Terence Blacker: When did bullying become acceptable?

Tuesday 28 October 2008 01:00
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It is a rather bewildering contradiction of our increasingly peculiar society that, while cruelty in everyday life is the subject of unprecedented disapproval, it is positively celebrated and encouraged in the world of entertainment.

Everyone from primary schoolchildren to chief executives knows that bullying ranks high on the list of contemporary evils. Yet in the parallel universe of the famous, the bully is king. It is part of his or her (usually his) charisma, something which causes amusement and wins appalled respect Here, the unkindness is not to family members or to colleagues but lies in the public humiliation of weaker inhabitants of their world.

Celebrity-on-celebrity bullying is the sport of the moment, and instances of this contemporary form of nastiness are not difficult to find. On a recent BBC radio show, two alpha males of the show-business jungle, Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross, turned with giggling aggression on an older member of the celebrity pack, the 78-year-old actor Andrew Sachs.

Booked with Ross as a guest on Brand's Radio 2 programme, Sachs failed to turn up. The two pranksters then left a series of facetious messages on his mobile phone, the central joke of which was that Brand claimed to have slept with Sachs's 23-year-old granddaughter. The theme was pursued, in increasingly graphic terms, over four calls, all of which were broadcast. At one point, they speculated as to whether Sachs might hang himself as a result of the call. What exactly was funny here?

The routine was all about the public bullying of two people on the fringe of public life, one old and one young, neither as powerful as Brand or Ross. It was not a moment of zany individual madness either: the BBC played its part, not only passing the programme for broadcast but also, astonishingly, supplying Sachs's mobile-phone number to their presenter to use on-air. When the row blew up, sections of the press, with habitual hypocrisy, trilled with outrage while adding to the hurt by sleazily investigating the private life of the granddaughter – in the public interest, of course.

Sachs's mistake was his non-appearance at the studio. His alpha-male colleagues responded to this lack of respect with an act of petulant retaliation. The great songwriter Ray Davies was on the receiving end of a similar revenge-mobbing last month when interviewed over the telephone by a BBC disc-jockey, George Lamb. "Are you bald?" was one of the first of several idiotic, sneering questions asked. Diplomatically, Davies pretended that the line was bad and discontinued the interview. He was "a moody git", the BBC man told his listeners, "senile, no sense of humour"; his bad energy would probably cause him to die a horrible death.

That is how it goes in the jungle. The young and strong urinate on those who refuse to play the game their way. The more distinguished the victim's past, the greater the rage and glee with which they are humiliated.

On daytime TV, the reality star Kerry Katona has just been given the treatment, too. Clearly having problems in her life, she was said to be slurring her words and incapable when pushed in front of the cameras. The lesson to theoutside world from the media heroes of the moment is clear. Cruelty is hilarious. Humiliation can be fun. Bullying those weaker than you is a terrific career move.

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