Editorial: Hoax leads to horror

STOOD DOWN: 2Day FM hosts Mel Greig and Michael Christian.
STOOD DOWN: 2Day FM hosts Mel Greig and Michael Christian.

What's the worst thing that could happen? Even in the jauntiest circumstances that's often a question we trivialise at our peril.

Trivial fun was most likely all that was in the minds of the two Sydney radio DJs who made a hoax call to King Edward VII's hospital pretending to be the Queen and Prince Charles checking on the condition of the pregnant Duchess of Cambridge.

There was no great malice behind it. Stale though the tactic undoubtedly was, to the tricksters it was no doubt a harmless piece of snigger-worthy entertainment for their listeners. Something that risked invoking mild exasperation for officialdom and perhaps even the royals themselves. Or, even better, the tingle of notoriety that might come from a pompous, stuffy rebuke.

What a dismal failure of imagination that proved to be. Migrant British nurse Jacinda Saldanha fell for the clumsy ruse and patched the call through to get details of how Catherine spent the night. Her employers insist they had no great rebuke for her but she was still caught up in a media storm. Not only was her gullibility exposed worldwide but newspaper headlines spoke of "Royal fury" at the whole business.

Now she's dead, an apparent suicide. Whatever other issues of circumstance and personal fragility might have contributed to this story of humiliation and distress, the tragedy has detonated a firestorm of reproach and recrimination.

This is compounded by a nasty irony as the DJs themselves, much as they deserve no credit for their behaviour, have become the subject of extravagant odium. Mel Grieg is now emerging as emotionally vulnerable herself. People and organisations who profess to despise bullying meanspiritedness are now doing a pretty good impression of indulging in it themselves, in a state of righteous vengeance.

Let's not forget that hoax calls, radio and otherwise, have been going on for years, pretty much worldwide, and generally to mixed - which is to say contradictory - public reaction.

There have been indefensible excesses among the mild Candid Camera-style entertainments.

British comedian DJ Russell Brand and co-host Jonathan Ross left lewd on-air cellphone messages to break the news to Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs that Brand had just had sex with his granddaughter. Then they even wondered aloud whether he might kill himself after the disclosure.

The indefensibility of that sort of behaviour is easily identified.

But it's a far more problematic matter to try calibrating the acceptability of pranksterism in general against the possible reaction of the most fragile members of the community.

Satirists can be hoaxers too and, by and large, we like satire. In the early 1980s, a writer under the pseudonym Henry Root wrote fake letters to a raft of public figures in Britain, often expressing foaming support for views rather more extreme than any those people had publicly owned up to. On the basis of their replies, some of these duped figures found their reputations sorely damaged. Others, just as justifiably, found theirs mightily enhanced.

The fact remains those letters were hoaxes, much as the results were received by an admiring public.

Even so, this latest terribly sad incident stands as a chastening reminder to those among us who are trying nothing more than to be a bit funny that they are hazarding far more than they may realise.

The Southland Times