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Why does everyone hate Fred the Shred?

Fred Goodwin picture on a dartboard

By Tom Geoghegan and Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Since the terms of former RBS chief executive Sir Fred Goodwin's pension were announced last week, he has been pilloried by press, public and politicians. But does his treatment and that of other scapegoats tell us something about the way we cope with crises?

The tabloids scream "Off with his Fred", "Shame of bank boss", "Shred Fred" and "Let the vulture sue if he dares".

Photographers surround his home. Each day a new commentator pours on fresh opprobrium. And the man in the eye of the storm is reported to have taken his children out of school and to be considering leaving the country.

His crime? To have taken the pension that, by all accounts, is contractually his: almost 700,000 a year. This, despite his bank having to be rescued from oblivion by the government.

Cedric Brown
Yesterday's bogeyman - ex-British Gas boss Cedric Brown

Sir Fred has become the face of the banking crisis and public enemy number one.

He may at least take some comfort from knowing he's not the first captain of industry to have navigated this very public walk of shame. Remember Cedric Brown, who, as chief executive of British Gas, was at the centre of a furore in 1994 after getting a 75% pay rise. "Fat Cats" screamed the headlines and the episode ushered in an era of attacks on excessive boardroom pay.

Then there was Gerald Corbett, chief executive of the now defunct Railtrack. In 2000 he became the figurehead of everything that was wrong with Britain's ailing rail network. His 1m payoff on leaving the firm did little to turn things around.

Media commentator Vincent Graff says Sir Fred makes the ideal scapegoat.

"People have been looking for a direction in which to channel their anger and he's perfect because we can be jealous of him. He's diabolically rich, he does deserve some of the blame for what he did because the way he ran the bank led to some of the problems and thirdly, he's completely unapologetic."

Sir Fred isn't a scapegoat in the truest sense of the word. In ancient Judaic ceremony, a goat was selected, loaded down with the sins of the people and then sent out into the wilderness to die. The point of course is that the true scapegoat is innocent.

'Phony thing'

Most people would not consider Sir Fred innocent - they would say he is at best guilty of naivety and poor decision-making, at worst recklessness. But still he is not accused of any criminal or malicious act.

Lightning rod
When a storm breaks, someone needs to be the lighning rod

Psychotherapist Simon Crosby, as well as being one of RBS's many small shareholders, has studied the psychological reasons for scapegoating and offers advice to those who find themselves blamed for a wider problem.

"The fundamental dynamic is the need to export blame. If you can identify somebody else that makes you feel better. But actually, it doesn't, it's always a phony thing to do. People don't normally feel better if they express their negativity."

One can see that scapegoating goes right back into history. The individual traitor is a classic motif in history, whether it's the Christian Count Julian of Ceuta allowing the Muslim invasion of Spain, or Ephialtes showing the secret path to the Persians at Thermopylae.

More recently Sharon Shoesmith, the head of Haringey's children's services, was pursued by sections of the media after the investigation into the death of Baby P. She was pictured in one tabloid "smirking" in the street, as she headed to a restaurant. She later said she considered suicide during the episode.

Turnip torment

But while there is little more serious than the death of a child, and even the failure of a bank can see shareholders ruined, the need to identify a lightning conductor for ill will is universal. Graham Taylor suffered countless personal attacks in the press in 1992-93 while the manager of England's struggling football team.

Sharon Shoesmith
The story became me... one of the reasons was because I was the only image connected with the story, the reporting restrictions hadn't been lifted... the picture of the child hadn't been released
Sharon Shoesmith

The Sun famously turned him into a turnip under the headline "Swedes 2, Turnips 1" when England were knocked out of Euro 92. That was the start of a 17-month media campaign that culminated with his resignation from the job when the team failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.

"In many respects, although it was happening, it never really bothered me as much as people assume it had done. I didn't see the coverage although I was aware of it and my advice to Sir Fred would be 'Don't read the papers.'

"If he feels as responsible as I felt, he will not need to feel any worse because of people who would never reach his position having a go at him."

A guilty look in the eyes of a journalist was sometimes the only inkling Mr Taylor had that a paper had published something bad about him. But worse than what was said in print was the intrusion suffered by his family.

Losing control

A television crew with the cameras rolling barged into the home of his parents, and his wife was sworn at by a journalist outside her house simply because she would not give him an interview.

Graham Taylor
Taylor had the last laugh by rebuilding his career

When Mr Taylor resigned there were dozens of journalists camped outside his home, guarded by police, for four days. But the media spotlight dimmed from then on, although some residual bitterness among a small section of the public rankled for longer.

"The English public were fantastic. I can only think of two or three incidents where I suffered a little bit, usually when people had been drinking.

"I learnt to stay out of the way and I quickly developed a sixth sense so that when I was in company, or walking down the street, I could tell if someone was talking about me or had been drinking."

Twice he lost control - once when he pushed two drunken men as they were about to throw beer over him and again when a man passed him in the street and called him a turnip.

"On those occasions, I would think 'Come on, Sun newspaper. When you do these things, you're doing these things to someone who has failed but someone who has failed honestly and openly. I'm not a bad person and you are making me a villain.'"

Years later, Mr Taylor knew his rehabilitation was complete when having rebuilt his reputation in football, the Sun asked him to become a columnist and he struck a verbal agreement with them not to use the word "turnip" again.

The son of a journalist on the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph, Mr Taylor once had ambitions to follow in his father's footsteps and he says he always understood why the papers behaved that way towards him.

And the final ironic twist in his story is that for the last six years he has had a successful media career, working alongside some of his erstwhile tormentors.


A selection of your comments appears below.

In general, the public doesn't need anyone to hate. The tabloid press does. Like the playground bully, they smell blood and home-in on their victim and, without conscience, beat them to a pulp before moving on. Not pleasant. Just ask J.Ross and R.Brand. But I suppose they wouldn't behave in this despicable manner if it didn't sell papers ....?
John, Wales

The examples of Graham Taylor and Sharon Shoesmith are less about the public needing a scapegoat and more about journalists selling newspapers by pillorying people, mocking them and denouncing them as guilty without trial. Perhaps you should ask yourselves why journalism is such an evil profession.
Caroline Allen, London

Scapegoating is also a way of being lazy. It means that you don't have to do your own thinking nor do you even have to make a nuanced response, you just have to shoot at the target you are being told to shoot at (or if you're in power, the target you're telling people to shoot at). I did hope that the Freedom of Information Act (I still remember a time before that) would make scapegoating less likely but... I would advise everyone to read 1984 by George Orwell. The descriptions of the society portrayed shows how scapegoats are used by those in power to keep those under them under control.
Francisco, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

Graham Taylor's bounce back is great. Let's hope Sharon Shoesmith manages it too. Responsibility has to be part of media freedom, not "Who shall we crucify this week?"
John Hutchison, Sheffield, S Yorks.

We need a 'villain' for the same reason we need a 'hero', to keep the rest of us safe. Even the Americans with their massive country and uncountable peoples, STILL want to have one person as the head of their 'tribe'. No President can fulfil that expectation but the demand is still there. Mankind is a tribal animal and we need a head of our tribe and we need to know who the enemy is. Simple.
Simon Allen, Watford, Hertfordshire

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