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IN its mid-20th century heyday, Time Magazine was the print equivalent of today’s social media – a weekly news magazine that set global political and cultural agendas.  

The journal’s highly influential Man of the Year front covers – the dated gender reference is indicative of Time’s conservative bias – always garnered huge publicity, right from the earliest nominee back in 1927. This was Charles Lindbergh, first person to fly the Atlantic solo west to east. The harder east to west flight was by a Scot, Jim Mollison, but then Time always saw the world through American eyes.

Time Magazine is now but a shadow of its former journalistic glory, yet its Person of the Year cover still attracts interest. This year’s nominee is Elon Musk, the South African-born engineer and entrepreneur behind PayPal (which made his first fortune), SpaceX rockets and Tesla electric cars. Tesla has just become the world’s most valuable car company by share price, making Mr Musk extremely rich.

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Some might question Elon Musk’s qualification as the most significant newsworthy person on the planet in 2021. In fact, Time has hedged its bets by naming the scientists who discovered the mRNA vaccine platform - Kizzmekia Corbett, Barney Graham, Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman – as “heroes of the year”. By identifying how viruses survive, these four made Covid-19 vaccines possible and kept millions of us alive.

But scientists, however worthy, don’t have Musk’s news appeal. Musk wants to colonise Mars and might well do so with his Star Ship, which looks like the sort of retro science fiction rocket that used to illustrate the pages of Time Magazine back in the 1950s. Time knows that a bit of megalomania is good for headlines and shifting copies. The feeling is doubtless mutual. Musk’s innate flair for publicity has boosted Tesla’s share price into the financial stratosphere this year.

The National:

Time would argue that its Person of the Year is chosen more for their impact rather than their moral worth. After all, other nominees include Adolf Hitler (1938, for “uniting Germany”) and Joseph Stalin (twice). Henry Kissinger made the cover in 1972, the year after his disgraced boss Richard Nixon. In recent decades, Time has gone more down market. In 2001, it selected US right-wing politician Rudolph Giuliani over Osama Bin Laden. Of course, that might have been satire.

My all-time favourite reason given by Time for choosing its Person of the Year selection came in 1951 with Iranian PM Mohammad Mosaddegh. Time blamed him for “starting the Abadan crisis” – meaning he wanted to nationalise Iran’s oil.  Mosaddegh was overthrown by a CIA coup for his pains, and we have been living with the consequences ever since.

Time’s latest choice, Elon Musk, is a complex character. He fled apartheid South Africa to avoid being drafted into the army. In his own words, he didn’t want to shoot blacks. We have to give him credit for that. Also, there is no doubt that unlike some other paper-shuffling billionaires Musk is actually a talented engineer.  When all the best rocket designers refused his blandishments to join the new SpaceX venture, Musk became his own chief engineer. His ability simultaneously to manage a rocket company and create an electric car industry almost single-handedly suggests he is more than a capitalist ogre.

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In its announcement, Time credits Musk for “creating solutions to an existential crisis” (i.e. global warming) and for “driving society's most daring and disruptive transformations”. That valediction seems both excessive and a mite contradictory. Musk’s messianic contribution to accelerating the space race has added to global emissions and surely diverted scarce resources from developing green technologies.

If human beings do actually ever need to escape to Mars on one of Musk’s Star Ships, it will be because a runaway capitalist system destroyed the planet by putting investment decisions into the hands of a tiny number of people - motivated only by their own personal desires. People like previous Time Person of the Year winners: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos. And now Elon Musk.