Lady Antonia of Clark County

Why 'The Guardian' and its readers are still feeling the wrath of Ohio
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The Independent Online

At least Antonia Fraser was happy. The Guardian's "Operation Clark County" project to persuade Ohioan voters to back John Kerry may have spectacularly misfired, but the exercise gave the bestselling author an opportunity to bond with her American readership.

At least Antonia Fraser was happy. The Guardian's "Operation Clark County" project to persuade Ohioan voters to back John Kerry may have spectacularly misfired, but the exercise gave the bestselling author an opportunity to bond with her American readership.

Much of the rest of the world might be less forgiving of one of the more bizarre newspaper experiments of recent times, and if Kelvin MacKenzie were still editor of The Sun, he may well have been tempted to run the headline: "It was The Guardian wot lost it."

The "Operation Clark County" plan was the brainchild of the G2 editor Ian Katz, who, during an ideas session in a north-London pub, dreamed up the ruse of influencing the American election by getting Guardian readers to lecture voters in a key swing state on which candidate they should support.

Within days, the newspaper claimed to have sent out the names of 14,000 undecided voters to its readers. In fact, a number of these were simply people who had chosen not to vote in party primaries but were clear on whom they wanted to back.

Even before the avalanche of letters from Guardian readers began to arrive in mailboxes in Clark County, predictions that the ruse was going to be a shot in the arm for George W Bush were being made. Dan Harkins, the local Republican Party chairman, rubbed his hands with glee. "This is a very competitive county, where the undecided vote is very small. What The Guardian has done is firm up the Republican base. What a gift!"

When the votes were counted last week, a clear swing towards Bush emerged. Four years earlier, Al Gore had won Clark County for the Democrats by a tiny margin of 324 votes. This time around, the President carried the day, with a 1,600 county-wide swing in his favour.

Among those who received letters from Guardian readers was Beverly Coale, a Kerry supporter. She was advised by Neil Evans from Kent that if Bush was returned to power, Americans would have to "put on a Canadian accent when travelling abroad". She feared that the letter had been sent by terrorists.

Among Kerry campaigners, alarm bells were ringing. Sharon Manitta, spokeswoman in Britain for Democrats Abroad, warned: "This will certainly garner more votes for Bush."

On its website, The Guardian had also posted heartfelt messages from prominent liberals, including Ken Loach, the film director, who began his letter: "Friends, you have the chance to do the world a favour. Today, your country is reviled across continents as never before. You are seen as the greatest bully on earth."

And Antonia Fraser warned: "If you back Kerry, you will be voting against a savage, militaristic foreign policy of pre-emptive killing, which has stained the great name of the US so hideously in recent times."

Many Americans were not impressed and e-mailed their forthright views on the validity of Mr Katz's scheme to the newspaper.

"Just for a second, imagine if The Washington Post sent folks from Ohio to do the same in Oxfordshire," was one of the more considered responses. "I'm saying this as a Democrat, and as someone who has spent the last few years in the UK. That is, with all due respect. Please, please, be rational and move slowly away from the self-defeating hubris."

Others were more blunt: "I don't give a rat's ass if our election is going to have an effect on your worthless little life. I really don't. If you want to have a meaningful election in your crappy little island full of shitty food and yellow teeth, then maybe you should try not to sell your sovereignty out to Brussels and Berlin, dipshit. Oh yeah, - and brush your goddamned teeth, you filthy animals."

Even Mr Katz himself was taken aback. "You couldn't fail to be a little shocked by the volume and pitch of the invective directed our way." Some of the deluge of American responses appeared to have been co-ordinated by right-wing American bloggers. Others were the result of the large amount of American television coverage that the extraordinary scheme generated.

Such was the level of vitriol directed at the newspaper (53 Guardian journalists were individually targeted, with some receiving more than 700 e-mails, and the site itself was brought down by a hacker), that it belatedly decided to call off the experiment. Having promised to send the writers of the four best letters to Clark County on the eve of the election, The Guardian decided that such a trip would be ill-advised, and that it should leave "the good people of the county to make their minds up in peace".

As the voters of Clark County swung away from the Democrats, Mr Katz was asked by the BBC whether he felt responsible. "The only thing that's completely clear is that we didn't get Kerry elected, and nobody's going to be hiring me as a political strategist."

On Friday, The Guardian was anxiously trying to downplay the impact of Operation Clark County, running a story on its news pages ("Guardian 'did not swing Clark vote'") suggesting that the scheme had made so little impact that it could not have influenced the vote. It highlighted a suggestion that the President's proposal for a referendum on gay marriages may have "brought an extra 5,000 conservative voters to the polls".

At home on Friday, Antonia Fraser had no regrets about her involvement in the Operation. "The interesting thing from my point of view is that I have a lot of readers in the States, I'm more popular numerically in the States than here. I had a lot of e-mails from my readers saying, 'Good for you', and, 'We quite agree'. I didn't get any hostility. I don't think the exercise backfired in the slightest, quite frankly. All the feedback I got was from my readers, saying, 'Thank goodness you have spoken out'."