Virginia Ironside: Why does it pay to be rude on television?

Now she's left The Weakest Link Anne has been extraordinarily generous to the guests she put down
Click to follow
The Independent Online

About time too – that's what I think about Anne Robinson leaving The Weakest Link. It's not that she wasn't brilliant at it, and on the rare occasions I watched it, I couldn't help finding it rather addictive. But after I'd turned it off I always wanted to wash my hands. There is something about enjoying watching public humiliation that, afterwards, fills me with self-loathing.

There's a lot of tele-cruelty about. Every time Sir Alan Sugar says, so brutally, "You're fired!", I feel uncomfortable. When MasterChef contestants are told their food is inedible, I cringe. When X-Factor wannabes are laughed off the stage, my toes curl. And when I watch it, fascinated, I feel I know a little bit what it must have been like to watch Christians being thrown to the lions. Riveting, but really repulsive.

And to make matters worse on The Weakest Link, the poor humiliated contestants were actually followed into the studio after their whipping, where they were filmed trying to justify themselves pathetically, or laugh the whole thing off as a tremendously good joke.

Sometimes, one of them, even though they'd been treated appallingly, even said how much they'd enjoyed the experience. It was as if they'd been brainwashed into submission after being reviled – that somehow they felt obliged to say "thank-you", as some Nazi victims were forced to thank their tormentors, after having been shown up as fools and idiots.

And, at the risk of appearing rather po-faced, I do feel that when public figures appear on television being rude and cruel to fellow human beings who have, God knows, tried hard enough to pass some test, their behaviour filters through to society. Although we may not behave like that in our own particular circles, we have a feeling that somewhere in the world this behaviour is acceptable. It's OK to be a bully. It's not only OK, but bullying means getting ahead, winning, getting prizes. It encourages the old prefect and fag relationship long after public schools abolished the distasteful system.

I once worked next to an all-male newspaper section. I could hardly bear to go in sometimes because it was so painful having to listen to the put-downs, cursing, and general bitchiness of testosterone-filled males looking for any chance to squash any semblance of kindness or humanity among their colleagues. I longed for the sound from old-fashioned offices: "Excuse me, Mr Parsons, but Mr Pickles would like a word with you."

Radio 4 still retains a sense of courtesy. Robert Robinson may no longer be with us to host Round Britain Quiz, but he was always such a gent, as he congratulated even the dimmest of contenders for being such good contestants, and his spirit lingers on. In The Music Quiz Paul Gambaccini doesn't shout and spit at contestants who think that "A Hard Days' Night" was written by Mahler. He just laughs in a friendly way, and says: "Not... quite... good try... I think you'll kick yourself when you hear the answer." In Gardeners' Question Time the panellists don't scoff when they hear that someone hasn't been watering their beans. They suggest a better mulch to retain the water, and a waterbutt.

And at the end of every quiz programme everyone says: "Thank you" – not for being punished but for being treated with kindness and courtesy.

The odd thing is that now she's left The Weakest Link Anne has been extraordinarily generous to the guests she put down. She says she is "incredibly proud" of them, and adds that "they really are very knowledgeable. They are absolutely fearless and so brave to come on and, quite often, be humiliated." But why couldn't she, just occasionally, have dropped the dominatrix persona and said that on the programme, so we could all see that it was just a game? It would have made everyone feels so much better. Including the viewers.