London - Of course, no harm was intended. Of course, it was just meant to be a harmless prank. But surely there is an important lesson for us all in the very sad affair of the hoax Aussie phone call.
The consequences for everybody involved – from the distressed royal couple, to the shocked and hounded Australian DJs, and most of all to the tragic nurse Jacintha Saldanha and her family – are a reminder that every thoughtless prank has a victim and that nobody can predict how a vulnerable individual will react to what somebody else thinks of as “a bit of fun”.
Cheeky, high-spirited Australian DJ Michael Christian thought it a great wheeze to try to talk to the Duchess of Cambridge’s medical team on the telephone, even though he knew she had been taken into hospital suffering from acute morning sickness early in her pregnancy.
The first sign of unthinking cruelty comes right there. His female co-host Mel Greig thought this would be “awesome”. That, in turn, shows a very modern take on the word “awe” – which correctly implies respect as well as wonder. Never mind the ethics or legality of the broadcast, there was no respect for anybody’s feelings in this sorry incident; no hint of decency or basic human compassion.
Now that an innocent woman is dead, her family bereaved and bewildered, and the whole world knows the story – the thoughtless joke doesn’t seem funny at all, least of all to the shamed perpetrators.
To me, it never was. From the moment I heard their silly, adolescent giggles and the poor nurses’ polite replies, I saw the prank as another example of the casual, tacky, thoughtless cruelty that has infected popular culture like a plague – on radio, on television and increasingly on Twitter and other social media outlets.
Had Jacintha Saldanha not succumbed to shame and misery (and we have no way of knowing what else was happening in her life) I would always despise the notion that it’s acceptable to call a hospital to invade the privacy of any patient, let alone an expectant young mother in distress. What on Earth have we come to?
Let’s be very clear. The King Edward VII Hospital should have had a protocol so securely in place it would have been impossible for this to happen. The fact that Jacintha Saldanha was not a native English speaker would have made it less likely that she would pick up the hopeless accents used by Greig and Christian, but in any case there should always be a system of checks and balances, and all the more so when the patient is high-profile.
It is true, also, that the two DJs – who have been subjected to a barrage of vilification just as nasty as their original stunt – couldn’t possibly have predicted that their trick would lead to the death of a good woman who felt (no matter how irrationally) responsible for letting her hospital and colleagues down. Call them callow, stupid, irreverent, if you like, but they were not wicked.
Yet while this tragedy was not foreseeable, it was avoidable. For surely an incident like this has been waiting to happen.
The Victorians paid to gawp at people with deformities and disabilities; in our day TV turned the freak show into an even more popular form of entertainment, taking cruelty and mockery right into people’s sitting rooms, whether through hidden camera shows that made the likes of Jeremy Beadle and Dom Joly into household names or in the routine humiliations meted out to (often mentally fragile) contestants on Big Brother or I’m A Celebrity.
That very familiarity means that broadcasters have felt the need to be ever more sensational, to court controversy, to ‘up the ante’ all the time, regardless of the potential consequences.
Those two DJs were willing and able to indulge in the bullying of an unsuspecting victim because exploiting the naivety of innocent victims is now the accepted dialect of light entertainment right across the world.
Before you blame the crass taste of Aussie presenters, remember it was only weeks ago that ITV set up a stunt on I’m a Celebrity in which the actress Charlie Brooks was left weeping after she was denied the right to see her seven-year-old daughter for failing to win a jungle challenge, as the little girl hid behind a set door.
The truth is, we have become so inured to a culture of hard-edged cleverness that it wouldn’t have occurred to Mel Greig or Michael Christian to stop, to think for a moment – and feel shamed – any more than it occurred to ITV that it was wrong to exploit a seven-year-old’s distress to chase ratings.
At least Charlie Brooks must have signed a consent form at some stage. Not so Jacintha Saldanha. Why then did the radio station’s lawyers allow the tapes to be broadcast? For the very same reason that the BBC turned a blind eye to the crude phone call made by Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross to Andrew Sachs, sniggering about his granddaughter’s sex life. Because no single executive had the taste, judgment or maturity to realise that this was totally unacceptable behaviour. Nobody, from the immature broadcasters to the worldly men and women in charge, had the wisdom or decency to say: “Hang on, this isn’t funny, it’s wrong.”
Thus casual cruelty is dished up as prime-time entertainment with as much callous indifference as the Romans showed to the Christians and lions fighting to the death in their arenas.
What’s more, it’s getting worse, as new media challenges the old for an audience. Sometimes Twitter seems as brutal as a bearpit, as trolls seek out their prey to persecute. And unlike the mainstream media, the internet has given bullies the cloak of anonymity to hide behind.
No wonder Michael Christian and Mel Greig rushed in to pull a stunt which actually resulted in a vulnerable woman, hitherto proud of her professional standards, being the brunt of hilarity all around the world. In a crowded market, they wanted to stand out; to make a name for themselves. And oh, how they bragged about their little coup over the ensuing days, until horror intruded on their glee.
The public must takes its share of blame too. For how many of those people who have tweeted their outrage, accusing the pair of having ‘blood on their hands’ (and worse) had a good laugh when they first heard the ludicrous faux-Brit accents?
It is simply not enough to shrug the shoulders and say: ‘Well, no one could have seen it ending in suicide.’
The Law of Unintended Consequences is known to sociologists and economists and used as a warning that (to quote one definition) “an intervention in a complex system tends to create unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes”. Yes, indeed.
In this dreadful story the “intervention” was just another example of the shameless rush to sensationalism that has trivialised modern broadcasting in all its forms – that amoral belief that “anything goes” which disguises the humiliation of others as light-hearted fun.
The “complex system” is the human personality, which is always unpredictable, always vulnerable. And the terrible ‘“ndesirable outcome” was the unnecessary death of an innocent woman, who would almost certainly be alive today if those who should have known better had shown restraint. - Daily Mail