Oz current affairs battle heats up

Clash of seven and nine becomes news

SYDNEY In a year of hotly contested ratings between the Nine and Seven networks, one of the fiercest battlegrounds is in news and current affairs, between “Today Tonight” (Seven) and “A Current Affair” (Nine). Recently, however, the fight has become so heated that the current affairs skeins have gone from reporting the news to making it.

Last week, Seven Network ran a story claiming its rival had caused a near-fatal car crash in Melbourne; Seven trotted out a witness who claimed “A Current Affair’s” crew and its driver had been navigating crazily in front of his truck before the dramatic accident.” Story implied that the Nine crew was driving repeatedly through a tunnel to get action-packed footage for a news piece.

Seven narrowly won the night with its tunnel vision, “Today Tonight” scoring an aud of 1.57 million and “A Current Affair” crashing out with 1.43 million.

But this is just the latest salvo in a flurry of on- and off-air clashes.

Late last year, then-“Today Tonight” presenter Naomi Robson and her crew were detained in Indonesia while trying to film a story about the region’s cannibals that originally appeared on Nine’s “60 Minutes.” The Seven show’s crew was prevented from filming the story by Indonesian authorities, due to the fact they had tourist visas, not working visas.

A vicious war of words followed, with Seven claiming Nine had spoken to the Indonesian government to try to stop them from doing the story; Nine warned it would take legal action over the slanderous comments, though no such action ensued.

Round Two came in February, and was fought by proxy. “Today Tonight” ran a story about Mercedes Corby, whose sister Schapelle is in jail in Bali for drug trafficking. An interview with a family friend, Jodie Power, claimed the Corby family had a history of taking and dealing drugs.

The Corby saga has been huge news Down Under, and the interview, for which Power was paid, drew more than 2 million viewers and launched a very public battle between Power and Corby; each had a TV network fighting in her corner.

Corby hotly disputed Power’s claims, with an appearance on “A Current Affair” that attacked the Power interview as lies. Corby also launched a legal assault on “Today Tonight” due in the courts this month.

The fight spilled over into the newspapers, and ignited the oft-debated ethics of checkbook journalism. Viewers eventually tired of the warring, with both skeins settling back to their normal viewer figures of just over a million.

Soon after the Corby affair, a “Today Tonight” reporter was suspended when it was revealed that he had supplied chains to lock an 84-year-old woman in her retirement home room.

The program had claimed the woman was chaining herself up in protest at being kicked out of the nursing home, but it turned out the chains had been the reporter’s idea. “Today Tonight” was forced into an apology for the creativity of its employee.

So, as the two webs continue to slug it out to get the ratings edge, the accusation of wild driving is just another chapter in what is increasingly becoming car-crash TV.

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