What happened next? The big stories of 2011

It’s been a year like no other, with revolution, radiation and riots. Kunal Dutta went back to the people who made the news

Sunday 18 December 2011 01:04 GMT

Support truly
independent journalism

Our mission is to deliver unbiased, fact-based reporting that holds power to account and exposes the truth.

Whether $5 or $50, every contribution counts.

Support us to deliver journalism without an agenda.

Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Phew. Is it over yet? From the downfall of two dictators, a crisis of global capitalism and an outbreak of protests against it, the closure of Britain's best-selling tabloid paper, revolutions that sent shockwaves across the world, and the ever so minor matter of a royal wedding, 2011 was a non-stop stream of news.

While 24-hour media scrambled to keep up with events, Twitter and Facebook filled the gaps, catapulting some of the most unlikely people from obscurity to international superhero and pantomime villains. From the Hackney grandmother who berated looters' obsession with consumer goods during the London riots, to the mayor of radiation-ridden Minamisoma who alerted the world to Japan's plight, to the News of the World hack whose brazen defence of his trade almost evoked admiration, to the leader of Norway's Labour youth wing who fled the bullets of Anders Breivik, to the GP who branded the NHS reforms as "staggeringly wasteful", and a new cabinet that emerged from the Libyan revolution – these are the people who unexpectedly made the news in the past 12 months.

But where are they now? How do they reflect on the moment their lives changed? Here, in the last issue of 2011, The Independent on Sunday catches up with the people who made the news and asked them for their exclusive account of what happened next.

Library closures: Colin Dexter, 71, author

Libraries became the unexpected social flashpoint of 2011 when the Government cut funding to local authorities and councils responded by proposing library closures.

Local communities, allied with a host of literary stars including Colin Dexter, the creator of Inspector Morse, rapidly mobilised to defend them. Judicial reviews challenging the closures were launched across England and Wales. In Scotland, MSPs were petitioned. Private US library service providers moved in for the kill, and many battles are still being fought up and down the land.

"As an older person who has seen libraries through the years, the events of this year are deeply depressing. What has worried me most about the calls for a 'big society' solution to the library problem in the past 12 months is the idea that you can cut library services and employ amateurs instead. Librarians have taken years to train up and can tell you what you should and shouldn't read. Some of the processes are very complicated indeed.

"I think the Government has been surprised by the scale of the response; their actions were taken on the assumption that people would just sit back and let the consultations pave the way for closure. Instead, you saw the people gather and revolt and take their case to the courts instead.

"I would rather turn off every light on the motorway than close our libraries. What we have seen this year will invariably lead to further cultural deprivation."

Japan's tsunami: Katsunobu Sakurai, 55, mayor of Minamisoma City

The tsunami that hit Japan on 11 March wrought devastation across the country. But Minamisoma became the focal point when three reactors at the nearby Fukushima nuclear plant went into meltdown in the worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl in 1986. Mr Sakurai made headlines around the world after criticising the Japanese government's response. "We have been left to die," he claimed.

"We were on the fourth floor in a meeting when the floor shook violently, and the shake got bigger and bigger. I was shocked, but since I'm the type who thinks 'whatever happens happens', I was trying to stop the water in front of me from spilling. I had no clue about the nuclear power plant crisis. That soon changed. My worst moment was just before the second explosion at the third reactor around 14 March. That's when people began evacuating the city. I always believed people live according to their destiny. Last year changed that. It showed you can see the best in people through strife. I learned the most important thing is to protect others, rather than trying to save yourself. People are gradually returning as radiation levels fall. Over half the original population is back and I think that will increase. The Geiger counter here continues to fall. The selflessness I have seen in the past year is ultimately something that should be praised."

The fall of Gaddafi: Mustafa Abdul Jalil, 59, head of Libya's National Transitional Council

One of the first senior officials from the Gaddafi regime to defect, Jalil switched sides after witnessing the Libyan security forces kill protesters after being sent to Benghazi to end the revolt.

"This revolution could never be planned. It was continued by the will of the Libyan people and God's will to remove Gaddafi. I was minister of justice for four years, but I wasn't happy to be in that position. I had submitted my resignation three times. I honestly never imagined things would turn out this way.

"Until 16 February I was in Tripoli. I learned from a friend in Bayda that they would have a demonstration on the streets there. That day, a football match between a club from Sudan and one from Bayda was being played. I travelled at once to Benghazi, then drove up to Bayda, where I heard the first cries of 'Down with the Gaddafi regime'."

This interview forms part of State of Denial, a television documentary made by Al Jazeera English

Bin Laden's death: Shoaib Athar, 33, café owner and IT consultant

When US Navy Seals closed in on Osama bin Laden, the news was broken by a Pakistani café owner on Twitter.

"In the aftermath of the attack, I could not get to sleep properly for the next two weeks due to a deluge of interview requests via email, phone and in person. I had to pause my personal projects and work to cater to as many media professionals as I could accommodate. Life in Abbottabad went back to normal in a week or two, after the journalists were asked to leave and stay in Islamabad – but I still get interview requests every week. Osama bin Laden may have been the mascot of terrorism, but his death did not result in instant world peace. War is still going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan, people are still dying, and terrorists are still plotting and attacking when they can.

"I deliberately avoided making money from the incident, and did not try to market myself using the new-found attention and audience – so besides the few hundred unanswered emails in my mailbox, and a few speaking engagements on citizen journalism scheduled for 2012, nothing much has changed. I still have around 75 per cent of the Twitter followers that I gained in May, so I do need to watch what I tweet to avoid unnecessary online arguments."

NHS reforms: Dr Laurence Buckman, 57, chairman, BMA's GP committee

The coalition's NHS reforms caused an angry backlash and created a political storm. Allowing GPs control of primary care budgets, they paved the way for greater competition in the health service. In June, Dr Blackman told GPs that the NHS "isn't just being cut to the bone, whole limbs are being amputated".

"We believe, and every shred of evidence points the same way, that this Bill will enable a market economy in healthcare to develop. That is different from competition, which not many have a problem with, but to have it run so that any profit ends up in foreign shareholders' pockets is not something we like done. I think it should be spent on patient care. The NHS is struggling to cope with a reducing budget and health reforms that were not in any manifesto. Whether you agree with these changes or not, the BMA believes that the majority of doctors do not want what is in the Health Bill. They do not believe it is necessary to have the Bill to get clinically led healthcare commissioning. The Government will press ahead regardless of misgivings and we will have an unstable health service for a year or two. And just as it settles down – who knows in what form – it will change again."

Hacking scandal: Paul McMullan, 49, journalist

As the scandal at the News of the World was probed by the Culture Committee and the Leveson inquiry, freelancer McMullan, who runs a pub, emerged as the only advocate for phone hacking. Appearing before his inquisitors in a crumpled suit and with a defiant demeanour, he sparred against an irate Steve Coogan on Newsnight. Propelled to celebrity, he capped off the year with an explosive testimony in front of Lord Justice Leveson in which he declared: "Privacy is for paedos."

"I have been a tabloid hack for 21 years and am familiar with its supposed 'dark arts'. I'm right to fight against public figures' self-appointed right to privacy. After the scandal broke, my summer was spent waiting for the next Newsnight appearance or fending off attacks from angry punters. I had people come into a bar and throw a pint glass at me. Someone tried to punch me and I am often told I was 'tabloid scum'. But I know I'm right. Since my appearance at Leveson and calling [Rebekah] Brooks and [Andy] Coulson 'scum', the mood has changed. People have shaken my hand. Even Steve Coogan and I are friends. My impression is that there won't be charges against the worst wrongdoers until late 2013, but my other prediction is that by the summer the News of the World will have been rehabilitated. But the Leveson inquiry felt like a climax to this year. Next year I am returning to renovating the pub I own, which has had film crews from every country in the world this year."

Norway's tragedy: Tim Viskjer, 18, survived Norway shootings

Norway was shaken by twin attacks. A car bomb near a government building in Oslo killed eight people, while a shooting at a youth summer camp on Utøya island left 69 dead. Initial speculation suggested the work of Islamic extremists, but when it emerged that the culprit was Anders Behring Breivik, a far-right Norwegian who lived on a farm with his mother, the nation went into shock. Tim Viskjer was forced to relive the experience when he watched Breivik's court hearing on a video screen from another room.

"After the attacks on 22 July, I've learned a lot about respecting others for who they are and about solidarity – just experiencing the togetherness after it happened taught me a lot. Terrorism had been unimaginable in Norway, and we had to face the fact that our society isn't as safe as we thought. Attacks can happen in Norway, the same as in other countries. I've had to take responsibility for and take care of other youths who were there, which has been a challenge. Since the attacks, I haven't felt contempt for the perpetrator; we've been focused on solidarity instead. I may have to confront some feelings, like resentment, in the future, and that can be a challenge. One of the issues Norway has to face in 2012 is to create a critical debate on immigration that is respectful, but still allows people to express their views."

The death of Amy Winehouse: Mitch Winehouse, 59, father of Amy Winehouse

On a warm summer's evening last July, the country was just coming to terms with the shootings in Norway when word spread across the internet that the singer Amy Winehouse had been found dead at her London flat at the age of 27. It sparked an outpouring of grief that saw Amy's father, Mitch, call for better drug rehabilitation for vulnerable members of society. The former cab driver pleaded with the Government to reform drug rehabilitation centres for young people.

"The events of the past year have taught me that, even when life throws you the worst negative, you can actually turn it into positives – and that love is the most powerful force in the world. My entire life has changed beyond imagination. Together with my family we are now fully dedicated to the Amy Winehouse Foundation and spend our time visiting projects and raising money in order to inspire people.

"Looking ahead to 2012, my ambition is to help as many children and young people as possible. That is how we ultimately plan to keep Amy's name alive."

The summer riots: Pauline Pearce, 45, voice of reason during the riots

Dubbed the "heroine of Hackney" after she was vidoed berating and standing up to looters during the riots last August, the grandmother of four's pleas reverberated around the world.

"I don't know what propelled me to make that speech. All I could see was a community returning to all the prejudices that we have spent years fighting to get rid of. The rest just flowed from there.

"Looking back, I see it was just reflective of the unrest and unhappiness in society. But I still feel that had the rioters used their persuasive powers and BlackBerry Messenger to gather everyone outside Parliament, instead of rushing Footlocker, they would have achieved a lot more.

"That said, I really didn't think that speech would have such a personal effect on my life. But I'm now treated like a local MP. I am literally having people turning up at my front door talking about housing and parking issues and downloading their community problems.

"I have become the voice of the people. A lot of my past life has now become public to the world. But that's all right – I've never pretended to be something I wasn't."

City protest: Naomi Colvin, 31, protester

When 300 protesters pitched their tents on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral, Colvin stepped forward to give the collective a voice.

"I've become a different person this year. I don't mind doing the press and TV interviews, but the biggest challenge was getting everyone's view represented. Sometimes, people in the camp would see the coverage and freak out, but bad headlines don't get me down. It is all part of the rough and tumble.

"What was really pleasing for me was seeing people blossom. I don't like the phrase 'empowerment', but certainly being involved in activism sees people make a journey and once they have made it they generally don't come back. There is a psychological barrier you have to pass, in first knowing what you do can make a difference and then doing something about it. Seeing people pass that barrier is amazing.

"I think next year, as it gets tougher economically, we will see more people getting involved. But out of adversity comes creativity, and I think politically and culturally we will see a lot more things growing. Getting Vivienne Westwood down to the camp was great, and last week protesters met the head of the FSA. We are making a difference."

Dale Farm evictions: Candy Sheridan, 43, Dale Farm campaigner

It took a decade for Basildon Council to evict Travellers from the site in Essex. Sheridan helped to delay the final eviction in October, and, in the process, took the Travellers' fight all the way to Brussels, where she sat on a panel at the UN's Human Rights Day 2011.

"This year has asked deep questions of David Cameron's government and its commitment to safeguarding the children of Travellers. Do we matter in 21st-century Britain? Do we even count at all? When will the local council deliver some basics for us?

"My hopes for 2012 is to give Travellers back some basic dignity, to improve their failing health, to return children to school ... I am asking for a level playing field, for us to be treated fairly and get on to the ladder of respect, dignity and health.

"How can we integrate, which councils and politicians tell us to do, when we are left unprovided for, unprotected and ignored? David Cameron spouts about family values yet he encouraged the forceful breaking up of an interdependent community, people who supported each other and cost the taxpayer nothing."

Cricket crisis: Zaka Ashraf, 59, chairman, Pakistan Cricket Board

Zaka Ashraf was appointed chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board in the wake of the match-fixing scandal. He previously served as a director of Zarai Taraqiati Bank, a position he still holds. In November he had to deal with the spot-fixing scandal – Pakistani cricket's biggest corruption scandal to date.

"When this incident happened, I was heading to the bank and I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I could see the whole nation simmering first with shock, then a sense of anger. Cricket is a second religion in Pakistan, and I was furious that something like this could be a stain on our nation. But having been appointed to the top role I am going to sort it out. I have since written letters to all the cricket players to show them support and solidarity. I'm urging the team not to get disheartened and encouraging people to move forward so such things will not happen again. I have written to the government calling on it to enact a law which could set down strong punishment for the kind of people who cheat in this way. Such a thing can never be allowed to happen again."

Additional reporting by Paul Cahalan, Simon Day, David McNeill, Charlotte Sundberg and Rizwan Syed

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in