In 2002, the BBC tried to engage British viewers in a passionate debate to vote for their greatest Briton of all time. On the BBC2 was the program 'The Great Britons'. The publicity campaign ran for 6 weeks between October and November. In 2001, the British people had casted 35,000 votes to nominate their 100 greatest Britons. Of those 100, ten were selected and each 10 high-profile advocates would then passionately argued their case of why voters should elect their nominated candidate for the honour of becoming the Great Briton of all. A biographical film would also be shown profiling each candidate.
On polling day, viewers casted 1,622,248 votes. In the end, the public decided on Winston Churchill who received 456,498 votes. Jane Root developed the program for television remarked, "I'm really pleased that this series has so captured the (British) public's imagination and have been delighted by the level of interest and debate generated. More than a million and a half votes have been cast and it's become a major talking point, from the pub and the classroom, to the House of Commons. I hope people all around the country will be moved by the passion in their argument and will join in the debate and get voting!"
Seven years earlier in 1995 in an interview on the 'Panorama' program Diana had stated, "I think the British people need someone in public life to give affection, to make them feel important, to support them, to give them light in their dark tunnels. I'd like to be an ambassador for this country. I'd like to represent this country abroad. I see it as a possibly unique role, and yes, I've had difficulties, as everybody has witnessed over the years, but let's now use the knowledge I've gathered to help other people in distress." Diana received 225,584 votes.
Until the last week of the campaign, Winston Churchill was trailing Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Diana, Princess of Wales. By the close of voting, with the assistance of the International Churchill Society, the statesman surged ahead and won the honour. The campaign for Churchill saw the chairman of the society's branch in the United Kingdom sending e-mails to its members in Britain, United States, Canada and Australia appealing for them to vote.
Mo Mowlam maintained, "Churchill was the greatest and I'm absolutely delighted that the public agree with me. He was the greatest Briton because he showed the determination and courage to protect Britain from invasion and without his inspiring leadership the outcome of World War II may have been very different. He was the choice of the people."
Jeremy Clarkson for Isambard Kingdom Brunel (who received 398,526 votes) expressed, "Although it's disappointing, I'd like to thank everyone who voted for Brunel as it's still a tremendous triumph for engineering. I reckon an enormous amount of votes from America helped win it for Churchill - Americans have once again interfered in our affairs!"
Viewers voted either by phoning or went online. The BBC explained, "A great Briton is defined as anyone who was born in the British Isles, including Ireland; or anyone who lived in the British Isles, including Ireland, and who has played a significant part in the life of the British Isles." Of the 10 candidates in the running for the Great Briton of all honour, it was Diana's name which had raised the most eyebrows. One commentator admitted to feeling "dumbfounded", "To regard her as a great Briton seems to be absurd."
In forums and message boards on the internet, the British started debating. "I think the criticism of Diana has been amplified because she's on this list. Seeing her in the same list as the big hitters seems offensive," said one. "Many people thought she should be on the list. She was championed as the one person on the list who have not won wars or written books or split the atom or anything 'silly like that' really, connected with real people, emotionally," said another. "At the start of the show Di was 4th (incidently, female voters voted her 1st, males voted her 5th). If she wins, I'll emigrate," another added.
The general consensus of voters had been against Diana becoming the Great Briton of all. Comments included:
A: "I am no fan of Diana but why was she even on this list? Fair enough she had a hard life but no worse than millions in the world. Not a great Briton in my opinion."
B: "I fear that Di will top the poll after her show. And if the Beeb (BBC) put her show on towards the end of the run, I think she'll win it. And the world's opinion of the intellectual ability of the British public will reach a low point from which it may never recover."
C: "I enjoyed the debate. Di in Top 3 is a joke. That's what you get when the general public are involved."
D: "The fact that Diana hasn't budged in spite of getting a small percentage of the votes after the last two or three programs recently suggests that the 'turn out' has been low."
E: "Please, for the sake of all that's good about Britain, please don't let Diana win! Nice enough lady, in her way, I suppose, but one of the ten greatest Britons of all time?"
F: "The day after Diana died, I bought a 'Guardian' (of all papers - the 'Mail' you could've understood). I flipped through and found page after page on the same story. There was even an obituary page in case we haven't got the message yet. There was a full page ad for Mercedes, stocks and shares news, horse racing results and a page of football news (my team did not play so I didn't bother reading that either). Nothing else. A complete and total waste of paper. It went straight in the bin."
G: "If Winston or some such won I wouldn't be disappointed but if it's Diana, Britain should hang it's head in shame."
H: "I know a few Irish people who are voting Diana just to show you up :p."
In the final stage of the campaign, all advocates met in a live studio debate to swing late voters to cast their ballot for the candidate the advocate had endorsed. Only the Top 3 winners secured percentage of the votes in double digits: Winston Churchill (28%); Isambard Kingdom Brunel (24%) and Diana (14%). BBC announced, "All profits made from voting up to the final program will be spent on a work of art to commemorate the greatest Briton as voted for by BBC viewers. A short list of artists will be drawn up in the next few days and they will be asked to submit their ideas. All profits made from the final program will be given to BBC Children In Need."