Australia's embattled prime minister yesterday denied that a television network's coverage of an election debate was cut because a live graph showed he was losing to his opponent.
The charge of censorship threatened to overshadow Sunday night's debate between conservative prime minister John Howard and center-left Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd on issues such as Iraq and the economy.
The only face-off scheduled ahead of the vote on Nov. 24 was broadcast live by three TV networks, but the feed to Channel Nine was cut twice when it ran a "worm" graph monitoring the reactions of a group of 90 swing voters.
The graph showed mostly positive reaction to Rudd throughout the 90 minute debate but remained in mainly neutral or negative territory for Howard, who had opposed the use of the controversial gauge.
Channel Nine's live feed from the Great Hall of Parliament, watched by some 1.4 million viewers, was cut about half-way into the sometimes testy debate organized by the National Press Club.
Nine then picked up the Australian Broadcasting Corporation feed and put the worm back into play, before that too was cut. It then took its signal from Sky News and ran the worm until the end of the debate.
"The decision about the feed was taken by the National Press Club," Howard told reporters who questioned him over responsibility for the blackout. "I don't have any comment."
Rudd said he was surprised that Channel Nine's feed had been cut.
"This is Australia, it's not the Soviet Union, so if you have a free debate about the country's future ... it should be reported freely by anybody," he said.
Press club vice-president Glenn Milne said Channel Nine had broken an agreement not to use the worm.
But Nine's news chief John Westacott insisted there had been no such agreement and said cutting the feed was an "outrageous act of censorship" on behalf of Howard's Liberal Party.
The press club also came under attack from veteran Nine Network journalist Laurie Oakes, who was on the question panel for the debate.
"With a name like National Press Club, you'd think it would be out there defending the free press and the rights of the media," Oakes said. "Instead, it rolled over supinely when John Howard said you've got to ban the worm. That was the problem last night."
The leader of the Australian Greens party, Senator Bob Brown, called for a Senate inquiry into the incident.
"We cannot have a situation where there's a threat to take coverage of the democratic debate in this country off the air, to flick a switch and say off, because the prime minister's office doesn't like it or because the prime minister's losing a debate."
At the end of the debate, 65 percent of the undecided voters behind the worm said Rudd had won, against 29 percent who gave it to Howard and 6 percent who were undecided.
Major daily newspapers also gave victory to Rudd.
"Rudd outpoints feisty PM," said the Australian, while the Sydney Morning Herald invoked the dreaded worm with its headline: "Rudd gets a wriggle on."
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