduce competitions "with the mention of a prize he would like to be able to offer, but can't because of lack of funds".  He usually made this clear immediately, but in this case, because of a typing error in the title of the song which was the subject of the competition, the presenter omitted to mention "the usual disclaimer" until later, when he was in conversation with the complainant on air, following her having won. 

Subsequently the presenter had been reminded by the station's editor of the importance of not misleading the audience about prizes they could expect.  The presenter had also apparently sent a written personal apology and assurances to the complainant. 

In view of this Ofcom considered the case resolved. 

Why this matters:
It is not clear precisely what "assurances" given to the complainant by the BBC persuaded Ofcom that it should regard the complainant as resolved.  One assurance which does not appear to have been given, however, is that the complainant would in fact receive the prize that she thought she was going to get in the first place.  This omission on the part of the BBC is surprising and also arguably falls distinctly short of the disappointed listener's legal entitlement. 

This point is underlined by a previous case back in 2001 involving Radio Buxton, DJ Chris Constantine and listener Katherine McGowan. 

In that case Ms McGowan thought she had won a Renault Clio, but the DJ had omitted to make it clear that all she was going to receive was a Dinky toy.  Ms McGowan did not take the matter lying down and instead of complaining to what at that time would have been the ITC, she sued Radio Buxton for damages for breach of contract.  She won, winning damages equivalent to the price of a real, brand new Renault Clio.

On the facts of this Radio Essex case, we believe the BBC got off lightly.  The listener would have done far better to sue in the County Court than to complain to Ofcom and competition promoters should always bear in mind that there will be a contract between competition promoters and participants, the terms of which, including exactly what prize is going to be won, should be absolutely clear, joking aside.

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