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Sara L Russell

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Exploring the disturbing trend of abuse presented as humour

With the advent of Reality TV shows such as Big Brother, Survivor and I'm A Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here - anyone could be forgiven for getting the impression that there are a lot of first class idiots on television these days. But are they idiots, or are they just reacting to having no television, radio or contact with loved ones?

One can argue that the contestants on these shows, famous or otherwise, know exactly what they are letting themselves in for. This is partly true . But what could honestly prepare them for appalling, media-driven criticism of - not their acting or writing or other talents - but of their entire personalities and their looks. They are pilloried for any negative moods, whether they are famous or not, and absolutely crucified if they are either overweight or older than the other contestants. And once they are back from whatever place they have been imprisoned in, they find it all out - from press cuttings, TV chat shows, and even message boards online, in which hordes of teenagers relieve their hormonal ire by calling them names, in phone text language.

Here in the UK, particularly England, we seem to be living in a culture of spite, satire and wholesale character-assassination. When Angus Deayton got found out for what he did, he got sacked from his job at the BBC, which was perhaps justified. But the process of his elimination was accelerated by the judgmental spite of his so-called friends and colleagues on the show, as they lampooned him without mercy, making it clear to the BBC that, as the butt of their jokes, his position on Have I Got News For You was "no longer tenable". OK, so what he did was immoral. But the guys on that show all seemed to get along so well with each other, that I was more shocked by their attitude to him afterwards, than by what Angus had done. I thought they were his friends and so, probably, did he.

Then there is Big Brother, the show that spawned a million hate messages on boards all over the internet. If a member of the public on the show is not considered "well-fit" by young people watching, the messages become angry and spiteful, full of block capitals and crude language. I am sure this does not actually offend most other teenagers and it does not shock me, most people swear, but it it is directed at real people, so it would be kind to delete those message boards after the show, so that the poor contestants could be spared from ever having to read them.

Celebrities have even more to lose than members of the public, by being on Big Brother. Woe betide them if they have any unfortunate problem such as wind - it will be all over the press and TV media if another housemate tells the camera crew about it in the Diary Room. If a 'B' list celebrity goes on Big Brother for charity, to try to scramble back up to the 'A' list - it is at the peril of ending up on the 'D' list if they are not popular with the public or other housemates.

The media will look for excuses for spite in anything if there is nothing immediately obvious to pounce upon. Older rock musicians will be referred to as "Ageing rocker..." or "Veteran rocker..." so that they never need to forget how old they are. Perhaps poor Kurt Cobain shot himself partly to avoid this grievous annoyance in later life. In any event, we would all do well to remember how much fun and enjoyment musicians have given us over the years.

It seems that many people in England have a lot of negative things to say about people on television simply because of having to look at them. If their hair isn't perfect, if they are not streamlined into the perfect Stepford presenter, then the BBC's Points of View will be told about it, in no uncertain terms. But why on earth should someone be considered ugly just because a small number of people don't happen to fancy them? There is someone for everyone.

The ultimate disrespectful circus is the recent Celebrity Fit Club. It seems to have been filmed for maximum indignity and wobble-factor for the overweight contestants, who almost cripple themselves running around fields, starve themselves, exercise until they ache all over and simply get laughed at for their trouble, though at least they make money for charity at the end of it. Having been overweight myself at several stages in my life, I really feel for them.

I wonder what the reason for the new Spite Culture could be. Perhaps the abolition of dog-fighting and capital punishment has left a gap in some more savage, ancient sectors of our souls.

Perhaps we need to laugh at other people so as not to cry for ourselves. Whatever the reason, we always seem to be actively encouraged by the media to feel scorn for our fellow human beings, whenever they are humiliated on television. It's not cool or fashionable to say anything nice about anyone. No, that would be too gushy.

They say the devil has the best tunes. Maybe the critic has the best street cred. But remember, critics often pontificate about something they once failed at themselves.

Sara L. Russell, November 2002.

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