Pranks common, so how did one call go so wrong?

MICHAEL LALLO
Last updated 09:50 09/12/2012

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How could it go so wrong?

One woman dead, believed to have committed suicide. A global media frenzy. Two DJs accused of having "blood on their hands". And a radio network under siege - again.

It all started with a prank phone call: a staple of FM stations around the world. Thousands of these calls are made each year. Never has one ended so badly.

On Wednesday, 2Day FM hosts Michael Christian and Mel Greig use posh accents to convince London hospital staff they were Prince Charles and the Queen.

The nurse who took the call believed them and transferred them to another department where they obtained private information about the health of Kate Middleton, Prince William's pregnant wife.

On Saturday, that nurse was found dead. It is understood she killed herself.

Social media went into overdrive, with users blaming the hosts for her death. There were suggestions that the nurse - humiliated by the prank and the international media coverage it attracted - was driven to suicide by the ordeal.

To some, it's another disgusting chapter from what they see as a grubby industry. The industry that aired the now-infamous lie-detector segment, in which a 14-year-old girl revealed she had been raped.

The industry that broadcast Kyle Sandilands calling a young journalist a "fat slag" and threatening to "hunt her down".

But is FM radio culture really to blame?

Australian presenters make hundreds of these calls each year - but before they broadcast them, they must get the subject's permission.

It's a little murkier if the prank victim is overseas.

Fairfax Media spoke to former Austereo presenters who said that, in these instances, company policy does not require the subject's consent.

At a press conference this afternoon, Southern Cross Austereo CEO Rhys Holleran refused to specify if permission was sought from the nurse before the segment aired.

Comedian Wil Anderson, a former presenter on Austereo's Triple M network, said he felt sorry for Christian and Greig.

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"Firstly, I have sympathy for the nurse and her family because this is a terrible tragedy," he said. "But I also have a fair degree of sympathy for these kids.

"At an Austereo meeting, the number one thing is often, 'Which prank or 'gotcha' calls are we going to do today?'

"Personally, I hate prank calls and I didn't do them because I feel uncomfortable when everyone is laughing at one person - and that person doesn't know why.

"In this case, the first alarm bell should have been calling a pregnant woman who was sick in hospital, with a chance she could have lost her baby. That's when the grown-ups in the room should have said, 'Do we want to go ahead with this?'."

Anderson said the presenters would never have expected their silly accents and claim to be royals would be believed by the hospital.

"I assume this didn't go live to air, so at some point, an adult should have said, 'We're not going to play this'," he said.

"These are kids who are trying to make a name in an industry where Kyle Sandilands gets all the attention. It's a culture where you're told, 'Make some noise, be talked about, get in the papers'. You're not instructed to be talked about in a positive way; they just want you to be talked about.

"Is the culture of radio to blame? Possibly. But people make thousands of these prank calls each year and they usually result in good material. These kids have done something that I find distasteful but it's something that many other presenters have done without any negative consequences.

"It all comes back to, 'Who's the adult in the room?' After the surprise of actually getting through to the hospital, it's the job of the adults to decide whether it goes to air."

Former Triple M presenter Paul Murray, now a host on Fairfax station 2UE, said this incident should not be considered an example of "malicious" radio.

"People are intentionally trying to put it in that category," he said.

"But it wasn't malicious ... it was a big mistake. Contrary to popular belief, people in FM radio don't sit in front of a whiteboard and say, 'Who can we hurt today?' And I doubt these announcers thought, 'How can we bring global embarrassment to the nurse and the hospital?'

"This is simply not in the same category as the lie-detector incident. Do people get hurt in radio? Yes, by accident. Should that organisation apologise and change their rules and policies when that happens? Absolutely. But some of the more hysterical criticisms I've seen on Twitter - the demands that these presenters be arrested or beaten and killed - are going too far."

Murray confirmed that Austereo's policy, "is that you must get the subject's permission before you put the prank call to air", but that "those rules don't extend to subjects who are overseas".

Peter Helliar, a former 2Day FM and Triple M host, agreed this was his understanding.

"This is absolutely tragic," he said, "but suicide is a very complicated thing and there are lots of grey areas. I don't think you can blame these guys completely for what happened. Nobody knows what frame of mind the nurse was in.

"People should be careful in going too hard on these guys. They never would have thought, in a million years, that it would have gone this far. No one knows exactly what happened so we can't sit back and apportion blame. I feel sorry for everyone involved, especially for the lady and her family."

At the press conference, Holleran said that Christian and Greig, whom he had spoken to earlier, were "completely shattered".

He said the hosts and the company had mutually decided they would not return to air until further notice "out of respect".

"[This is] a tragic event that could not have reasonably been foreseen," Holleran said. "We are confident we haven't done anything illegal."

He refused to state at what point the company obtained legal advice, or to elaborate on its prank call policies and guidelines.

Austereo has already had two licence conditions imposed upon it: one relating to decency following Sandilands' "fat slag" remarks and one relating to the protection of children, sparked by the infamous lie-detector segment.

Holleran would not say if Austereo was now worried about losing its broadcasting licence.

He said the company had expressed its regret in a statement but had not contacted the nurse's family directly, though he would not "rule out" doing so later.

After the conference, 2Day FM announced it was suspending all advertising.

Earlier in the day, major sponsors including Coles and Telstra announced they had pulled their advertisements.

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