Philip Hensher: Bullying is assault - and must be seen as such

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Opponents of the compensation culture will be quick to seize on the £20,000 awarded to a victim of bullying as absurd, or deplorable. Certainly it opens up entirely new possibilities of legislative action. But nobody could read Sophie Amor's story, and not feel angry on her behalf, or that no sum of money could compensate her for what she went through.

The story was headed by a really distressing photograph; a school photograph of a pretty little girl, only six years old, but clearly unhappy. Her mouth is tense, her nostrils flared as if in constant, mild fright, her eyes simply frightened. Sophie Amor was bullied at school from the age of four, pushed, hit, attacked, and spat at.

The school, evidently, did nothing effective. At any rate, a bright and intelligent girl got to the point of attempting suicide at the age of nine - I'll repeat that, at the age of nine - and by 14 was diagnosed with clinical depression and taken out of school altogether. Miss Amor, pictured left aged 18, is now 23, and almost unable to leave the house.

It is a terrible story, and it is hard to deny that the education authority, Torfaen council in south Wales, did not act as positively as it could have done. It passes belief that a school teacher could not put a sharp stop to hostility among four-year-olds, or permit it to develop.

Such awards will, clearly, alert schools and universities and also, I hope, workplaces to their responsibilities regarding bullying. It's thought that a few financially punitive awards might encourage them to take action.

Bullying is disgracefully common, not just in educational institutions, but throughout society. In some cases - for instance the bullying of gay or lesbian teenagers in schools - the institutions frequently overlook even persistent tormenting.

The legal situation, however, seems to me to be operating in a somewhat indirect way, and nobody involved is receiving the sort of punishment which will be felt as such.

Sophie Amor's situation points this out quite clearly. The institution which has been punished is Torfaen council. But surely the council only bears the most theoretical responsibility for what Miss Amor went through. More responsibility lies with the neglect of the school, St Peter's Church in Wales School in Blaenavon, and one might expect that the headteacher and individual teachers at the school might be held responsible; perhaps even personally, financially responsible. They must have seen what was going on.

Might it not be still more rational to decide that responsibility for bullying to this degree rests not with the supervisory authorities, but with those carrying out the bullying? If children of four years old could not be described as responsible for the consequences of their actions, that is not true of the people who were bullying Miss Amor into clinical depression at 14, or who make it difficult for her, now, to leave the house.

No one can doubt that it's ultimately painless for a public authority to admit no liability and shell out £20,000 which is "only" public money, and, anyway, paid out harmlessly by insurers.

Much more to the point would be criminal prosecution, or civil cases for damages against those people who destroy, with full intent, other people's lives. Bullying is, quite simply, assault, physical or mental, and should be treated as such.

Rambling naked beats curling

A Mr Stephen Gough and his girlfriend, Melanie Roberts finally arrived yesterday at the end of their 874-mile trek from Land's End to John O'Groats. It had taken nine months. Plenty of people walk the whole distance, many rather faster than these two. The reason they were considered of interest is that they did it naked.

A spectacularly pointless exercise, of course. Apart from irritating and shocking a few people, and probably amusing a rather greater number, it's difficult to see what they have achieved, or originally hoped to achieve. Still, they've got some exercise out of it and rather more fresh air than most of us will experience in a lifetime.

And, really, is it any more pointless than half the stuff which is passed off as sport on television? After watching the Winter Olympics, and the steadily more baroque ways in which inanimate objects, people, and people in or on small vehicles can slide along ice, Nude Rambling seems like quite a rational pastime. Anyway, it sounds more fun to do, and possibly not much less dull to watch, than curling.

* Sybille Bedford lived to the age where she was quite frequently annoyed by references to her having already died. It was a remarkable, even sensational, life, though through a line of autobiographies, memoirs and autobiographical novels, Mrs Bedford maintained a tact and discretion which a reader could find somewhat perverse. In her last book, published last year, she was still maintaining discretion about the identity of her mother's lover, a man who died in 1916. Her biographer will find a lot still left unsaid.

But the odd fact about her career is, surely, that her reputation will go on resting on a single book. Even though she was more prolific than one thinks, there is nothing as wonderful as A Legacy, her 1956 novel. Everything else is, let us say, interesting; A Legacy will live forever.

Mrs Bedford must have known that; I can't decide whether the knowledge would naturally lead to complacency, or frustrated irritation.