And the loser is...

It has been John Major's year - just as it has been British cow year

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The scene is a concrete bunker in down-town Rangoon. Two men in dark glasses are poring over the front page of one of Britain's leading newspapers. The more senior of the two (let us call him U Deah) turns to his colleague and - in a quavering voice - accuses him of poor judgement. Had he not advised that the BBC's Personality of the Year poll - in which Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi had come third - was a farcical measure of public opinion in Britain? Why then are the results of this poll making headline news from Farringdon Road to Scapa Flow? "Calm down colonel," advises the emollient Nev A Rong, doyen of Burma's intelligence service. "Did you see who won?" U Deah takes a closer look, and suddenly his face cracks, his sides heave. "John Major!" he wheezes happily.

John Major, indeed! 1996 has been John Major's year in the same sense as it has been British cow year. He has had a dreadful time. Foreign policy is now purely a function of internal Tory party management, and he has been weak, briefing ineffectually against his leading ministers. Backbenchers routinely describe him as a "plonker", and his colleagues use more classical language.

So how can it possibly be that he has been voted BBC Personality of the Year by listeners of the Today programme? The Beeb itself discounts cheating, since he won without the assistance of 4,000 multiple votes (which were anyway not the result, said the BBC, of organised cheating, but of many tiny individual acts of corruption by ordinary Tories - which is very reassuring).

Other explanations include: subterranean popularity (in which folks who dare not speak openly about their love for the Prime Minister steal to the phone, and - casting about them for eavesdroppers - quietly dial the appropriate number); a split in the Female Martyr vote (which would have got two-thirds of the ballot had it not been divided between four candidates (the only non-martyred female who received votes was the preposterous Anglican homophobe Anne Atkins, who argues that only straight men should dress up in vicar's skirts), and an ingenious theory that many voters believed that they were actually voting for the person upon whom a personality ought to be conferred.

All of these individually or together may well account for what happened. Until recently there were two ballots: Man of the Year and Woman of the Year (always Mrs Thatcher). When these were amalgamated, the BBC was so terrified of accusations of political correctness that instead of calling the competition Person of the Year - which would have been logical - they called it Personality of the Year, which was not. This appalling title has muddied the water considerably.

But the explanation, I think, lies elsewhere. When I worked on Today it was in the last throes of holding an annual Young Person of the Year poll. This vote (regarded with deep hatred by presenters and producers alike) invited listeners to nominate a young person who contributed selflessly to the community, etc etc. They then told their stories on air, were shamelessly patronised and duly voted for. As the years rolled by the youngsters nominated became more and more unfortunate, their sacrifices greater, their nobility more extraordinary. Paraplegic teenagers vied with terminal cancer patients to run Outward Bound courses for schizophrenics. One impossible year there was a serious chance that, by polling day, more than half the nominees would be dead. We came in every morning wondering who had pegged it overnight. It was like working for Radio Lourdes.

It was dropped, just as Personality of the Year will be dropped - and for much the same reason. What Radio 4 listeners like to do is to give the underdog the consolation of their support at Christmas. The Burmese dissident under house arrest is in a bad way. She comes third. The Wolverhampton nursery teacher has been belaboured about the arms and head by a machete- wielding lunatic, while trying to protect her tiny charges. She comes second. But the most hapless, innocent victim of social breakdown this year, the man who has suffered every kind of indignity and adversity, the man for whom a machete blow to the head would be a blessed relief is (drums roll, a fanfare sounds) the Prime Minister!

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