As fireworks lit up the skies and 2011 began, we knew little about the year we were welcoming. Of course, we were preparing for a royal wedding and predicting our chapter of austerity had barely begun. Yet, we had no idea that the global stage would alter so drastically. We had no idea that one of the biggest scandals of a generation would hit the industry that normally creates them. And we certainly had no idea that Downing Street would welcome its most enigmatic strategist in decades; Larry the Cat. Sit back, relax, but take a deep breath, as we reflect over 2011.
The political year began tempestuously when Whitehall waved goodbye to a government advisor. A good friend of the prime minister resigned because increasing media attention was "making it difficult to give the 110% needed for this role". His name was Andy Coulson, he was stepping down as Number 10's communications director, and 2011 hadn't finished with him yet.
Coulson wasn't the only one to lose his job in January. Thousands of miles away, a revolution was brewing in Tunisia. After weeks of demonstrations, President Ben Ali was ousted from his position. He would not be the last; this was only the initial link in the Arab Spring's elaborate chain.
As the Tunisian regime fell, uprisings began in Egypt. A million people set up camp in Tahrir Square. When President Mubarak responded with force, these protests only grew. He didn't last for long; on 11 February, he resigned after 30 years. Egypt rejoiced.
Days after the second dictator fell, Libyans signalled their wish that the same would happen to their leader. As demonstrations against Colonel Gaddafi's regime began in Benghazi, protesters were fired upon by government troops. It wasn't long before the unrest spiralled into civil war.
In New Zealand, a season of devastating natural disasters began, as a huge earthquake struck Christchurch. "It felt like a warzone for forty seconds" a local told me, "I honestly feared for my life". A series of subsequent aftershocks saw much of South Island left in ruin. Nevertheless, the nation still came together in October, welcoming visitors from around the globe for the Rugby World Cup. Their hospitality was rewarded when the Kiwis won the championship.
As March began, another earthquake - this time in the North Pacific - created a tsunami. Within minutes, a wave of 40 metres reached Japan. Over 15,000 died, and the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant was put on high alert.
It wasn't long before the eyes of the world returned to Tripoli, when external forces implemented a no-fly zone and carried out airstrikes. "The NATO bombing and foreign assistance was the moment that the tide began to turn for the Gaddafi regime", BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen explained to me, "but it was still a slow process until the last week or two". These weeks would come, but only after months of combat. Meanwhile, mass protests were underway in Syria.
The title of the Chancellor's 2011 budget nicely compiles the political buzzwords of the year: "a strong and stable economy for growth and fairness". The document delivered in March made no major changes to the plans of its predecessor, but gloomy alterations to growth forecasts were thrown in for good measure. Days later, thousands took to London's streets, protesting against public spending cuts. A morose atmosphere descended. What could possibly pick us up?
A royal wedding, perhaps? Whether you met the romance of Prince William and Catherine Middleton with scepticism or enthusiasm, we all enjoyed that double Bank Holiday. 25 million Brits tuned in to watch the couple get married on 29 April. The media here in Britain may have got a tad over-excited, but it's safe to say our coverage had nothing on that of the USA. It's been quite a year for the Royal Family, with another royal wedding- of Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall- taking place in July.
As the incumbents of Buckingham Palace recovered, White House staff were working around the clock on President Obama's biggest task yet. Shortly after midnight on 2 May, Osama bin Laden was killed by American Special Forces. Nearly a decade after that fateful day in New York, Tony Blair said that "the operation shows that those who commit acts of terror against the innocent will be brought to justice, however long it takes".
Three weeks later, on a state visit to the UK, Obama stayed at Buckingham Palace and addressed Westminster Hall. Whilst the President seemed particularly upbeat, the same could not be said of some MPs. The triumphant month in America was a far cry from the disappointment that had engrossed British politics.
May brought a referendum regarding the proposed Alternative Voting system. Nick Clegg fought for this vote when forming the coalition and it was the first real challenge of Ed Miliband's leadership, as he came out in support of AV. The result was a resounding rejection- 68% - of the modification. Both Labour and the Lib Dems had lost a vote that, weeks before, polls predicted they would win. "To think that elections used to be...predictable", the BBC's Nick Robinson wrote in a blog entry.
This statement was also used about the same night's Scottish Parliamentary Elections to Holyrood. For the first time in the assembly's 12 year history, a party was able to command a majority. As the SNP celebrated, a single word began to resonate around Britain; "devolution?".
On 19 June, the US Open crowned its youngest champion since 1923. 22 year-old golfer Rory McIlroy won his first major, much to the delight of his native Northern Ireland. Fellow golfer Chris Wood wrote that he, alongside many of the sport's competitors, was left "totally inspired by watching McIlroy's performance".
2011 was the year that newspapers attempted to quash super-injunctions, claiming they blocked their journalistic intent. As spring wrapped up, tabloids hounded celebrities from Andrew Marr to Ryan Giggs about their use of injunctions. When summer arrived, it dawned on some journalists that they might have bitten off more than they could chew.
July saw the credibility of a global media organisation plummet, the tabloid industry placed under scrutiny, and the closure of Britain's most-read newspaper. Ever since a News of the World journalist was caught tapping into Prince William's voicemail messages in 2005, the paper's reputation had been marred. However, the scandal intensified on 5 July when it was alleged that the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler had been hacked whilst she was missing and some of her messages were deleted to free space in her inbox. In the following days, former News International journalists were accused of commissioning the hacking of phones of 7/7 victims and soldiers' families.
When I spoke to David Wooding - final News of the World Political Editor- he described the Milly Dowler revelation as a "game changer" in the hacking scandal. "I have never before felt so ashamed to be a journalist", he said, "even though my colleagues and I had done nothing wrong". He was right; most of the Sunday tabloid's staff in 2011 weren't employed by the paper at the time of the apparent illegalities.
Nevertheless, on 7 July, James Murdoch announced that its next edition (#8674) would be the last. After 168 years, the final News of the World front page read "Thank you, and goodbye".
Under a fortnight later, a particular favourite of the paper passed away. Amy Winehouse died at her home after a consuming a fatal amount of alcohol. When paying tribute to the icon, Russell Brand wrote "not all of us know someone with the incredible talent that Amy had, but we all know drunks and junkies...they all need help and help is out there."
With a royal wedding down and one tabloid less, what could the second half of 2011 bring to the table? Rioting on the streets, a resignation in the cabinet, rebellion of Tories and the removal of yet another dictator.
To be continued...
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