If an artist were commissioned to capture, in heroic mode, key scenes from early 21st century Britain, one of the first tableaux to be painted would be one entitled The Blonde at Bay. For at any one time, there will a public figure – youngish, female, pretty, fair-haired – who is the focus of the kind of public bullying which goes under the name of "intense media interest".
Over the past ten years, an odd selection of women have played the part – Diana, Princess of Wales, Paula Yates, Ulrika Johnsson, perhaps even Kate McCann – but the beleaguered blonde of the moment is undoubtedly Heather Mills.
The former model, and soon-to-be the former Mrs McCartney, has had a breakfast show freak-out. Appearing this week on ITV, she claimed that she was a victim of a hate campaign so serious that she had contemplated suicide. She had done much for charity but ever since she had married what she called "an icon", she had been vilified and slandered in the press.
Over 4,400 abusive articles about her had been published, she said. She had just been trying to do some good in the world but was now victim of the kind of harassment which had destroyed the Princess of Wales.
There were tears, of course. The final straw, it turned out, had been the curious incident of a neighbour's dog and some fireworks this past weekend. Heather had arranged a birthday party for her daughter. The noise of fireworks had allegedly caused the dog next door to have a heart-attack. Its owner, in the way of these things, took her story to the Sun. Now, in the eyes of the tabloids, Heather Mills was not only – her words – "a whore, a gold-digger, a fantasist, a liar" , but was also a dog-killer. It was all too much.
Mills predicted that the media would go for her after the interview, and so they have. That carefully counted figure of 4,400 articles will have to be radically revised. On Radio Four, Roy Greenslade expressed profound moral outrage. The newspapers selected the maddest-looking stills that they could find from the interview and then let loose their resident rottweilers. Even by the standards of the British tabloids, the nastiness has been extraordinary.
None of which need concern sensible people too much were it not for the discomfiting fact that Heather Mills is right. An ugly form of public bullying is taking place. The victim may be shrill and charmless and the specifics of her case, dead dog and all, might seem silly, but her central complaint is justified.
Why her? What has she done to earn these extremes of vitriol and bitterness? It is surely more than a coincidence that the women who have been subjected to such extremes of media interest that they have been sent slightly mad have one thing in common – good looks and blonde hair.
Bullying is always more than a mere expression of power, and so it is in this case. Our culture associates blondeness with sex. Blondes are not only more fun but there is about them, we have come to believe, a vulnerability and fragility which adds to their allure. They have power over us, and yet themselves are brittle and breakable. It is a seductive combination.
If this interpretation sounds like absurd psychobabble, try imagining a dark-haired Princess of Wales or Paula Yates. Already their potential for the status of victims – precisely what attracts the bully – is reduced.
The treatment of these high-profile women, the clammy interest in their intimate lives, the yearning to see and share their pain, is not about them or what they have done; it is about us. The horde of gossips, thunderers and opinionisers who moralise over those in public life may not actually desire the blonde of the moment but their interest in her, and that of their readers, is primal, instinctive and psychosexual.
Of course, because group persecution is a matter for shame, the pack-leaders seek to justify their behaviour by blaming the blonde of the moment. She re-wrote her past, or is sexually voracious, or is only interested in money, or bonkers, or is either too emotional or not emotional enough.
Heather Mills may not be a particularly interesting person, nor even outstandingly nice, but, for all the tears and hysterics, her analysis of what is happening to her is correct.
It is now impossible for her, in the eyes of the world, to do anything right. When she tries to be strong, she is accused of arrogance; when she breaks down, she is thought to be falling apart before our very eyes.
In fact, there is probably only one sensible course of action open to her. It is time for Heather Mills to re-invent herself once more – as a brunette.Reuse content