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TV bullying a turn-off

Reality television personalities have been accused of persecuting contestants by hiding behind their supposedly ironic insults. Henry Hepburn reports.

Scotland's new anti-bullying service has homed in on the mixed messages sent out by badly- behaving reality television stars.

Respectme identifies personal-ities such as Alan Sugar, Gordon Ramsay and Simon Cowell as evidence of the "huge" culture change that is required to eradicate bullying. Their behaviour is seen to contradict messages about bullying sent out by educators and other organisations.

Concerns about bullying on television were outlined at a respectme training day in Edinburgh last week, and echoed by participants. One was uncomfortable with the treatment of "vulnerable" auditionees on The X Factor. Another flag ged up The Weakest Link and argued it was irrelevant whether insults from host Anne Robinson were intended to be ironic they still tacitly endorsed bullying. "If we don't turn it off, we are complicit," she said. "It's like watching children being bullied in a playground."

Participants also heard about the impact of replicating Dragon's Den the BBC show where aspiring entrepreneurs pitch ideas to a sceptical panel of millionaires at an event in one primary school, where there was a striking change in pupils' personas that mimicked the programme's confrontational style.

But respectme also sees such programmes as potentially useful, pointing out that the treatment of Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty by Jade Goody on Celebrity Big Brother this year was watched by many young people and has been used as a starting point for discussions about bullying.

Aileen Kenny, who works for the Parentline helpline, said the discovery that others shared her discomfort about behaviour on television programmes would encourage her to speak her mind. "We are quick to point out obvious examples of bullying, but there's an awful lot that goes on under our noses that we don't think about," she said.

Despite the pervasiveness of bullying in popular culture, there was widespread optimism at the training day that respectme marks a breakthrough for anti bullying work in Scotland. Participants said that previously they would have worked on their own project with little knowledge of what was happening elsewhere, whereas respectme offered the prospect of national cohesion. Others were pleased with the help they got in defining bullying.

Respectme believes there should be more emphasis on the impact of bullying, rather than a checklist of behaviours classified as bullying "not what it looks like but what it feels like".

Equally, there does not have to be intent for bullying to take place. One incident can be seen as bullying it does not have to happen repeatedly.

There is an impressive boldness of purpose about respectme, evident in the message at the top of a poster it has produced: "You don't have to play with me, agree with me or even like me but you do have to respect me."

This pragmatism that it is futile to expect everyone to like each other has proved controversial in some quarters, but Denise Rooney, practice development programme manager, said: "You have to learn to dislike people respectfully that's an important skill."

She said respectme differed from previous approaches because it looked beyond schools and took a more practical approach, typified by its training days.

The service is recruiting more trainers to take such sessions, while it is developing detailed web resources that will prove useful to those unable to attend training. It will also provide advice to young people's organisations working on anti-bullying policies, and is preparing for its first annual conference next year.


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