On Thursday night in the tony central London district of Mayfair, a crowd gathered for an international perspective on a weighty question: who should be TIME’s 2012 Person of the Year?
Hugh Quarshie, a Ghanaian-born British actor whose work spans a galaxy that includes the greatest Shakespearean roles and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, opened the debate by proposing Goldman Sachs “as a representative for bankers.” Noting that the world is still embroiled in a financial and banking crisis, Quarshie said that while banks do good in generating “vast taxable profits,” they as institutions have “fetishized the bottom line” and are “potentially a menace to society.” Omid Djalili, who once joked that he was the world’s only Iranian comedian–“and that’s three more than Germany,” agreed, noting that bankers have “gambled with our money, lost our money and we bailed them out. This genius needs to be recognized.”
Quarshie and Djalili were joined on the panel by British human rights activist and Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti, FTI Consulting chairman and former Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch-Brown, bestselling British author Kate Mosse, and the American founder of London’s influential River Cafe Ruth Rogers.
The designation of Person of the Year, as TIME Europe editor Catherine Mayer noted in her introduction to the event, at Bourdon House, the home of Alfred Dunhill, “has never been an accolade pure and simple, but a measure of impact.” As debate moderator and TIME International editor Jim Frederick pointed out, Adolph Hitler (1938), Joseph Stalin (1939, 1942) and Ayatollah Khomeini (1979) have all appeared on the TIME ‘Person of the Year’ cover, as well as figures like Nelson Mandela (‘The Peacemakers’ 1993), Winston Churchill (1949) and John F. Kennedy (1961).
In that spirit, Rogers suggested Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, saying that “we can’t ignore” the effect of his protracted battle with Syrian rebels.
The 2012 U.S. Presidential election was another event the panelists felt could not be ignored. Malloch-Brown said that while the 2012 presidential campaign had been “tawdry, defensive and highly negative,” it was “hugely important.” He felt that President Obama shouldn’t appear on the cover because of his “snippy” campaign, but that the Person of the Year award should go to ‘the American Democratic Party worker,’ particularly Obama’s data crunchers, for an “astonishing technological performance” in analyzing and turning out the electorate.
Other suggestions from the panelists included Ghana President John Dramani Mahama, who leads a country Quarshie argued “epitomizes Africa” with its booming economy. Rogers nominated Nick Davies and Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian newspaper, whom she said should be honored for breaking the News of the World phone hacking story. Djalili described Twitter as “the thing that’s really bringing the world together.” Such an outcome wouldn’t be the first time computer technology and social media have featured as the Person of the Year: ‘The Computer’ (1982), ‘You’ (2006) and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (2010) have all made appearances on the cover.
The idea that generated the most enthusiasm, however, was a celebration of women in some form. Women have graced the Person of the Year cover just four times since the tradition started: Wallis Simpson in 1936, Elizabeth II in 1952, American Women (including American feminist and author Susan Brownmiller, First Lady Betty Ford and tennis star Billie Jean King) in 1975 and Corazon Aquino, the first woman president of the Philippines, in 1986. The panel agreed that the time seemed right to applaud women again (Quarshie suggested that honoring women for being women was patronizing, and that the focus should be on their achievements). The question was how to do it. Ideas included ‘mothers and daughters’ and ‘women athletes of the Olympics.’
Others argued for individuals. Mosse nominated Hillary Clinton, who as a lawyer, first lady, senator and now as secretary of state, has “in rooms across the world…made the point that women’s rights are human rights.” In a slightly more lighthearted vein, Djalili suggested Queen Elizabeth II, for sticking to her pledge to serve the people. A straw poll at the end of the debate revealed that the Queen was also the audience’s first choice. The individual whose name came up the most, however, was 15-year-old Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by Taliban in October 2012 for speaking out on behalf of girls’ education. Most members of the panel concurred with Chakrabarti, who said Yousafzai is the ideal Person of the Year, because she personifies many important causes: education, gender inequality, internet activism (through her BBC blog) and the rights of the world’s growing youth population. Yousafzai also is a symbol of optimism, said Chakrabarti, that serves as a counterpoint to the “hard power” wielded by many of the candidates on the list.
Frederick closed the debate by touching on the responsibility felt by TIME editors at the idea of putting Yousafzai on the cover. “Her life would never be the same,” he said. The panelists agreed, but it seemed that in their opinion, that was no bad thing.