When Time in 1999 asked its readers to select their person of the century, the poll was hijacked by various carefully co-ordinated vote-rigging campaigns. Prospect is read by only about 60,000 people, rather less than Time’s 2m; nonetheless, we too had to fight off the vote-riggers. It began soon after the magazine came out last month with a clumsy attempt to boost Melvyn Bragg’s vote: within half an hour, I was sent about 20 email votes for Bragg, almost all from email addresses with an itv.com suffix. None of the emails included any other nominations-we had asked voters to select five names from our list-and some (“I vote for Melvyn!!!”) suggested that the voter was not treating the enterprise with full seriousness. Later campaigns on behalf of Ziauddin Sardar, Brian Eno and Anthony Barnett were executed no more skilfully, and the votes were similarly discounted. A late flurry of votes for Julian Le Grand-possibly after Frank Johnson in the Spectator questioned his existence-had the reek of orchestration about it, but seemed unlikely to disturb the final placings, so I let it pass.
The job of tallying up the votes – there were about 1,000 in all, similar to a national opinion poll sample – turned out to be rather interesting. It gave me a sense of the readership’s political centre of gravity, which, to judge by the voting and particularly the “bonus ball” selections, lies about two notches to the left of the magazine. It provided moments of great drama: while Dawkins, Greer, Sen and Hobsbawm were frontrunners from the start, the fifth spot came right down to the wire, with Jonathan Miller clinching it at the last minute ahead of Simon Schama and Timothy Garton Ash. And it was fun to watch the way voting patterns followed media coverage – the first newspaper to run a story about the poll was the Independent, and its middle east correspondent Robert Fisk leapt into the lead in our bonus ball soon afterwards; but after the Guardian denounced us for sexism, votes started to pour in for its columnist Polly Toynbee. Meanwhile, when the website Arts & Letters Daily (www.aldaily.com), which has a largely American audience, posted a link to our poll, Christopher Hitchens, who writes chiefly for American publications, rocketed up the list, only to slip back down again as the British media began to pay more attention to us.
A few people grumbled about the frivolity of the whole enterprise. But to judge by the comments appended to votes, not only did many people enjoy the idea of comparing intellectual endeavour across the disciplines, they found our choice of names provocative enough. Indeed, however arbitrary and subjective our list may have been, it suggests a strong bond between the producers and consumers of Prospect. There was a very wide spread of voting all the way through and everyone got at least one vote (although it was touch and go for Tom Nairn for a while).