Shock jocks wanted laugh, got disaster

I loathe practical jokes. They're bullying in disguise, they're always hurtful and they're sometimes criminal.

Think of the recent trial of the teenager who set fire to a guest at his birthday party and thought it was hilarious. He doesn't now.

Worse, you're supposed to be jolly about being humiliated because of some dim, ancient agreement in our culture that says the prankster is a helluva dag. His victim is supposed to be a good sport and hide their anger or shame - bullied, then bullied again into denying the hurt. How hilarious.

I last tried out a practical joke when I was about seven, an age at which it's slightly excusable. I'd seen in a comic, probably a Beano, a drawing of someone pulling out a chair from behind a person trying to sit down.

The victim fell to the floor in the comic, which seemed deliciously funny to me - bear in mind that I also thought Jerry Lewis was hilarious at the time - so I did it to a boy in my class.

To my surprise nobody else thought it was funny and I saw that they were right. I've never tried anything like it since.

That's one excellent reason why I'm not a radio shock jock.

It's been a lousy year for the media, with an inquiry into press conduct in Britain yielding shameful results. Now the Australian duo from 2Day FM radio has shown that a lack of empathy, and recklessness with other people's feelings is par for the course elsewhere. A woman has killed herself, most likely because of their thigh-slapping prank call, which made headlines around the world.

In it for a laugh, but what they got was a disaster, and they'll never live this down, a tough result for two young people who were, after all, hired to win listeners by taking risks.

I know little about them, other than that they're young and photograph well, which is always important, and that they're remorseful, as they should be.

The young man seems worse in retrospect because he bragged about the hoax call on Facebook before the tragedy unfolded.

Just two days into a new job his testosterone levels would have been perilously high, but if anyone should bear the blame for what happened it's his bosses, who chose the format they placed him in and also chose to air the stunt.

They say they tried to get permission to use the recording from the hospital where the woman worked. Well, they didn't try hard enough.

Australians love larrikins and the rules of practical jokery are understood there. Not so in India, I fear, where nurse Jacintha Saldanha was born, and not so in other cultures whose values and customs Western media blithely trample on.

Her accent should have signalled the need to take care, because she was unlikely to understand the joke, but the radio station - not just the two young jocks, remember - thought she was fair game.

Of course Saldanha felt humiliated, a laughing stock as she could well have seen it, and she'd have feared for her job - but you'd have to have a degree of maturity to give such thoughts more than a split second's consideration before you chose to broadcast.

Few people survive in the media past the age of 50, as it happens, when maturity can reasonably be expected, which makes it miraculous that Paul Holmes lasted in broadcasting as long as he did. He is retiring, he tells us, at the age of 62. He is unwell.

I wasn't always a fan. There were times when I found Holmes mawkish, outlandish and unfair, but he was never unlikeable.

Maybe his media persona was outsized in a small country; maybe we weren't ready for the cult of celebrity he embraced, and maybe he hammed it up too often, but his intelligence and quirky personality always shone through and he has been the outstanding talent of his generation.

The Press