By Martin Stabe
The editor of a weekly newspaper which caught an energy company manipulating its online poll has warned that such surveys are open to abuse.
E.ON UK admitted that some of its employees had voted repeatedly in an internet poll run by the Oldham Advertiser, a Guardian Media Group newspaper.
The Advertiser had asked readers to vote on whether E.ON should be allowed to build a wind farm on Denshaw Moor.
After noticing a sudden surge in "yes" votes on the second day the poll was running, the paper’s IT staff traced 140 votes to IP addresses registered to E.ON’s company HQ.
The company admitted that employees of its renewable energy team in Coventry had cast the votes. An E.ON spokesman referred to the employees involved as "idiots" and said: "They shouldn’t have done it and they’re very naughty people.
"Wind farm planning projects are a very local issue, so it’s less helpful for general supporters of renewables to get involved in these debates. It should just be left to local people."
The 140 E.ON votes were eliminated, along with 591 "no" votes which the paper traced to a single computer, but the "no" camp still won, with 57 per cent of the 2,000-plus online and telephone votes cast.
Advertiser editor David Lafferty said the findings were indicative of the general mood, but added: "Such polls are as good as it could be, but people shouldn’t take them too seriously.
"These polls are like the phone polls that newspapers have been doing for years.
"There’s nothing to stop people dialling in again and again."
On the eve of the planning decision, the Advertiser splashed with the story of the attempted manipulation of the poll and the adjusted result. The following day planners rejected E.ON’s wind farm application.
Lafferty added: "The poll came out pretty much as we expected, about 60/40, but we never expected anything like this. The poll was to give the people of Oldham a chance to make their feelings known.
"The fact is that a very big company tried to manipulate a poll that would have been taken in trust by the planners."