Row as 'Today' programme's poll is won by fox-hunting alliance

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The Independent Online

It should have been a bit of festive fun with a slightly serious political edge. But the Radio 4 Today programme's annual Christmas survey instead led to a row after listeners voted to repeal the ban on fox-hunting.

The poll, which has a long history of producing questionable results, caused more controversy this year, with claims that the Countryside Alliance had orchestrated calls to abolish the 2004 Hunting Act.

The Alliance dismissed the claims as "sour grapes".

A total of 52.8 per cent of the telephone and internet votes went to repealing the hunting ban. It was well ahead of the 29.7 per cent of the voters who wanted to scrap the 1972 European Communities Act, which took Britain into what is now the European Union.

The huge vote raised suspicions that the annual political parlour game for devotees of the combative morning show had been subject to unsportingly effective campaigning.

Announcing the results, presenter Ed Stourton acknowledging that there were "suspicions that there was an organised campaign at work".

Anti-hunt Tory MP Ann Widdecombe, a member of the panel which chose the shortlist of Acts for the "Christmas Repeal", also suggested organised forces may have been at work. "We did hesitate on the panel to put this one forward because there was already evidence of links from the Countryside Alliance - encouragement etc - and of course we had the Boxing Day meets, when just about everybody who actively supports hunting would have been out and could have been reminded."

The League Against Cruel Sports even urged its members to write to the BBC to complain and accused the Alliance of running a "strategic campaign" to get the Act top of the BBC poll. A spokesman for the league said: "This continues the Today tradition of orchestrated polls."

The Countryside Alliance website has a message from its chief executive, Simon Hart, saying that "winning this vote will add to the growing momentum for a future Parliament to scrap it."

The alliance's president, Baroness Mallalieu QC, said "What we did was to notify people on the website that this vote was taking place and suggest that they vote."

Three years ago, Labour backbencher Stephen Pound was embarrassed after volunteering to help promote a Bill chosen by listeners, only to find they backed a new law that would allow people to use any means to defend their property from an intruder.

In 1996 the programme's vote for a man or woman of the year voting had to be stopped early after it emerged that Labour was trying to organise a mass vote for Tony Blair.

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