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Crikey Says

Dec 10, 2012

Crikey says: perspective on a prank call

There's a witch hunt on to respond to a death a world away. Who should take the blame for another failure in climate negotiations? The Press Council pointed the finger at the Herald Sun more than anyone in 2012. And Guy Rundle in Venezuela and the Hugo Chavez blame game.

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From the Australian perspective, there’s only one question that needs to be asked about the royal phone prank with a tragic footnote: should the segment have been put to air?

Probably not. As amusing as some thought it was last week, industry regulations are explicit: you must seek permission to put someone to air, or make it clear they are being broadcast. That didn’t happen in this case (though Austereo Southern Cross CEO Rhys Holleran suggested this morning they did try). And it’s grubby to air private information that many of us would not accept if it was about anyone other than the royal family.

You can’t blame the presenters, apparently and understandably doing it very tough, for having a crack at ringing a sick royal. That’s what commercial radio presenters have been encouraged to do for decades; if listeners didn’t like it they would have tuned out long ago. If you blame anyone, blame their producers and station management for giving it the green light.

Nor should the death of a nurse in London — a personal tragedy that will be fully investigated — necessarily result in soul-searching about the job those who work in the media do. Radio presenters, journalists in particular, probe the public for information that should be made public. They can’t possibly know about the mental state of those they question. They, frankly, have no responsibility to inquire.

There have been many cases in this country of the targets of media stories taking drastic measures as a result of a public shaming. They are all tragedies, and those who wrote the stories or asked the questions that may have prompted such action often live with a burden of guilt.

If a story is legitimate, if an investigation is fair, the consequences are collateral. It sounds hash, but think of all the stories that wouldn’t have come to light if we applied any other test.

This case of a prank gone wrong can only be about individual ethics and the standards which media practitioners apply. In airing that phone call the radio station failed its standards. But to see it as any more than that would be a critical mistake.

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