Our right to joke is sacrosanct

02:15, Dec 12 2012

Leg-pulling. Having a laugh at another's expense. Most of us have seen a bit of that. Wasn't so long ago that Kiwi comedian Guy Williams made a dick of Paul Henry on TVNZ Breakfast, passing himself off as a rabid pro-whaler. No-one died. Orson Welles had a lend of the entire state of New Jersey in 1938, tricking radio listeners into thinking there was a Martian invasion. Some fled their homes in terror, others took up arms and patrolled the streets.

Was thinking about this yesterday as horror mounted over the tragic death of a nurse implicated in last week's prank call to the hospital in which Prince William's wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, was being treated. The popular synopsis appears to be that, if it wasn't for our love of having a laugh at each other, this woman would still be alive. That we should legislate to stop people's feelings being hurt, to prevent similar anguish.

Ironies abound with this stance. Must admit, it would be a little easier to give it credence if the people supporting it weren't simultaneously abusing and persecuting the radio DJs at the centre of the controversy. The vitriol aimed at Mel Greig and Michael Christian this week tells us much more about ourselves than any prank call. What would the angry mob prefer - that the duo become so devastated that they take their own lives too?

Forget prank calls. What we're really saying is that people are entitled to not be publicly embarrassed. Because, if they are, they might kill themselves. And yet there we are every night, busily consuming reality TV programmes that set out expressly to humiliate others. Police Ten 7 and Border Patrol make fun of law breakers; The Apprentice of aspiring entrepreneurs. Airport ridicules the stressed; Gordon Ramsay swears at the vulnerable.

And we just sit there and lap it up. We laugh at those who offer cringe-worthy auditions for TV talent contests. We split our sides over shows like Candid Camera and Beadle's About, different to radio pranks calls only in terms of the medium used. The Aussie satirical show The Chaser's War on Everything once sent an Osama Bin Laden lookalike to an Apec conference - to the utmost embarrassment of the security personnel involved.

If there's a lesson to be taken from the horrible events in London last week, it's that we need to stop taking ourselves so seriously. The initial response to Greig and Christian's prank call was outrageous. Would probably still be a bit of harmless fun if it hadn't been for those who chose to be so stuffy about it. A TV report at the time reckoned the prince was "incandescent" with rage. Really? If that's true, he needs to get over himself.


Same goes for those who want laws to prevent anything like this from happening again. If only it was that simple. What they're really talking about is creating a community in which everyone is protected against being offended or embarrassed. Trouble is, to do that you have to first rob the world of a little fun and colour, a bit like in that old movie Pleasantville. Take away the extremes of fun and despair and just live in the boring bit in between.

Who knows what caused last week's tragedy in London? All we can assume is that the woman concerned was extremely unhappy. For that to lead to a loss of life is bad enough; for it to happen in the circumstances it did is profoundly sad. That said, those agitating for laws to prevent people's feelings being hurt in such a way again are just kidding themselves. Might as well ban April Fool's Day while they're at it.

» Read more of Richard Boock in the Sunday Star Times.
» Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardboock.

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