Joan Smith: Bullying has become the victim's own fault

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The Independent Online

If I started talking about "extreme bitchiness and mob culture", you might reasonably assume I was describing an episode of Big Brother. It's what Jodie Marsh experienced when some of the other housemates ganged up on her on the "celebrity" version of the Channel 4 show earlier this year. It's also the ethos behind Sir Alan Sugar's BBC2 series, The Apprentice, in which he humiliates people who will do almost anything to prove how much they want to work for him.

"You're fired!" is his catch-phrase, endlessly repeated in the wider culture as though there's something clever or amusing about treating employees this way. So I wasn't surprised, earlier this week, when a High Court case exposed systematic bullying at a reputable City bank, confirmed by witnesses who used the phrase I've quoted. Helen Green won damages of £817,000 from Deutsche Bank Group Services (UK) Ltd after suffering two nervous breakdowns and a depressive illness.

She was targeted by four female colleagues who subjected her to a campaign of infantile but wounding insults; one of them held her nose, for instance, and complained about a "stink" when Ms Green entered the room. She was not the women's only victim and the judge, Mr Justice Owen, described the response of bosses at the bank as weak and ineffectual. "The managers collectively closed their eyes to what was going on, no doubt in the hope that the problem would go away," he said.

Bullying is hardly uncommon, especially (but not only) in the competitive world of the City, where demonstrating an ability to put up with it is almost a rite of passage. But what I've observed in recent years is a shift from an atmosphere in which people knew bullying went on and felt uncomfortable about it, to one where it is likely to be seen as the victim's own fault.

This is certainly the case in the Big Brother house, where a serial tormentor such as the transvestite singer Pete Burns survived a series of evictions while his chief victim, Ms Marsh, was turfed out at the earliest opportunity.

Like The Apprentice, the show is predicated on a reductive reading of the Darwinian theory of the survival of the fittest; displaying vulnerability or sensitivity is a sign of weakness, prompting further abuse. In a remarkable inversion, bullying has been transformed from an abuse of power into a test of character, which may be one of the reasons why employers are so reluctant to intervene and discipline the perpetrators. I suspect that some people, hearing about the huge sum awarded to Ms Green, will even shake their heads and ask why she allowed her colleagues' behaviour to get to her.

This is the wrong question. I don't want to live in a society where rudeness, insults and abuse are acceptable at work or anywhere else. It worries me enormously that so many viewers sit in front of the television each night, watching other people being humiliated and driven to tears for fun.

As I've pointed out before, the BBC has a great deal to answer for here, paying huge salaries to rude "entertainers" such as Chris Moyles and boasting on The Apprentice website about Sugar's ability to reduce contestants to tears. I recently had to explain to an American friend the origin of a catchphrase from another BBC game show: "You're the weakest link. Goodbye!"

I don't know why we put up with this, passively endorsing bullying as enterainment and giving little thought to its influence on real life. In court, Ms Green successfully argued that the bullying she suffered at work amounted to harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act, brought in to deter stalkers. This should shock anyone who is complacent about bullying, as well as striking a blow for those of us who are tired of living in a gladiatorial culture.

Cher and I start a new chapter

I've been clearing out my wardrobe, a domestic detail I wouldn't mention had I not discovered that Cher is doing the same thing. She's got all these dresses (OK, I'm stretching the meaning of the word) she no longer needs, and she's decided to flog them.

"I am beginning a new chapter... and have decided to rewrite my personal environment," she said. By an amazing coincidence, that's just what I thought when I came back from the Oxfam shop this week with a pair of secondhand Gucci heels.

Famous people have a language of their own, as Liz Hurley confirmed when she dismissed those of us who do not toil at the celebrity coal face as "civilians". But neither she nor Cher can compete with Alice Walker who dedicated one of her books to "the blameless vulva".

* Complaining about the captain of France, Zinedine Zidane, is so last month. A song entitled Coup de Boule (head butt) has gone to number one in the French singles chart, immortalising the moment when Zizou lost his temper in the World Cup final. According to a recent poll, 61 per cent of the population has forgiven him. I can't help wondering whether our reviled Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, is casting envious glances across the Channel. Prezza is about to take over running the country, knowing that no one can look at him without entertaining risque thoughts about stockings and croquet. In the balmy days of Cool Britannia all he would have to do is get someone to record a song about him, but I'm not suggesting for a moment that the chorus of Coup de Boule - Zidane, il a tapé - could be adapted for the purpose.

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