As far as grovelling apologies go, it couldn't get more obsequious. It was a measure of how seriously it takes itself. Blue Peter, a children's programme that has been aired on the BBC since 1958, became the most recent in a tidal wave of television and radio shows to admit conning the audience with a supposedly live phone-in competition. In characteristically charitable mode, the Whose Shoes segment was designed to raise money for the Shoe Biz Appeal to help children orphaned by Aids in Malawi. Viewers were shown a mystery celebrity's shoes alongside another visual clue and asked to choose the owner from three options. The prize was a choice of one of the top 10 toys at Christmas, and part of the cost of the call was to be given to the children's charity, Unicef. Sadly, thanks to the perils of live transmission and the gremlins all too often associated with it, not one of the 13,862 viewers who rang in got through. A panicking producer asked a girl visiting the studios as a prize from another competition to pose as a caller and 'win' this latest competition, which she duly did. The apology went out on all domestic BBC news outlets and on its website, as well as live during the show. Details emerged during a week in which presenters on several supposedly live programmes were urging viewers to phone in using premium rate numbers to win prizes after potential winners had already been chosen. Sometimes the show in question was a repeat. Every weekday, 15,000 viewers were paying #1 (HK$15) a time to enter a competition on the popular chat show Richard and Judy, broadcast on Channel 4, hoping to win a cash prize. The winners were selected within the first seven minutes of the broadcast, but viewers were still being urged to call after that. It's estimated the scam could have earned Channel 4 and the programme makers #1 million within nine months. Now politicians are investigating and refunds are being demanded. Programme makers have the additional headache of finding ways to fill the airtime previously occupied by the phone-in segments. Another day in the cut-throat world of broadcasting in the multi-channel world, some might say. But it was the revelation about Blue Peter that shocked people. Generations have grown up watching the show, with its catchy Barnacle Bill theme tune and iconic logo of a full-masted sailing ship. The programme is named after the flag hoisted by ships in port when they are ready to sail, emphasising that the programme is intended to be a voyage of adventure and discovery. In a list of the 100 greatest TV programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, Blue Peter was placed sixth (Fawlty Towers came first). 'One of the reasons for that is that it actively and visibly strove to maintain the moral high ground,' said Gideon Spanier, media writer at the Evening Standard. 'Its presenters were selected for their clean-cut images. When they demonstrated how to make something, great care was taken in disguising the name of any products used such as the glue or cellotape. When a children's programme on the hallowed BBC gets embroiled in a scandal like this, it's the thin end of the wedge for phone-in competitions. Procedures need to be tightened up a lot.' It's not the first time Blue Peter has been embarrassed. In 1998, presenter Richard Bacon was sacked after the News of the World printed a story about him snorting cocaine in London's West End. On that occasion, the BBC's head of children's entertainment appeared on the show (and in several news bulletins) to apologise for letting viewers down. Bacon's career subsequently took off. He has just landed a job presenting a BBC radio show. The fate of the producer behind the phone-in scandal is unlikely to be so rosy.