Bullied review: compulsory viewing for every teacher and student

Ian Thorpe presents Bullied. Photo: Supplied
Ian Thorpe presents Bullied. Photo: Supplied

Stunt documentaries are increasingly common on television, but few are as well intentioned as this one starring swimming champion Ian Thorpe.

There are plenty of reasons to be sceptical of the rising trend of stunt documentaries on television. Locally and recently, this bastard offspring of gonzo journalism and Candid Camera has given us everything from Border Patrol and Is Australia Racist? to Married at First Sight. It barely distinguishes between lofty and lurid; in this brave new world of wall-to-wall (un)reality television, all ob-docs are created equal.

But I reckon Bullied (ABC, March 14 and March 21, 8.30pm) can hold its head high. Though it pushes the stunt angle almost as far as it can go, it does so in the service of correcting a great evil – schoolyard bullying.

There are two episodes, and at time of writing only the first was available for viewing. It isn't perfect television, but it should be compulsory viewing for every schoolchild, parent, teacher and education bureaucrat in the country.

The focus in the first episode is on Kelsey, a 14-year-old in Queensland whose greatest loves are cricket and his long, floppy, blonde hair.

The latter has earned him a litany of abuse from his schoolmates. Their animus is all-consuming. He's been cyberbullied ("why don't you kill/harm urself"), he's been physically bullied. He's been ostracised and he's had his sexuality questioned (they call him "shemale" and "faggot").

His family and friends claim they have reported all this to the school. The response? He is on reduced hours, allowed to attend only a couple of periods a day, and encouraged to spend his lunch hours in the office.

As his father Rick puts it, the victim is being punished while the perpetrators carry on as usual.

That's the set-up. Enter the stunt.

Specialist child psychologist Marilyn Campbell provides ethical guidance to Ian Thorpe and the documentary makers on Bullied. Photo: Supplied

Specialist child psychologist Marilyn Campbell provides ethical guidance to Ian Thorpe and the documentary makers on Bullied. Photo: Supplied

Kelsey is sent to school with a backpack containing a hidden camera and a microphone to capture what happens to him over a week (call me infantile, but I couldn't help think of Dora the Explorer's magical "backpack, backpack" here). An edited version of the footage is then presented to the school by our host Ian Thorpe, who rather stiffly introduces himself to everyone as "Ianthorpe". Whatever. He is clearly on the side of the angels.

As it happens, presenting that footage is no mean feat. It takes a month to get past the various levels of indifference, responsibility-shirking and bureaucracy that anyone who has ever dealt with the education system will know only too well. "I've got the gatekeeper to the gatekeeper," says a bemused but undeterred Thorpe at one point.

Eventually, a meeting happens (off camera) and the footage is shown (on camera) to some of Kelsey's classmates. Then he comes in and they share their responses.

This is the bit where the anti-SJW (social justice warrior) brigade will throw their Donald Trump bobblehead dolls at the TV in frothing outrage, but it does the job. Empathy is established. Kelsey feels less isolated.

"In this brave new world of wall-to-wall (un)reality television, all ob-docs are created equal."

But is it really a solution?

How many bullied kids have access to a camera crew and an Olympic champion to argue their case? How many advocates can hang around for four weeks – long enough to wear down the school's stonewalling? How many principals will be forced to make a choice between dealing with a difficult issue or being made to look like a totally uncaring ass-hat on national television?

I'm not sure how much difference this sort of stunt work can make to an individual's situation, because it can't possibly address all the factors at play. But paradoxically, by highlighting the damage done by bystanders who fail to step in and schools that fail to act, it might have broader value.

If Bullied were compulsory viewing in every school – and I mean for staff as well as students – it might help force this scourge out of the dark, where it thrives, and into the light, where there's a fighting chance of it being given six of the best.