Editorial: Lack of decency

The prank phone call made last week by a Sydney radio station to the hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge was being treated for morning sickness was, as these things go, nothing very remarkable.

Such calls have been a staple of jokey breakfast shows on commercial radio stations around the world since the 1970s.

How amusing such stuff may be regarded depends on how much the listener is in touch with his or her inner 14-year-old. Normally a prank, even if successful, is no more than the laugh of a moment and no harm is done.

The tragic outcome of the Sydney station's call, however, is a reminder that practical jokes involve real people and that, particularly nowadays where social media can grotesquely magnify the impact of an event, the consequences can be far beyond what was intended.

In this case, the breakfast show hosts at the radio station undoubtedly intended no more than to indulge in a little light-hearted Australian larrikinism, with perhaps a tinge of republican puncturing of some of the pomposity and excess that surrounds the royals.

That was in fact the way their prank was largely greeted when it was first broadcast and picked up by media outlets around the world.

The station's success at gulling the hospital with one of the worst impersonations of the Queen ever heard was regarded by most who heard it as a tremendous jape and the few dissenting voices who criticised the prank were regarded as the stuffy English not getting the joke.

With the death, apparently self-inflicted, of one of the nurses at the duchess's hospital who took the call, the station has been met with a barrage of abuse.

A good deal of this is after-the-fact second-guessing. The outcome, while undeniably appalling, was very far from what anyone could have foreseen. Not only was it not in the minds of those who perpetrated the prank, it also did not occur to those who were happy enough to chuckle over it as it was broadcast.

If the station is to be blamed for what it did, the audience is at least a willing enabler.

The two presenters are said to be overcome with shame and remorse. Both have been suspended from broadcasting and one is said to be at risk of self-harm.

They have themselves become the targets of the horribly amplifying mob-anger provided by Twitter, Facebook and other such media.

While the heaping of blame on the station for the extreme outcome of its prank is excessive, it cannot be entirely absolved.

Adult supervision was seriously lacking. The call sought to elicit information that was undoubtedly private and sensitive about a person who was in a weakened and vulnerable condition, and did so by purporting to be from someone who would be naturally concerned in the matter.

Even without the tragic consequences, it was distasteful, invasive and mean-spirited.

The presenters, in their amusement at their own cleverness, also seem to have forgotten when they were speaking to the nurse that they had an ordinary person on the other end of the phone.

They were not to know that it was someone who could be particularly vulnerable, but they could have reflected on the fact that it was another human being capable of being hurt or damaged by what they were up to.

A lawyer at the station is said to have vetted the tape before it was broadcast. It is surprising he raised no objections to it, although the important questions about it were not legal.

They were just matters of common decency.

The Press