The rise and rise of the celebrity bully

There was once a man called Jimmy Savile. He was powerful and did bad things. Although some people suspected as much, he was allowed to continue being powerful and doing bad things for two main reasons: he was a bully, and he was popular with the public.

Those  were the bad old days. Nothing like that, we are told, could happen in this fairer, more morally scrupulous age.

That assumption, always questionable, received a bit of a bashing this week. A famous broadcaster lost his temper in a food-related incident and took a swing at a BBC staffer. Hundreds of thousands of people, some of them quite sensible, have argued that he should not be punished. He is too amusing, too popular, makes too much money for the BBC, to lose his job.

In another part of the media village, a well-known eco-millionaire has lost a matrimonial case in the Supreme Court, the judges deciding unanimously that his former wife could pursue a claim for financial compensation  –   but was then given a five-minute prime-time radio interview on the Today programme  to argue that the judges were wrong, and his ex-wife dishonest, and that he was a victim.

Why? Because he could. He is famous.

In the grand scheme of things, these are trivial stories, but the cases of Jeremy Clarkson and Dale Vince are handy reminders that the celebrity bully is now very much a feature of the media landscape.

Clarkson’s behaviour, belabouring someone who is unlucky enough to have to work with him, sounds childish and unpleasant  – a playground bully, annoyed that he has not got his way and taking it out on someone less powerful than he is. The case made for him has been simple. He gives viewers too much fun to be fired. He is a card. People love him. He is a special case. The Daily Telegraph published a hilarious column in which we were told that those who criticised Clarkson should reproach themselves. He was ‘a sensitive, thoughtful man given to introspection’, and possibly suffering from Aspergers’ Syndrome.

Whether the eco-millionaire is bullying his ex-wife is not for an outsider to judge, although on the face of it a man worth £107 million resisting a relatively small pay-out to the mother of his child would seem to be rather less than generous. Yet, in spite of the legal ruling, the BBC cheerfully allowed Vince to make his case, unopposed, on national radio.

When things go wrong for the famous, they now face a choice of tactics. Many opt for the Jonathan Ross-grovel, wait a few months, then sidle back into Easy Street. A few, as we now see, decide to brazen it out, confident that parts of the media and a gullible public will take the side of the strong against the weak, that different rules apply if you are famous enough.

It is a great time to be a celebrity bully.