Grade takes flak over ITV ‘robbery’

Government turns up the heat

The pressure on ITV over rigged phone competitions intensified Friday after a senior British government minister said cheating auds out of an estimated $15.6 million was akin to “daylight robbery.”

Speaking on BBC 1 public affairs show “Question Time,” U.K. work and pensions secretary Peter Hain said, “People were tricked and conned into getting rid of millions of pounds on an absolutely false prospectus.

“I think the public who were robbed of their money will want to know that this will never happen again, and that those who are responsible, including on the ‘Ant and Dec’ show, will be nailed.”

A report by auditors Deloitte revealed what ITV topper Michael Grade described as a “serious cultural failure” in flagship shows like “The X Factor” and “Saturday Night Takeaway” as viewers’ votes were routinely ignored.

The terrestrial web is almost certain to be hit by a record fine by regulator Ofcom over the systematic deception, most of which occurred when ex-Granada topper Charles Allen was ITV’s CEO but only emerged in March.

Allen resigned in summer 2006 following deep dissatisfaction by investors at ITV’s poor revenue and ratings performance.

Grade, who took over in January, has ruled out any sackings at the broadcaster over the scandal, which defrauded auds out of an estimated $15.6 million.

However, the reaction of politicians and other U.K. opinion formers may force his hand.

In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program Grade said that had the rigged phone competitions taken place on his watch he would have fallen on his sword.

“If I had been chief executive at the time I would have resigned, of course,” he said.

ITV has said it will reimburse the coin spent by auds on the rigged premium phone line votes.