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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Insert worm gag here

At the weekend a worm caused a storm in a teacup. The worm in question is not a political candidate but a screen graphic used by Channel 9 to measure public approval of candidates. It takes the form of a line at the bottom of the screen that changes colour and tracks up and down an onscreen graph based on the real time electronic voting of a studio audience of undecided voters.

The storm in a teacup was because Channel 9 did not have permission to use this under the rules the National Press Club applied to allocate broadcast rights of the debate between Kevin Rudd and John Howard. They used it anyway and the NPC killed their feed. Channel 9 then switched to rebroadcasting ABC's feed with the worm patched over the top and claimed that the Press Club had bowed to pressure from the Government in killing their feed and called it a violation of free speech.

Almost everyone is ignoring this non-story except the two broadcasters involved and the international press who love a claim of free speech violation. Channel 9 may not have had permission to use the worm but do they really need permission? The damn thing was more of a distraction than anything, particularly if, like me, you had absolutely no idea what it was.

Oddly though Channel 9 had a news crew inside the online production suite; not something you do without good reason. Might they have had an inkling that this was going to happen and have actually bent the rules deliberately in a cynical ploy to gain ratings? Surely not.

The worm was an issue because John Howard does not fare well under the gimmick. He had only been on screen 3 seconds when the graph(ic) went into a negative reading from Rudd's immediately positive reading. The worm being left out of the broadcast was almost certainly part of the negotiations to actually get a debate aired. Rudd had wanted 3 debates, Howard has cleverly agreed to only one.

Cleverly because Howard is a very professional and polished politician with 11 years practice at being PM. People know who he is and his extempore speaking seems natural, he appears to know what he's talking about even when he is winging it. Rudd is not a familiar face nor do people necessarily feel they know what he's about. There is an air of Blair about him, although he is much less creepy and seems more genuine. Actually on those criteria he's nothing like Tony Blair but you take my point.

Rudd used the time well outlining policy and using phrases like "what my party stands for", "what I would do in office" etc. but on balance I'd have to give the debate to Howard. The PM consulted his notes far less, seemed more composed and didn't make the error of breaking eye contact with the camera or the person posing a question when he had finished talking, which Rudd did. Phone polls by the broadcasters and the newspapers broadly agree with me. Political analysts though split the honours evenly, citing Rudd's better use of detail and Howard's slight hesitancy on reconcilliation with Aboriginal people and troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq.

The worm firmly gave the debate to Rudd. If the audience really was composed of undecided voters then Howard may not be the totem he once was. This election is going to be a hard faught one in the marginal seats and if Howard provokes disapproval just by appearing on screen then he is going to need something extra. For me though the debate was proof that Howard is still tough and definitely more than a contender. [lazy joke about electorate being worm that turned goes here]