Last Tuesday Tony Abbott won the great health debate, but the majority of the Australian media refused to accept the outcome. And the incredible thing is that they chose to use the highly irresponsible, and unreliable, Channel Nine Worm as their main evidence. 

You would imagine that with the cream of Australia’s media talent assembled at the National Press Club there would be some serious examination of what Prime Minister Rudd had to say and how the Leader of the Opposition responded. After all, that was the whole idea of the debate. But no. Our media aristocracy decided to base their judgement on the Channel Nine Worm

Was there any questioning of Kevin Rudd’s fanciful tale of how he sat around the breakfast table as a kid, discussing the state of Queenslands public hospital systems, with his mum and sister? Was there any media attention to the litany of failures of the Rudd government and lists of broken promises that Tony Abbott pointed out in his opening address? No! Our television, radio and newspapers took their lead from a dodgy electronic gimmick called the Channel Nine Worm

Listening to the debate on the ABC’s News Radio station I seem to remember the man hosting the ABC broadcast (not the moderator, Chris Uhlmann) saying at the finish of the debate something to the effect that the debate was a close run thing. Then he said that he just received reports coming in that the Channel Nine Worm had given the prize to Kevin Rudd. From that moment on, all that the media could report was the Worm. Things like the Worm didn’t like Tony Abbott, the Worm didn’t like the so called negative positions Abbott took. Then the Worm loved all of Kevin Rudd’s motherhood statements, the Worm loved all the childhood “state of the hospitals” chat around the morning Weeties and the Vegemite toast. 

So what is this Worm that so impresses those dedicated to seriously informing us? 

Well the 100 people selected to operate the Worm handsets are paid $50 each for their trouble. They are chosen from a database of a market research company called EKAS and they are all self-confessed “undecided voters”. Well here is a slight problem to start with. A paid voter is, to some degree, a servant of the company paying. Undecided voters are just that, “undecided”. Possibly their main thing in common is that they are not that interested in politics, or issues, and they generally decide on things non-political or at least not along philosophical party lines. They just can’t make up their minds! 

Then there is the issues as to how they are “briefed” prior to the debate. And presumably Channel Nine doesn’t have 100 rooms or booths, so it is a good bet that the “undecideds” were in the same space, able to view how the others were operating their handset-buttons.

And there is the issue of the 100 “undecideds” being free to attend a TV station during the daytime. Did none of these people work?

There is also the interesting phenomenon whereby the good old Worm actually moved downwards before Tony Abbott got to his point and moved upwards before Kevin Rudd got to his. Quite curious. The Worm anticipates, therefore it thinks? 

Back in 2004 the Worm was (or at least Channel Nine Producers were) accused of manipulating public opinion. During the John Howard/Mark Latham debate The Channel Nine Worm gave the win to Latham 67 to 33. Again the “uncommitted” (that’s what they were called then) were put in a room with their handsets, and paid their money, to “vote” with their handset-buttons as the debate progressed. A very decisive win you might think. 

Unfortunately for the Worm and Ray Martin, the Worm was found to be more that a bit dodgy, it was totally unreliable. Ray Martin was forced to admit (sheepishly) on the next evening’s A Current Affair that their telephone poll, which attracted 55,000 callers gave the debate to John Howard with Howard getting 65% and Latham 35%. The gullible media at the time ignored the telephone poll and continued to promote the discredited Worm

Another curious thing about the debate was the media’s spin on the actual conduct of the debate. The “question” the debate was to address was the “health and hospital reform” that the Rudd government was proposing. There was never ever any suggestion before the debate that the debate should include the Opposition’s health policy. The issue, or the counter argument, was clearly identified by Tony Abbott in his opening address. Was Kevin Rudd capable of delivering? That was the counterpoint — but it was lost on the media. They attacked Abbott for not debating his policy. Never let a sound argument get in the way of an overactive Worm

Nearly all media coverage of the debate ignored Abbott’s litany of Rudd-government failures. Failure to build 32 Super Clinics, failure to deliver school computers, failure to listen to warnings about the 2.7 billion pink batts fiasco, the rorts in the school building program (Building the Education Revolution) and the total failure of Australia’s border protection. Abbott’s counter argument — spin over substance. Or as Miranda Devine said in the Sydney Morning Herald—”the Worm is a moron”. 

But perhaps the best review of the Rudd/Abbott health debate was by Christian Kerr in the Weekend Australian, headed “Tony Abbott cuts through the PM’s jargon and slogans to reach the people.” He went on to say, “ Abbott is flesh and blood while Kevin Rudd, to use playwright Louis Nowra’s words, “seems merely a willy-willy of spin”.  

Remarkably, Channel Nine attracted 274,000 Worm watchers during the health debate. The ABC managed only 180,000 for their worm-free broadcast. These are extraordinary figures for a daytime political debate. 

As always, a telling issue with Kevin Rudd is his inability to look his opponents in the eye. This was obvious on Tuesday, as it is when parliament is sitting, when Rudd refuses to look at opposition speakers at the dispatch box. It isn’t a good look. It’s bad manners. 

Tony Abbott didn’t lose the health debate — the majority of the media did. And we are poorer for it.

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