Public Enemies: The UK's 'Most Hated' list

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Mass hostility towards the woman who put a cat in a wheelie-bin is an example of a wider phenomenon. Rhodri Marsden reports

"The evil bitch should get a pasting every day for the rest of her bastard life," remarked Ms Susan Taylor of Dudley on Thursday afternoon.

This was one of the more polite and benevolent comments posted to the Facebook group dedicated to publicly eviscerating Mary Bale, the woman infamous for having been caught on CCTV putting a cat into a wheelie bin. Fury was slung about like custard pies in a silent movie, the media breathlessly reported the anger, more people then rushed to vent their limitless spleen, which was in turn reported, creating a gridlocked roundabout with a big sign stuck in the middle with "HATE" written on it.

We've seen this before. Remember the outrage over Wendy Lewis – "vile Cenotaph girl", as The Sun called her – whose moment of drunken madness in June (see below right) earned her a 15-week suspended sentence this week and made her a national hate figure? If it comes to that, there was a comparable video of a cat being ill-treated, by an American teenager, that caused widespread outrage early last year, with the boy's father ending up fearing for his life. In an era when we're encouraged – if not pleaded with – to have our say loudly and publicly, we'll undoubtedly see such outpourings of hostility again, too.

It's not just cat-lovers with a neat line in death threats who are on the warpath; we're all doing it. Torrents of more erudite, sophisticated bile were projected at the columnist Jan Moir following some unpalatable remarks she made last November about the death of the Boyzone singer Stephen Gateley. In an emerging pattern, we seem to respond obediently to other people telling us to be outraged by immediately becoming outraged, before murmuring "and, er, pass it on".

Why are we consumed by this urge to hate? Various definitions of hate are knocking about, from Aristotle's notion that we all have an inherent desire to annihilate an object, to Freud's "ego state" that seeks to destroy what makes us unhappy. But if it is indeed something buried deep within our genes, stemming from a time where we feared for our daily survival, it's hard to square that with the savagery with which we badmouth Kerry Katona or Ashley Cole, neither of whom poses much immediate mortal danger to us.

It seems more likely that these particular manifestations of hate, driven by new and old media, are merely about achieving a feeling of superiority, a feeling that we're better than they are. It's like the old George Carlin quote: anyone driving slower than you is an idiot; anyone driving faster is a maniac. When we bond together to jab a hateful finger at someone, it scratches an itch. And occasionally, when those being jabbed at are criminals, or politicians we've voted for who've let us down, that seems fair enough.

But are we really that angry? If you scan the internet for opinion, you could be forgiven for imagining that we're all crimson with rage, our eyes straining at their sockets, our faces flecked with spittle. Online anonymity or pseudonymity, coupled with the simplicity of airing one's grievances, propels debate to levels of hatred that are simply not real. (If anything, they are surreal.) Most of those calling for the flogging of Mary Bale would, if they saw her in the street, either cross the road to avoid her or, just conceivably, say "Ooh, I saw you on YouTube," and offer her a Mint Imperial. Thank goodness that most vigilantism exists only in the fevered imaginations of momentarily angry people, and that real-life retribution for public hate figures is rare.

Meanwhile, there is a mass of people, the real silent majority, who either have mild opinions or feel completely ambivalent about stuff. Their views obviously never get reported. They might be prepared to vote for their most hated public figure, if asked to, but they (and indeed all of us) are likely to feel far more hate towards the person who ran off with their spouse, or who botched the building of their extension. It's a bit like the way that, although we're often told that we either love or hate Marmite, many of us aren't bothered about Marmite either way. Exactly the same applies to Jeremy Clarkson or Abu Hamza – or the other objects of public vitriol celebrated here. We're simply not as angry about them as we're told we are. We might be a bit cross, sure. But mainly, we're just bored, frustrated, and have lost the capacity to think calmly and rationally about things. Remember: Simon Cowell poses no immediate danger to us. He's just a man.

The UK's Most Hated

Mary Bale

A Coventry bank clerk, variously described as "grey-haired spinster" and "worse than Hitler", supposedly became Britain's most hated woman this week after putting a cat in a wheelie-bin during what she described as a "split second of misjudgement". There were immediate calls online for her to be "sprayed with BBQ sauce and thrown into a den of lions at the zoo", to which Bale responded: "To be honest I think everyone is overreacting a bit." The RSPCA is considering a prosecution under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

Wendy Lewis

Usurped as Britain's most hated woman, Lewis still retains the title of "Britain's most disgusting person" after she urinated on the cenotaph in Blackpool back in June, and then told veterans to "F*** off" when they turned up at her court appearance. (The circus wasn't helped by Lewis's boyfriend subsequently performing a Nazi salute to photographers.) It's not the first case of urinating on a war memorial, and thanks to stupidity, the availability of cheap booze and weak bladders, probably won't be the last. Lewis received a 12-week suspended sentence for outraging public decency.

Ashley Cole

In a poll of 3,000 women, Cole was named Britain's most hated man, a couple of steps above Abu Hamza, a man found guilty of six charges of soliciting to murder. cole's plummeting in the nation's estimation began with the "betrayal" of his move from Arsenal to Chelsea; complaining about a £55,000 per week pay packet in his autobiography; cheating on his wife, Cheryl (apparently the "nation's sweetheart"), and then daring to be photographed laughing shortly after England's 4-1 World Cup defeat to Germany. William Hill recently lengthened their odds on him receiving a knighthood to 1,000-1.

Sir Fred Goodwin

We needed some kind of scapegoat for the banking crisis and subsequent credit crunch, and it came in the form of the chief executive of RBS who presided over its decline, left the taxpayer to pick up the pieces, and began drawing a £700,000-a-year pension at an age when most of us still have a good 15 years of grafting left. His unapologetic stance and the revelation that he had no formal banking qualifications didn't help his cause; his home and car were subsequently vandalised by a group called "Bank Bosses Are Criminals".

Peaches Geldof

Peaches wasn't slow off the mark in irking the British public: even as a 16-year old she was making a name for herself as an outspoken teenager with a silly name and bags of cash. Attempts at writing, TV presenting and music-making led to unflattering descriptions ("rotten lump of stupid") and headlines ("Peaches Geldof even less talented than initially thought"). Her dalliances with scientology and the online appearance of nude photos of her haven't enhanced her reputation, and the red-top press have wasted no opportunity to lay into her; all you can say is that she's remained magnificently unperturbed.

The Duchess of York

Vaguely popular for about five minutes in the mid-1980s, the Duchess of York has ever since been subjected to a regular kicking from the press and widespread ridicule from the general public. She found the US slightly more benevolent and forgiving, but the recent scandal where she was filmed offering access to Prince Andrew for £500,000 brought old memories flooding back. While many feel sympathetic to her financial plight, the vast majority just think "for goodness sake stop spending money you haven't got."

Katie Price

Such is the intensity of celebrity coverage that when Katie Price and Peter Andre split back in May 2009, the nation was forced to take sides. Doleful, doe-eyed Peter won by a landslide over bitchy, mouthy Katie, and her ever-oscillating popularity slumped. In an attempt to regain brownie points, she entered the reality show I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here! again, but the nation repeatedly voted for her to eat insects for its amusement. It didn't stop us propelling her adult fiction book Paradise to the top of the book charts, but then again she didn't actually write it.

Jeremy Kyle

He's a morning chatshow presenter who positions himself between guests on shows with titles like I Cheated On A DNA Test WIth Another Man's Baby; his strategy is to sympathise and then strike, leading to the programme being described by a Manchester judge as a "human form of bear-baiting". While incredibly successful, he's never scored highly in the popularity stakes; he's had death threats, bricks thrown at him in the street, and in one list of the world's most-hated human beings came second only to Osama bin Laden.

Simon Cowell

Some hate him for unashamedly promoting trash culture; others for the hyper-critical comments he flings at contestants on his shows, despite his having no obvious talent of his own, over and above making hyper-critical comments. Even those who love him love to hate him. Essentially, he's a self-made pantomime baddie, but the strength of anti-Cowell feeling in the UK was demonstrated when an online campaign prevented his protégé, Joe McElderry, reaching the 2009 Christmas number 1 spot that Cowell clearly felt was rightfully his. Only then did he demonstrate any touchiness, describing the campaign as a "hate mob".

Tony Hayward

Following the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and the subsequent colossal oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, Hayward, chief executive of BP, made a series of embarrassing gaffes that led him to be described as "the most hated and clueless man in America". A dismal performance in front of the House of Representatives Energy Committee, followed by mistimed participation in a yacht race and the news of his imminent pension, sealed the deal, and hate mail from across the world flooded to his home in Kent.

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