Terence Blacker: Bullying has moved into the technological age

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The Independent Online

One of the many laudable aspects of the late John Peel was that, even when he had become something of a national treasure, he avoided playing the games that the famous like to play. He neither boasted about his rather odd life, nor did he go in for the fake modesty that plays so well on chat shows. But the greatest miracle was that he avoided joining the great keening, blubbing army of celebrities who had, they claim, unhappy childhoods.

In fact, as he revealed towards the end of his life and has written about in a memoir to be published next month, Peel did have something to blub about. When he first arrived at Shrewsbury School, he was the victim of what would now be called "child abuse".

That phrase would have been meaningless at the time. At public schools like Shrewsbury, the only recognisable abuse was of the vulgar type towards teachers, punishable by the cane, and pupils were never regarded as children. When you arrived at the age of 13, you were a "new man" and only after you had left and had safely entered adulthood could you describe yourself as an "old boy".

Peel, then called John Ravenscroft, was subjected to what many new men have experienced throughout the inglorious history of the English public school. He was rather pretty, so the older boys subjected him to sexual mistreatment. The extent of this abuse may or may not be revealed in the memoir and, in a sense, is by the way.

How depraved a particular house at a boarding-school happens to be is largely a matter of luck: in my house (or dormitory, as it was called) at Wellington, the rules of attraction were pretty clear - if someone fancied you, he would merely make your life hell through harassment, teasing and bullying. The next-door dormitory, by contrast, was famous for orgies worthy of the last days of the Roman Empire.

Having mentioned on several occasions how the older boys at Shrewsbury were enthusiastic floggers of the younger ones, Peel kept quiet about the sex until quite late in his life. I suspect that this most cheerfully confessional of DJs, who had no problem revealing on air that he had caught a dose of the clap or reminiscing about having sex with under-age girls while working on an American radio station, was still embarrassed - perhaps even ashamed - of what happened when he was 13.

His explanation of the whole thing was characteristically breezy. "Very few of them, I think, were what would now be seen as practising homosexuals," he said in an interview six months before his death. "But they were practising being practising homosexuals, and in the absence of women of any sort at all they just turned to cute boys as a sort of stopgap measure."

It is the conventional view of public-school child abuse. Teenage boys, fizzing with hormonal need, will find comfort with one another. Older boys, younger boys: in the nature of things, these relationships may involve a mild element of coercion.

But bullying is almost always a nasty, intimate reflection of a bigger picture. As they controlled and victimised, the randy, psychotic school prefects were expressing in their own unpleasant way the tone, culture and unexpressed belief system of the world outside. It was not so much their own biology that was making them bully, but the behaviour of adults - masters, who found personal relief through the persecution of adolescent boys, and parents, who believed blindly in the superiority of manly toughness over human sympathy. A system built on repression normalised all kinds of exploitation and unkindness further down the generational food chain.

And so the story has continued. Bullying among teenagers today is, if anything, more commonplace than it was in the past, although it now takes a different form. The most popular forms of persecution are perpetrated by anonymous mobs working through the new technology, expressing prejudices and hang-ups that are all around us.

There is a direct connection between a teenager posting abusive lies about someone on a weblog and a newspaper inviting readers to send in "gossip" about the famous and semi- famous. An organised campaign of e-mails and text messages which humiliate a classmate belongs to the same family of misbehaviour as a sleazy press campaign against a public figure selected as the celebrity victim of the moment.

When a 17-year-old boy invites his classmates online "to take a moment and really think about who you hate in our school, then choose the one you have the most disdain for and write it here for all to see", he is providing his version of television shows that take pleasure in the humiliation of their guests. There is really not that great a distance between the more crass and sadistic reality shows and "happy slapping", the fad for capturing an incident of violence on a mobile phone camera and showing it around.

Bullying may have flourished in a time of repression 50 years ago but it has bloomed into its full ugliness in a culture which manages to be both prurient and censorious. Wherever it occurs, the cruelty is directed against a member of the human herd who, for reasons of looks, background or circumstance is vulnerable or weak. The bullies are reflecting the same reality, whether they are beastly schoolkids behaving badly or adults who are merely doing their jobs.