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Is bullying TV's dirty secret?

06 July 2011

Everyone knows that bullying is a problem in the TV industry, but how bad is it? Ahead of a major debate on the issue at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International TV Festival, four execs ask if bullying is TV’s dirty secret.

Jim Allen, managing director, RDF Television
I always remember my headmaster announcing grandly, ‘We don’t have bullying in this school’, as I watched some poor, put-upon third former being kicked in the back of his ankles by a fifth form sadist.

Of course the TV industry has bullying, as does every British workplace. And it is almost certainly getting worse. You couldn’t imagine a more perfect line up of aggravating factors – extreme financial pressure, sky-high creative demands, widespread job insecurity, increasing casualised working and the eternal search for immediate, guaranteed success.

TV will never rid itself of bullying, but collectively and individually every broadcaster and production company could do more to make a stand, extol the right values, invest time and money in training the skills of people management and reduce the levels of aggression, neurosis and hysteria.

After all, it’s only television and we might even discover that a more relaxed, supported, encouraged and, dare I say it, carefree industry will create a sustained burst of creative flair. Happier staff and better shows – what a thought.

Lorraine Heggessey, chair of MGEITF session on bullying
If an organization does not tackle bullying it can become “acceptable behaviour” so it’s important to make it very clear that bullying will be dealt with. When I was running BBC 1, Greg Dyke led a culture change programme called ‘Making it Happen’. We asked staff what changes they would most like to see and bullying came high up on the list.

For many years some of the most talented programme makers had been guilty of bullying. They were a nightmare to work with but because they produced great programmes that won critical acclaim and awards, their bosses turned a blind eye to their bad behaviour.

They became known as the ‘Bafta Bastards’ and Greg made it clear their behaviour wouldn’t be tolerated any more. It was a seminal moment and that signal from the top gave people lower down the organization permission to deal with bullying and to try to stamp it out.

Hilary Rosen, Creative Director, Silver River.
Co-producer of MGEITF session on bullying

Ask anyone who has worked in TV for more than a matter of months and they will almost certainly have a war story about working for an ogre. Someone who made unreasonable or crazy demands but was possibly inspirational too. Our industry is full of compulsive, type A personalities who seek perfection and don't take failure in their stride.

But when does the quest for the best cross the line into behaviour that makes others lives a daily misery? When is it bullying? There's a feeling that bullying is back in vogue in both Broadcasters and Indies. Times are tough and everyone is feeling the pressure.

This year, the festival has commissioned a far reaching survey that will take a good look at "TVs Dirty Secret". We don't yet know what we will discover. We are wondering if female bosses are the main culprits? (I hope not) and if Indies are any worse than Broadcasters? We won’t be naming and shaming but we will be opening up bad practice to debate and will even have an Am I A Bully? Test that brave delegates can take as the debate unfolds. We hope to agree on a working definition of bullying for our industry so that we can minimise it in the future. Those war stories aren’t obligatory.

Donna Taberer
Acting Head of the College of Production
BBC Academy Head of Public Service Partnerships, BBC Academy
Co-producer of MGEITF session on bullying

What is bullying? And who is a bully? Questions we've thrashed around many times during the debate which led to this Edinburgh session. Bullying can be insidious; it can present directly or in the form of passive aggression. Or, on the other hand, is the term being used as an easy refuge for people who don’t want to face up to genuine performance issues? One person's inspirational no-nonsense boss, is another's tormentor.

One thing's for sure....TV attracts incredible creatives who strive for perfection. But many of these brilliant brains were never intended to manage or lead. Or could they with the right nurturing and training? I'd like to think so.

But first our industry needs to comes clean and face up to the issue. Our survey and session will open up that debate. The mobile and volatile nature of our workforce makes it all too simple for whistleblowers to be moved on. All too easy for junior staff to disappear without explanation.

Let's be honest - how many times have we told ourselves, or worse others, to keep our heads down and suck it up. Or has our stereotypical behaviour (and now I’m thinking of my time as a Commissioning Editor!) piled on the pressure for others which perhaps has led to people being bullied in our name.

This Edinburgh session will look at the issues and ask is bullying in TV different to other industries? Do people use bullying as a shield or excuse? The session will offer plenty of practical advice on tackling bullying whether we're a victim or bystander. Because the truth is we do all recognise a bully – we may just have chosen in the past to turn a blind eye.

The session TV's Dirty Secret, chaired by Lorraine Heggessey, will take place at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival (26-28 Aug). For tickets and further information, see

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jill Allison
jill Allison  | July 6, 2011
It only takes one narcissistic employee or client to create problems in the entire work environment I don't think TV is any worse than any other work place - it just has the potential to be more dramatic given the frequently flamboyant personalities involved. Bullying and harrassment at work can be incredibly difficult to spot until the damage is overt, and equally difficult to resolve when the harasser is as damaged as the harassee. Managers need to be aware of the telltale signs and act in a conrolled firm manner to stamp out this behaviour for the sake of all concerned. Easy to say .......
Stephen Engelhard
Stephen Engelhard  | July 6, 2011
The writers are right to draw attention to the grey area between tough, demanding management and bullying, but that is not the whole story. Having, in recent years, produced a widely used training video about workplace bullying, I now look back on my years in TV in a different light. The worst bullying I experienced, as a young and inexperienced director, was at the hands of a film editor who was supposed to be working for me but seemed intent on undermining me. Bullying is not just done by managers but happens between peers and can be directed up the food chain too. It thrives on insecurity, which is rife in broadcasting.

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