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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.


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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13 thoughts on “Crikey says: perspective on a prank call

  1. Malcolm Harrison

    disagree almost absolutely with this editorial comment, in fact this kind of comment with its emphasis on legalisms rather than ethics or even good taste is what lies beneath the morass which has preoccupied the Leveson enquiry. the prank was not funny, it was hoonish and crass. it failed on all counts and has had tragic consequences. no wriggle room here. everybody involved in it is responsible regardless of the legal position.

  2. CML

    While I accept that the suic+de of the nurse involved was NOT foreseeable, the whole affair is grubby in the extreme. If, as has been suggested, the public are hanging out for such trivia, then perhaps those in that group need to have a very good look at themselves. Both those responsible at the radio station and the general public.

  3. kathleen hughes

    Oh come on, spare us this self-serving sanctimonious claptrap: don’t call this pair ‘journalists’: these were not journalists pursuing the truth of an important story; that just insults real journalists who give their lives, literally, to get to the truth. Don’t pretend it’s the same thing: this was the cheapest of cheap shots by a pair of ignoramuses who clearly felt it’s OK to lie and cheat and, in the process, sacrifice the poor bunny who, not being a native English-speaker was unable to understand this high-spirited, antipodean ‘prank’. Instead of feeling sorry for them because, after they got into trouble, now appear to be demonstrating remorse, why not consider the real victim, who had her job, her reputation, and ultimately her life destroyed by their ‘prank’…

  4. kate kennedy

    I laughed at the time. So did Prince Charles.

  5. Mike Smith

    The consequences of the prank shouldn’t be used to assess any punishment meted out to the media here. Sure, its sad, but completely unforeseeable.

  6. Steve777

    The On-air presenters were following what has been the policy of the radio station for decades and from which its managers and shareholders have made a lot of money over the years. It appears that station management reviewed the clip before allowing it to go to air. And, on the information to hand, it looks as though it may have breached standards by not getting the permission of those recorded in the prank to broadcast the material. If there are to be consequences, they should fall on those who maintain the station’s business model and who profit so well from it, not the foot soldiers.

  7. diane johnson

    Dear me your comment smacks of social darwinian libertarianism. Please at least attempt to distinguish between genuine journalistic endeavour and mindless voyeurism. I am no fan of the royals but it seems an unfair burden of guilt has landed on a young couple expecting their first child. Not to mention two young children who have lost a mother.

  8. pedro

    I agree with Malcolm Harrison, except one further point.

    Sick people and hospitals that care for the sick and dying

    I have worked in a few myself, and the working environment is a long, long way from Comedy Central.

    Do I need to elaborate on the morality of hospital humour?

    Didn’t think so. What next, hmm let’s call the parents of a child dying from leukemia and say…hehe.

    The presenters, like Wendy Harmer, should have shown more maturity and refused to be involved.

  9. pedro

    Soz, correction to grammar: The presenters should have shown more maturity – like Wendy Harmer shows – and refused to be involved.

  10. Matthew

    Couldn’t disagree more, Crikey. This wasn’t journalism, it was a prank. I can and do blame the presenters for publicly humiliating someone as entertainment. I did in fact tune out long ago, though I do sometimes catch prank calls on the radio at the office. They make me cringe with sympathy for the victim.

  11. Robg

    >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 …

    Well your editorial sounds hash to me.

    I wonder what was said when 2DayFM management and their lawyer sat around to decide what to do with an improperly recorded nuisance call courtesy of a bad decision by a hapless, half asleep nurse filling in on the reception desk of a private hospital?

    The logic of their own bad editorial decision to publish and be damned probably went something like the logic outlined in your editorial.

    They convinced themselves any collateral damage from flouting industry regulations (and arguably the law) would be more than offset by the glory they would cover themselves in by scooping the world’s media. Oh, and by the public interest served in bringing this important story to light, of course.

  12. Malcolm Street

    What was legitimate about the story? What exactly was the story for that matter?

    Whatever, as it was pre-recorded ultimate responsibility goes to management. Interesting news this morning that they tried to contact the hospital to clear broadcasting the material, but couldn’t get to anyone. In which case, they shouldn’t have broadcast it given its potential high public profile. Or if they had gotten in contact, might have gotten some context on the staff member involved.

    But the hospital says no-one from the station called them. If senior Austereo management is telling porkies over this, that’s another can of worms.

  13. Mark Putland

    Equating a prank phone call with journalism is laughable. They should not be held to the same standard or given the same leeway.

    Pranks and practical jokes are hilarious as long as they are happening to somebody else and no one loses an eye. But any human who wants to engage in practical jokes ought to ask first, what is this going to be like for those on the receiving end. If the suffering of the victim seems acceptable in relation to the amusement of the joker and audience then all is well. But like it or not that is the ethical decision that must be made. Is the victim’s suffering so insignificant or the amusement so enormous that the latter justifies the former?

    This episode is a reminder that that can be a very difficult equation to work out without hindsight.

    Whether the two clowns from Austereo truly bear responsibility for this woman’s death is doubtful. But don’t try to defend them as journalists any more than you would the producers of Big Brother or Funniest Home Videos or (from the distant past) Candid Camera.


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