People of the year

Your chance to vote for the man, woman and villain of 1997; As Radio 4's 'Today' abandons its annual poll, the 'IoS' invites you to have your say

Labour's spin machine has a lot to answer for: massaging the facts, twisting the truth, bleaching the colour out of politics. But one of its more heinous crimes led to the demise of a much-loved institution - Radio 4's Today poll for Man and Woman of the Year.

A piece of harmless fun has been dropped because, it is said, the corporation became suspicious at the number of entries in last year's poll supporting Tony Blair. To be fair, rigging popularity contests is not unique to Labour. Time magazine is inviting entries for the extravagantly titled Man of the Century ranking, and has been deluged with votes from Turkey, where the magazine has a modest circulation, for Ataturk, father of modern Turkey.

In the absence of Today's poll, the Independent on Sunday announces the launch of its own survey and invites readers to nominate the Man, the Woman and the Villain of 1997. We do so in the hope that Labour's juggernaut will try not to influence the outcome. (We will be watching; not too many entries, please, from the PM's constituency in Sedgefield, or from London SW1).

We have decided to broaden Today's categories to include Villain of the Year. The need to do this became apparent after we analysed the contenders for Man and Woman of the Year. The past 12 months have proved to be a fine illustration of the transitory nature of fame. People who are hailed for their apparent goodness in one month can be condemned for their alleged badness the next.

Another reason for Villain of the Year - and it may say as much about the nature of the media and the way in which celebrity is acquired - is that when we assessed those who had left a mark on 1997, they were not all good. On the contrary.

The following list of possible runners and riders is by no means exclusive but it does show that 1997 has been notable for people who achieved fame for the wrong reasons. It is rather easier to choose villains than heroes and heroines. (The one notable exception is Billy Deacon, the helicopter winchman who saved 10 men from a shipwreck off Shetland, only to be swept away and drowned).

The world currently lacks figures of genuine stature and wide appeal. Nelson Mandela is the only statesman, and he stands head and shoulders above the rest. Another global figure who is not a politician but is wealthier and more powerful than several nations is Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder. He had another year of progress, cementing relations with the Government, giving a boost to Cambridge University with an injection of capital and seeing off his commercial rivals.

Mahathir Mohamad, the Malaysian premier, sought pre-eminence and was made to look silly. Claims that Jewish currency speculators were trying to ruin his economy could not hide its weakness; Malaysia has been a bubble threatening to burst for some time now. Saddam Hussein cocked a snook at the world again, but, as a villain, he has not equalled his performance in 1990.

We live in a time of inclusive politics. In reality, they appear to translate into everybody being more or less the same. Sadly, this movement towards consensus has tarnished the domestic scene, making heroes out of alternative "eco-warriors" like Swampy, who consolidated his reputation in 1997 by campaigning against the new Manchester airport runway, but making traditional politicians appear unresponsive, unemotional and lacklustre. This year Labour won an historic election. For that alone, Tony Blair might be expected to emerge a clear winner as Man of the Year. But perhaps not. The honeymoon after his 1 May triumph is over. His attempt to position himself above the mire of sleaze was destroyed by the Bernie Ecclestone affair. Rumblings of discontent among his backbenchers and a feeling of disquiet that he is a Labour PM prepared to put pragmatism before principle, do not augur well.

If Blair is not having such a good end to 1997, Gordon Brown, who withdrew from the Labour leadership contest in his favour, is covering himself in glory. Described by one senior Labour insider last week as "the chief executive to Tony's chairman", Brown has set the pace. Indeed, such has been the quality of his performance that you might pause for a second, and imagine how this administration would seem without him.

Blair and Brown took the spoils, but the vanquished deserve mention. John Major and - let us try not to forget - Michael Portillo showed that it is possible to accept humiliation with grace. Another Tory, Chris Patten, also put the interests of ordinary people first in the run-up to the Hong Kong handover. As the last governor, he fought for the interests of those left behind. He did not need to do it and he provoked the wrath of grandees, notably Sir Edward Heath and Lord Howe, but he was not deterred.

Despite claims that this would be a new-look House of Commons, celebrated women are rare enough. Two women Cabinet members have, however, grown in authority. Clare Short and Mo Mowlam must both be contenders for Woman of the Year. Alas, the same cannot be said for their colleague, Harriet Harman. She looks more isolated than ever, to a degree that might make her a possible candidate for Villain of the Year.

Another Labour figure about whom there is much muttering among backbenchers and activists is Peter Mandelson, Minister without Portfolio. A disastrous spell helping John Prescott mind the shop while Blair was on holiday will not be easily forgiven. Since then, Mandelson's halo has become even more dented.

Westminster is bereft of people who speak their mind. Angela Eagle, the Labour minister, had the courage to come out as a lesbian. Two politicians who still believe in calling a spade a spade, thank goodness, are Ann Widdecombe and Quentin Davies. On the Tory side, they stand out, as does John Redwood, to date the only Shadow Cabinet member who has a clue how to take the fight to Labour. His leader, William Hague is a disappointment - respected in the Commons, but ridiculed in the country. Marriage to Ffion cannot come a moment too soon.

Ffion, however, is pitted against Cherie Blair QC, a formidable opposite number: mother of three, style-setter, a Downing Street princess. The Blairs are so adept at seizing the popular mood that they left the real royals nowhere. Two moments stand out: the begrudging lowering of the flag at the Palace in respect for Diana, Princess of Wales, was made, apparently, after pressure from Downing Street, and the Blairs' scene- stealing during the Queen and Prince Philip's golden wedding celebration.

We do not know where Princes Diana would have ranked in our poll had she been alive. Her anti-landmines campaign would have earned her plaudits; but we would, surely, have grown heartily sick of her constant canoodling with Dodi Fayed.

The landmines campaign captured the imagination and was applauded everywhere, winning the Nobel peace prize for Jody Williams, one of its architects - everywhere, that is, except the White House. Bill Clinton did not have a good 1997, refusing to associate the US with the ban on landmines, being laggardly on restricting carbon dioxide emissions, and unable to shake off Paula Jones's allegations.

Nothing illustrates the swings and roundabouts of celebrity more than Diana's brother, Earl Spencer. At her funeral in September, he was a popular hero, speaking from the heart and taking on the Royal Family. Now, he is a spent force, broken by his own divorce, and by the accusations against him from his wife, Victoria Lockwood and mistress, Chantal Collopy.

Mohamed Al Fayed received sympathy for the loss of his son, Dodi, only to see his image eroded by the controversy over his claim to have been told Diana's last words, his capitulation in his libel action against Vanity Fair, and accusations made against him by Tiny Rowland.

At her funeral, and afterwards with his charity recording of the new version of Candle In The Wind, Elton John showed that the pop music business is not entirely dominated by pound signs. In the same industry, the Spice Girls proclaimed "Girl Power", but they may well not be together this time next year. When it comes to musical ability, there is little to choose between the Spice Girls and the Teletubbies. Both have their detractors, but each left a mark of sorts on 1997.

Two other deaths dominated headlines: Gianni Versace and Mother Teresa. (The calculating way in which Andrew Cunanan, Versace's killer, left a trail of death across America makes him a contender for Villain of the Year.)

Michael Schumacher and Mike Tyson also went from hero to zero this year. Winnie Mandela, once admired for her stoicism during her husband's long incarceration, is now vilified.

Other legitimate candidates for Villain of the Year include Neil and Christine Hamilton - held responsible by Tory campaigners for allowing sleaze to dominate on the doorstep in the election - and Jonathan Aitken for being prepared to have his young daughter perjure herself in his defence in a libel action. A refreshing counter-blast against sleaze came from Martin Bell, the BBC correspondent who put himself up as an independent to trounce Neil Hamilton in Tatton.

In a year of bounders and cads, Andrew Regan stands out among businessmen. Cocky and greedy, he attempted to turn decades of mutuality on its head and break up the Co-op. But Regan relied on information supplied to him from within the Co-op, and was exposed and condemned.

City fund manager Nicola Horlick, painted herself as a "Superwoman" because she earned a million a year while bringing up five children. (She lost her job but the nannies stayed on.)

Is Louise Woodward a heroine or a villain? You, the jury, decide. (We will watch for support from Cheshire, her home county). Until he overturned the jury's verdict in the Woodward case, Judge Hiller Zobel was a hate figure in the tabloids. Then he reprieved his reputation, although some think he went too far and that the verdict of 12 people should have stood. And what of Barry Scheck, her bumptious lawyer? On his advice she fought the murder rap, which carried a life sentence, when the prosecution would have accepted a conviction on the charge of manslaughter.

Space provided examples of genuine achievement and heroism. The Hale- Bopp comet and the Pathfinder mission to Mars made us contemplate our origins, while the plight of the crew on the Mir Space Station forced us to hold our breath.

Dolly the Sheep was a triumph of scientific endeavour or disastrous meddling with nature, depending on your point of view. Dolly as Heroine or Villain of the Year? The choice is yours. They all are.

The faces that have dominated 1997: 1. Chancellor Gordon Brown 2. Microsoft maestro Bill Gates 3. Elton 'Candle in the Wind' John 4. Diana, Princess of Wales (regrettably not a contender) 5. Secretary of State for Overseas Development Clare Short 6. Earl Spencer 7. Disgraced Mike Tyson 8. Peter Mandelson 9. Sleaze-busting Martin Bell 10. Genetically engineered Dolly the Sheep 11. Quieter-than-usual Saddam Hussein 12. Sidetracked Michael Schumacher 13. Reprieved Louise Woodward 14. Supporter of the Hong Kong stayers Chris Patten 15. Out of touch and out of favour Harriet Harman 16. Superwoman Nicola Horlick 17. Table-turning Judge Hiller Zobel 18. Unabashed liar Jonathan Aitken 19 & 20. Sleaze couple Christine and Neil Hamilton 21. Chic Cherie Blair 22. Photo opportunist Tony Blair 23. Lesbian MP Angela Eagle 24. On-track Pathfinder Mission to Mars 25. Light-bringing Hale-Bopp Comet

PHOTOMONTAGE BY MIKE ROSCOE

The Rules

In Order to try to prevent the sort of vote-rigging that bedevilled last year's Radio 4 Today poll, readers are asked to nominate first, second and third choices in each of the three categories: Man of the Year, Woman of the Year and Villain of the Year.

Only one entry per sender please. A person cannot be nominated more than once in each category. Three points will be awarded for first place, two for second and one for third.

Nominations are not restricted to names mentioned in the accompanying introductory article. Dead people cannot be nominated.

Entries close at noon on Thursday 18 December, and results will be announced on Sunday 21 December.

Entries can be made by post, to: People of the Year, Editor's Office, Independent on Sunday, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL or via the Internet on the IoS site at http: //www. independent. co. uk. Postal entries, enclosing the sender's name and address, will be entered into a draw, with the first 20 entries drawn receiving a bottle of champagne.

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