The BBC is bringing back premium rate phone lines for audience participation in programmes but calls will be capped at a cost of 15 pence. The only exceptions will be shows directly related to a charity appeal. Perhaps the real question is why the BBC does not simply use national numbers rather than premium rate tariffs.

The new policy follows industry-wide abuse of premium rate phone lines that has attracted considerable criticism and compromised viewer confidence in participation programmes.

The communications regulator Ofcom has been investigating complaints against a number of broadcasters. Recently it fined Channel 4 £1.5 million in connection with its You Say, We Pay and Deal or No Deal competitions.

Channel 4 has since withdrawn from all premium rate phone-in competitions. It will continue using phone votes on Big Brother but will only charge viewers the cost of the call plus any charitable donation.

The BBC is also limiting call charges for its competitions. “BBC programmes do not make money from premium rate calls,” said its director general, Mark Thompson. “We’ve always told viewers and listeners the costs of calling to enter competitions or to vote but I want this to be even clearer.”

“In future, audiences can be clear that these calls will be capped at 15 pence unless they are directly related to a charity appeal.”

The new policy is part of a range of measures that will come into effect prior to the return of competitions on the BBC. Thousands of staff have attended a compulsory training course following concerns over how competitions had been handled.

A limited number of competitions will return from January, subject to senior management approval.

“The public pay for the BBC, indeed they own the BBC, and quite rightly they have higher expectations of us than of any other broadcaster,” said the director general. “Early indications are that our audiences approve of what we’ve done. After an understandable dip, our ratings for trust are recovering.”

Although the BBC has only used premium rate phone lines on a cost recovery basis, contributing any surplus to charity, it remains questionable why the public service broadcaster should have to use premium rate tariffs at all, providing profits to telephone companies and service providers.

If the BBC really wants to engage in a dialogue with its audience, perhaps it should consider using national or lo-call tariffs rather than premium rates.

The well-publicised problems with premium rate phone lines were a feature of the last year. As a result British broadcasters have all pledged to restore the trust of viewers in participation programmes.

The BBC is setting an example that will serve to highlight the premium rates charged by other channels for votes and competitions, putting pressure on commercial broadcaster ITV to follow suit.