The glamorous reporter, the cannibal tribes and a six-year-old 'ace in the hole'

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Deep within the jungle of Indonesia's Papua province live the Korowai people, one of the last tribes on earth to practise cannibalism. And the person destined to be killed and eaten next is Wa-Wa, a six-year-old boy believed to be possessed by evil spirits blamed for the sudden death of his parents.

That, at least, was the tale broadcast by Australia's Channel 9 network in May, reaping an audience of two million for its tabloid current affairs show60 Minutes. It was the highest-rated episode this year, and 9's bitter rival, Channel 7, which runs a similar programme, Today Tonight, was green with envy.

This week a Channel 7 crew, led by Today Tonight's glamorous host, Naomi Robson, was detained by immigration authorities in Jayapura, the Papuan capital. Indonesian officials said the Australians had flown to the province on tourist visas instead of applying for a special permit required to work there as journalists.

It was assumed by some they had gone there to film a story about the activists waging a decades-long fight for independence from Indonesia. But it soon transpired that Robson and her four-man team were planning to rescue Wa-Wa from the jaws of death - and give Today Tonight a much-needed boost.

Instead, they found themselves front-page news in Australia, as they were deported in a humiliating blaze of publicity. But, as they flew back to Sydney via Bali yesterday, the battle between the two commercial networks, which are engaged in a cut-throat ratings war, was just beginning.

It was not mere bad luck that the crew were picked up as soon as they arrived in Papua, Channel 7 claimed. Channel 7's director of news and current affairs, Peter Meakin, said someone at Channel 9 had tipped off authorities. And that someone, it was hinted, was Ben Fordham, who made the original programme.

According to 7, the Indonesians were told that Robson's team were members of the pro-independence Free Papua Movement, and were planning to kidnap children. That was not all. Fordham allegedly offered Aus$100,000 (£40,000) to a local "fixer", Paul Raffaele, and a guide, Cornelius, to dissuade them from assisting Channel 7. Meakin said: "I think the phrase was 'name your own price'." Channel 9 was consulting its lawyers after the allegations were broadcast onToday Tonight.

Meanwhile, Papuan specialists in Indonesia and Australia said that the Korowai have not practised cannibalism for many decades. Pula Makabory, a Papuan rights worker, said: "The cannibalism era has stopped since the Bible was delivered in West Papua. That was before I was born. There are no people eating people anymore."

Chris Ballard, an anthropologist at the Australian National University, agreed. He called the Channel 7 mission farcical, "akin to wandering about Baghdad asking about Paris Hilton". Dr Ballard told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC): "To have these clowns wandering around the landscape on so-called missions of mercy is a tragedy. It's laughable. The real cannibals in this are the commercial networks, who are trying to consume each other's audiences and each other's market share."

It was the latest controversy to dog Robson. Earlier this year she was forced to deny claims that she had a Winnebago camper van parked outside the Tasmanian mine where two men were trapped underground, so she could fix her hair and make-up.

Last week, Channel 7 viewers complained about her coverage of the death of Steve Irwin, the television naturalist. Robson was filmed outside Irwin's Australia Zoo, in Queensland, wearing a khaki outfit of the type that was his trademark, and with a live dragon lizard perched on one shoulder. Her image has also been dented by leaked tapes of her in the Today Tonight studio where she is heard swearing nine times in 15 seconds and poking fun at fat people while doing her make-up.

In Papua, the plan was to rescue Wa-Wa from his village and take him to foster parents in Jayapura, while filming every step of the operation. The crew reportedly spent an anxious night in a luxury hotel after being detained. A picture of Robson in a local restaurant, heavily made-up, appeared on the front pages of Australian newspapers yesterday.

Meakin stood by his claim that Channel 9 sabotaged the mission, saying he had "substantive evidence", including notes of conversations between Mr Raffaele and the network. The head of news at 9, Gary Linnell, called the allegations "false and reprehensible".

Meanwhile, Wa-Wa, who may or may not be facing death at the hands of cannibals, appears to have been forgotten.

A spokesman for Unicef, the UN children's agency, told the ABC that Papua province had one of the world's highest infant mortality rates. He said that children there needed to be immunised against common diseases, protected against malnutrition and given access to clean water. He did not mention cannibalism.