Hunt supporters cheated in TV poll

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ITV HAS dropped a national opinion poll on fox-hunting after hunt supporters tried to rig the vote.

The television company suddenly stopped this month's national poll on hunting after it discovered an organised multiple-voting campaign by those opposed to a ban.

Executives at ITV Teletext, which carries regular polls on current affairs issues, decided to scrap the poll after it found hundreds of "no" votes being dialled from the same numbers.

"We keep an eye on our polls and we discovered that there was multiple voting from the same numbers for the noes," said an ITV spokeswoman. "We took the poll off air and investigated it. We could see from the numbers that there was multiple voting going on."

The Countryside Alliance, which is spearheading the campaign to save fox-hunting, had contacted supporters about the ITV poll. It told them how to vote "no" in the poll and instructed them "to start phoning now".

The Independent on Sunday has obtained an e-mail from the alliance that includes the phone number for a "no" vote.

The e-mail, sent throughout the pro-hunting network, from Henny Goddard, who works at the Countryside Alliance's headquarters, reads: "Please phone the following number ... Teletext vote following Prime Minister's latest statement on hunting last night. Please distribute far and wide. Please start phoning now for ITV Teletext poll on page 326: Should hunting be banned."

Last week the Countryside Alliance distanced itself from a similar operation involving a chain letter urging hunt supporters to use polls to "turn the tables" on "a well-organised campaign against us", "through sheer weight of numbers".

Last night the alliance admitted that it had contacted supporters, telling them to vote in the poll.

"We do let people know when these phone polls go on," said a spokesman. "Henny did send out this e-mail about the Teletext poll. She forwarded it to friends, and they sent it to other friends, who sent it on to other friends. But these are real people that are calling in."

Earlier this month Tony Blair announced his intention to bring in legislation before the next general election to ban fox-hunting.

He surprised MPs by announcing on BBC's Question Time that "we will get the vote to ban as soon as we possibly can". But it is now likely that local regions will be able to hold referendums about whether to retain hunting or not.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said that the pro-hunting lobby's attempt to rig opinion polls, which consistently show a majority of British people in favour of a ban, was a desperate measure.

A recent MORI poll found that 68 per cent of people who lived in the the country were opposed to hunting and that 53 per cent of Conservative voters were opposed to hunting with dogs.

"This is an absolutely desperate attempt to rig democracy," said an IFAW spokesman. "We know that the strength of public feeling is firmly against hunting. They are trying to manipulate the polling and they have been caught out."