Royal hoax a reflection of new media world

16:00, Dec 14 2012
Royal phone hoax
2day FM radio hosts Mel Greig and Michael Christian.

The old adage that laughter is the best medicine was proved tragically wrong a week ago when a British wife and mother of two apparently took her own life after being an unwitting participant in a ''prank'' phone call from a Sydney radio station.

I'm not going to revisit all the circumstances here, but I do believe this sorry story is worth examining for what it tells us about modern media, public morality and corporate ethics.

Let us first accept that while perhaps thoughtless, the ''prank'' was not initiated to embarrass anyone but perhaps the two young DJs themselves.

They work in a sector of an industry where putting yourself in embarrassing or cringe-inducing situations is par for the course.  Having a skin thick enough, or a sense of propriety small enough, to do that for a job does require a certain type of ''talent'' and there is clearly a market for such broadcasting.

Indeed, that market is highly competitive so if you've already decided that you are not broadcasting for any other reason than to suck in moronic listeners you shouldn't be surprised to find yourself in a commercial race for the bottom where being more outrageous, insensitive or stupid than your rivals is the ultimate goal.

In those circumstances the lines become somewhat blurred.  The call to King Edward VII''s Hospital was made in that context and was a million miles away from old classics like our own Kevin Black convincing a woman that her new remote garage door was interfering with air traffic control at Auckland Airport.


Wise old commercial radio hands I've spoken to tell me there are some rules about prank calls, including that you don't make such calls to hospitals or police stations where people are doing tough jobs often under difficult circumstances.

That rule was clearly broken by everyone at the radio station and involved seeking information from a hospital where a woman (her royal status is ultimately irrelevant) was seriously ill and needed professional medical care.

2Day FM was surprised it got through to the nurse at her bedside but that doesn't mean the hospital itself should in any way share the blame for what happened.  For those not involved in the self-obsessed world of shock radio it beggars belief that anyone would pull such a prank at 5.30 in the morning, so having a defence system against such obvious stupidity probably never occurred to them.

Having made and recorded the call it was always going to air, if lawyers were consulted it was only to make sure the station's arse was covered.  Everyone involved would have known they were sitting on ratings gold and clearly revelled in the subsequent notoriety the broadcast initially generated.

In this world of internet interconnectedness it of course went global.  The internet has no editorial board of control or legal consultants. It is a global reflection of our collective consciousness which in instances like this doesn't always operate on a particularly elevated plane.  Even Prince Charles saw the funny side of the prank before the tragedy of last weekend.

So we can hypothesise that a hitherto anonymous shift-working nurse and mother from a culture which places a high value on honour and respect sat alone in her flat a day later and pondered becoming a global viral laughing stock, a prospect she may have found too much to bear.

Much has been written, posted and broadcast about the incident since.

 Hackers have threatened to take down the radio station and its advertisers if the announcers aren't fired, Australian columnists have labelled the British press reaction ''Aussie bashing'' and taken a poke at the British class system while the pair themselves have appeared on TV clearly traumatised and contrite.

Fingers have been pointed, blame has been apportioned and there are calls for ''something to be done''. Maybe what we all need to do is stop for a second and let the dust settle, accept that this tragic story has only losers and think a little harder about how all of us - broadcasters, bloggers, listeners, web-surfers, editors, lawyers and advertisers - behave.

In this world where we fight to find the lowest common denominator, to gather the biggest audience, to deliver the best sales results and make the most money, or jump online and criticise people we don't know and opine on things we know very little about, we seem to have collectively lost much of our humanity.

Quiet reflection, sensitivity and compassion for others might be one way to get some of it back.

The Dominion Post