Global backlash over royal prank

HEATH ASTON
Last updated 11:22 09/12/2012

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Global backlash over royal prank

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The Australian radio industry is in the eye of a global storm, with furious British politicians demanding Australian authorities punish 2Day FM over the royal prank phone call tragedy.

British media are united in condemnation of the hoax call that came before the suicide of British nurse Jacintha Saldanha, as 2Day FM suspended all advertising to head off a mass exodus of sponsors.

Saldanha, 46, took her own life after being duped into forwarding a phone call from 2Day FM presenters Mel Greig and Michael Christian - pretending to be the Queen and Prince Charles - through to the London hospital ward of the recovering Duchess of Cambridge.

The "shattered" radio duo closed their Twitter accounts and were suspended on news of her death. 2Day FM had organised "psychological counselling" and insisted the tragedy could never have been foreseen.

Southern Cross Austereo spokeswoman Sandy Kaye said Christian and Greig were being counselled by a psychologist - paid for by the company - but neither had undergone any other medical treatment.

She said the presenters were "being babysat" by Austereo staff in order to be "kept from seeing the media coverage as much as possible". "We're seriously concerned about their welfare and we're doing whatever we can to help them," she said.

In the early hours of Saturday morning  British media outlets dispatched crews to Sydney to track down the pair. NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Nick Kaldas said British police had flagged that they may need to talk to the DJs and Austereo identities.

The Facebook page of 2Day FM was hit by 13,000 complaints before the Austereo chief executive, Rhys Holleran, spoke on Saturday afternoon to express the station's regret.

"Southern Cross Austereo is committed to working with authorities in any investigation into this tragedy," he said. "Our primary concern at this time is for the family of nurse Saldanha. This is a tragic event that could not have been reasonably foreseen and we're deeply saddened by it."

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Holleran fended off questions about whether there had been a breach of rules around recording people without their permission, saying there were different laws in different jurisdictions. "We're very confident that we haven't done anything illegal," he said. The prank call was pre-recorded and vetted by lawyers before being broadcast.

A British Conservative Party MP, Conor Burns, said Australian media regulators should be taking the matter "much more seriously".

"The presenters should lose their jobs and there needs to be a serious review as to what they regard as entertainment and what is inappropriate [in Australia]," he said.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority confirmed it would be talking to the owner of 2Day FM, Southern Cross Austereo, but others were cautious.

The NSW Premier, Barry O'Farrell, said: "In government you ought to be very careful about knee-jerk reactions because inevitably the next decision in government is an overreaction to the last."

The federal Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, said there had been a flood of complaints over the hoax but it was up to ACMA to decide if there had been a breach of the Commercial Radio Code of Practice.

The Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, released a short statement, saying: "This is a terrible tragedy. Our thoughts are with [Saldanha's] family and friends at this time."

The royal couple, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, said their "thoughts and prayers are with Jacintha Saldanha's family, friends and colleagues at this very sad time".

Mental health experts said they held grave concerns for the radio duo and urged the public not to blame them.  The DJs received support from former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, the chairman of beyondblue.

"It was a harmless prank," he said. "Now they will be under extraordinary pressure and I just hope that they get our support and that their employer provides them with the professional support to help them get through what will be a terrible few weeks."

Leading psychiatrist  Patrick McGorry called for calm, saying suicide was unlikely to be caused by one individual factor.

"I feel sorry for them because they obviously had no intention of causing any harm. Blame is hardly ever useful," he  said.

-Sydney Morning Herald

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