The judges charged with selecting this year's heroes and villains raised two procedural objections. The first was that the word "hero" has been devalued by its indiscriminate usage in red-top newspapers. If the members of the national football team can be routinely garlanded as "England's heroes", then what word do you use to describe a polar explorer or a fireman who rescues a child from a burning building? The second objection was that so many of the leading figures in our national (and international) life could be claimed by either camp, talked up or written down depending on your point of view.
In particular, the judges were much exercised by the problem of the Wiki-Leaks founder Julian Assange. A sturdy freedom-fighter bent on uncovering the dirty secrets of a dangerously autocratic superpower, or a public nuisance with a private life to match, whose face, when pictured alongside his legal advisers after last week's bail hearing, displayed an uncomfortably Messianic zeal? The same went for Pope Benedict XVI, whose unexpectedly successful visit to the UK defied pundits and infuriated the atheist-libertarian-gay coalition that sprang up to oppose him, but whose hardline attitude on birth control was marked by only the most ambiguous of concessions.
It also applied, down in the twilight world of media-land, to Stephen Fry, who published a well-received autobiography, appear-ed near-continuously on all television channels and received the ultimate sporting accolade – a directorship of Norwich City Football Club – but continued to drop incautious remarks to interviewers, and was thought by neutral observers to have become seriously over-exposed. In each case the jury was, and continues to remain, out. Perhaps, in the end, "hero" and "villain" were dangerously absolutist terms and all that could be done was to isolate those who, in their own if not in other people's terms, had done well, or done badly, climbed to the heights or fallen calamitously to the depths
This was notably true in the field of domestic politics. The Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, for example, began the year as a wholly anonymous figure, gave a spirited performance in the televised leaders' debates, emerged from the general election campaign in a blaze of glory and then found himself vilified by thousands of protesting students as a turn-coat, while his party's poll ratings fell to as low as 10 per cent. Meanwhile, whatever one thought of his policies, David Cameron enjoyed spectacular success, leading a previously rag-tag Conservative Party to electoral triumph – or a muted version of it – for the first time in 18 years and appearing to be born to the job in which he now found himself.
The judges thought long and hard before fixing on their "political hero of the year". Michael Gove's genuine desire to achieve greater social mobility through improvements to the educational system were noted, although this achievement was compromised by a faint air of ideological confusion, marked by an inability to decide whether he wanted to set the people free, by allowing them to start their own schools, or regulate their children even more tightly. In the end, the winner was Caroline Lucas, who fought a dogged election campaign in her Brighton constituency and eventually emerged as the country's first Green MP.
It was a year in which the question of freedom, or its absence, loomed even larger in international affairs. The judges welcomed the release of the Burmese politician and human rights campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi from long-term house arrest, but were unanimous that the title of "international political hero of 2010" should be awarded to the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo, none of whose relatives – let alone Mr Liu himself – was naturally allowed to travel to Stockholm for the ceremony.
Back in the more garish landscapes of mediaville, the judges noted the heroic qualities displayed by Kate Middleton, in taking on a task of almost Herculean dimensions, and were impressed by the good nature and resourcefulness that characterised the former government minister Ann Widdecombe's many vigorous performances on Strictly Come Dancing. "Literary hero of the year" was undoubtedly the indefatigable Howard Jacobson, the merits of whose Booker-winning The Finkler Question put many a younger writer to shame, and with posthumous awards for Alan Sillitoe and Dame Beryl Bainbridge. Ultimately, though, the "media hero of the year" prize was bestowed on the somewhat unlikely figure of Rupert Murdoch for his institution of the Times Newspapers online pay-wall, which may or may not save print journalism but was at least a bold riposte to the comment-is-free battalions of cyberspace.
But what about real heroics? The judges were moved almost to tears by the efforts of the distinguished historian Tony Judt, who though immobilised by motor neurone disease produced a stream of high-grade political comment almost until the moment of his death. No consideration of heroism, in its true sense, could ignore the 33 trapped Chilean miners, brought to the surface after 69 days spent 700 metres below ground. The "international humanitarian" award went to the American actor Sean Penn, for his self-effacing work on behalf of the people of Haiti. But the overall winner was Warrant Officer Karl Ley, of the Royal Logistical Corps, a veteran of the Afghanistan campaign, who last week collected a George Medal from the Prince of Wales for defusing no fewer than 139 roadside bombs in the space of six months.
Predictably, the 2010 UK General Election threw up a substantial number of people who behaved badly. Chief among them was the former immigration minister Phil Woolas, since excluded from the Commons for including defamatory statements about his Lib Dem opponent in campaign literature. But the title of "political villain" was awarded to Lord Mandelson, greyest of eminence grises, and an immensely sinister contributor to the journalist Steve Richards' expose of the Brown Government's protracted fall.
Inevitably, some of the strongest performances came from international political figures. The Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, of course, has his advocates, as, in the midst of Irish financial meltdown, did the Taisoeach Brian Cowen. Meanwhile, nominations for the "tyrant of the year" award came thick and fast. The judges hesitated between Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko, frequently dubbed "Europe's last dictator" and recently re-elected to office with an improbable 80 per cent of the vote, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and the Ivorian leader Laurent Gbabo (who declared himself re-elected as president despite a 54 per cent vote for his opponent Alassane Ouattara), before unanimously settling for the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, not least for his government's despatch of telegrams to Western nations informing them that expressions of support for Liu Xia Obo (see above) would be seen as an unfriendly act.
By comparison, the world of the media offered only irritants. The judges were, as ever, appalled by the activities of Express Newspapers and newly-installed Channel Five supremo Richard Desmond – and terrified by rumours that he might be manoeuvring to purchase The Times. They were on the point of awarding the prize of "most conspicuous media villain" to the all-conquering entertainment impresario Simon Cowell, whose X-Factor franchise has apparently made him the second-richest media titan in the world, behind Oprah Winfrey, and the final of whose UK contest was watched by an audience of 20 million viewers, only to make a decisive last-moment shift in favour of The Hon Mr Justice Eady, whose energetic assaults on press freedom were once again a feature of the libel courts.
In a hot year for communal failure and the abrogation of corporate responsibility, there were loud calls for a series of collective awards. After a great deal of discussion these went to the Tea Party, for its role in the further degeneration of American politics, BAA for presiding over the recent chaos in Britain's airports, BP for its negligence over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Pakistan cricket XI (left in disarray by allegations of spot-betting scams) and the England football team for its shockingly inept performance in the recent World Cup – with a special mention for the player in whom the most unfulfilled hopes were invested, Wayne Rooney. A special award voted to the chief executives of Britain's leading financial institutions remains in the trophy cabinet, as no one could be persuaded to collect it. In default, a wreath was laid at that much-visited shrine, the Tomb of the Unknown Banker.
Finally, that overall "Villain of the Year" award. Happily this year's winner and the organisation which he dominates mingle several of the qualities noted above, among them vainglory, secrecy, unaccountability and limelight-hogging. Step forward Sepp Blatter, President of Fifa, and claim your prize.