OPINION: The actions of the two Australian DJs who impersonated the Queen and Prince Charles in a prank phone call to London's King Edward VII Hospital where the pregnant Duchess of Cambridge was staying have been universally condemned.
Seldom can those last two words be used literally, but on this occasion the subsequent death - apparently suicide - of mother-of-two Jacintha Saldanha, 46, resulted in exactly that.
What was mild amusement at a childish prank call, coupled with incredulousness that anyone could have been fooled by it, changed into something far more sinister three days later after Ms Saldanha's death.
The humour quickly evaporated at that point, to be replaced by anger. British police are investigating, helped by their Australian counterparts, to reflect how seriously the incident is being treated.
The commercial world showed its distaste at being associated with the actions as advertisers withdrew their support for Mel Greig and Michael Christian's show.
The two radio hosts have gone into hiding and shut down their Twitter accounts, such has been the abuse via the vitriolic world of some social media users.
Radio networks around the world are now reviewing their policies on such prank calls. Many are likely to apply the handbrake for now on the drive to attract listeners in the ratings-driven world of radio by such means.
But there is a wider context to take into account. The two Sydney DJs didn't spontaneously decide to make the call. It was discussed with management, a legal opinion sought, and a recording of the call heard before everyone resolved to play it on air. Unsuccessful efforts were also made to discuss the resulting taped conversation with the hospital.
The next point to ponder is the relatively minor part in the whole incident that Nurse Saldanha actually played. She merely transferred the call to another nurse, which raises the question of just how that could possibly prompt her to take her own life.
In partial mitigation of the foolhardy pranksters, it was not a consequence that could have reasonably been foreseen.
The actions and behaviour of the media is under the microscope as never before. The wide-ranging Leveson Inquiry has brought down several leading figures in the UK and whetted the appetite of those who have suffered at the excesses of the British tabloid press.
That is understandable. Most right-thinking people would recognise the need for change in the way some media behave, although Government regulation is not the answer.
Similarly, turning the heat up on pranksters would be a kneejerk reaction. Advertisers may have deserted the Australian network responsible for the hospital prank - but if there was not an appetite for jackass-style behaviour on air and on television, they would not have been advertising in the first place.
These pranks may forever struggle to pass the taste test, but in this case the tragic epilogue could not have been predicted, and it certainly is not a reason to ban the pranksters.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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