Comic Relief leaves BT laughing

...all the way to the bank

It's Comic Relief day* today. Subsequently, you are likely to be bombarded with daft and silly events in the hope that you will part with a few quid. As ever, one of the main fundraising tools is a premium phone line which people can call to vote for various TV clips, people etc etc.

At £1 a call, this is a very good way to raise money as people donate to charity and they get something back as well. Imagine our surprise then when the Today programme today on Radio 4 revealed that for every phone call made, Comic Relief receives just 64p. Where does the other money go?

Why, BT of course. Apparently it costs BT 36p of every £1 for line rental and setting up the network. That's over a third of the total cost. Does this not seem a little excessive? Especially considering that the entire event is for charity?

If this really is cost price to BT, it must surely raise questions about BT's efficacy. It sets up hundreds of charity phone lines every year and has been doing so for a couple of decades. Does it really cost 36p for every phone call? And we thought telecoms had become a low-cost all-encompassing industry.

We called up BT and are waiting for it to get back to us to explain just how expensive and complicated these systems are. We also called up Cable & Wireless to ask how much it would charge for the same service. Last week, C&W took a £700,000 contract off BT for the Samaritans because callers were getting engaged signals. It charged the charity half what BT was asking.

A C&W spokesman told us however that he couldn't give us a breakdown of costs at such short notice. Besides, he told us, "it's not really in the spirit of Comic Relief to denigrate a competitor". Well, at least one company has charitable intentions. ®

* For our non-UK readers, this is an biennial (once every two years) charity event set up by leading comedians to provide funds for developing countries. The premise is that people raise money by enjoying themselves.

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