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TV & Radio

Dec 10, 2012

Resisting the witch hunt on the royal prank call

The royal phone prank may have been poorly executed, but the witch hunt ensuing from the death of one of the parties shouldn't be the basis for further media regulation. Hard cases make for bad law.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

According to 2010 figures, on average around 11 people take their own lives in the UK every day, but the apparent suicide of nurse Jacintha Saldanha, unsurprisingly, garnered far more attention than most. The sickening feeling of reading about it on (for most of us) Saturday morning, of course, doesn’t begin to encompass what her family and loved ones must feel, made worse — if that’s humanly possible — by the time of year.

In response, the social media equivalent of an angry, torch-bearing mob formed quickly on Saturday. Information is transmitted at the speed of light online, but on social media outrage is carried at warp speed. Ill-informed outrage, in particular, barely needs to travel at all, and instead can blossom simultaneously in multiple minds.

A thousand weeds, and more, thus bloomed on the weekend, with media regulator ACMA fielding complaints from people around the world, people presumably unaware that, while ACMA can initiate an investigation itself, normally the broadcaster about whom people are complaining gets first crack at responding before the regulator intervenes.

Some in the local media were quick to defend radio hosts Mel Greig and Michael Christian. Others suggested there’d been a breach of the industry’s code of practice (it isn’t clear that there was). A few were damning.

The last thing the Australian mainstream media currently needs is anything suggesting greater media regulation is needed, given the government is still mulling its reaction to the Finkelstein report. But that didn’t seem to inform the responses; the Herald Sun, for example, ran two damning op-eds, including a vicious one from its opinion editor calling for the two hosts to be permanently unemployed and sympathetically reporting a call that they be “strung up”.

The lynch mob, as it turned out, wasn’t confined to new media.

Most of the reactions, hostile and not, assumed, often after a pro forma admission that it was unclear as to what might have motivated Saldanha to take her life, that it was the prank that had caused her death, even though Saldanha wasn’t the one who had passed on any confidential information, but merely transferred the call.

By Saturday afternoon, Fairfax had a live blog up and running, with breathless reports of the latest (over)reaction. In due course, we were informed that British tabloids had dispatched journalists to Australia to hunt down the offending “DJs”, and that British police wished to speak with them.

That, at least, provided whatever black humour could be obtained from all this: the discredited British police, so recently revealed to be part of an industrial-scale bribery operation run by the owners of Britain’s tabloids, who in effect operated as an arm of News International, want to give full voice to the reflexive, Empire-on-which-the-sun-never-sets extraterritoriality of the British criminal justice system by interviewing two Australians about a UK suicide. Then again, given that being prosecuted for joke tweets and offensive but harmless political statements is now normal in the UK, it’s not surprising.

Better yet, the newspaper industry that gave us phone hacking, computer hacking, industrial-scale bribery, and which is demonstrably responsible for at least one suicide and one attempted suicide in recent years, has mounted its high horse against the hated colonials. Noted journal of record The Sun — which engaged in phone hacking and mass bribery of British public officials — suggested Greig and Christian be tried for treason, and exhumed a royal scholar to explain how it could be done. The Guardian reported that some in India were calling for the Indian government to somehow intervene.

Before Saldanha’s death, it was a very different story from some UK outlets. “It simply beggars belief that a member of the public could call up and obtain details of the Duchess’s medical condition in this way,” the Daily Mail quoted a former royal press secretary as saying, before the suicide.

In fact, the Mail seemed to be a little in awe of the Australian hosts and was rather taken with Greig. “Blonde Mel Greig, 30, is said to be a ‘bundle of laughs’ who enjoys being mischievous,” the Mail enthused, before going on to discuss her private life..

By Saturday, the Mail had stopped its long-distance leering at Greig, replacing it with “sick jokers” who had provoked “global outrage”.

For those of us mystified by the public interest in the antics of a family of in-bred European billionaires, the original prank had little relevance or interest. Many were quick to conflate Greig and Christian’s actions with some of the more depraved behaviour of colleague Kyle Sandilands, but in fact there was a signal difference.

A prank or stunt that is aimed simply at humiliation of those without power or authority serves no purpose beyond vilification. But regardless of the intent of the perpetrators, this prank actually had some public interest, by revealing how strongly the culture of class-based deference lives on in the United Kingdom and how a young woman — it’s irrelevant how privileged or wealthy she is — could have her privacy so grotesquely breached by an institution with a duty of care towards her.

That the hospital — as if to confirm the role of class in this, overseen by one “Lord Glenarthur” — has subsequently sought to deflect attention from its own significant failings onto the pranksters is shoot-the-messenger stuff.

Still, it’s hard to escape the sickening stench of Sandilands in this instance because Southern Cross Austereo failed to take appropriate action on him. Sandilands should have been sacked for his repeated offences of personal vilification and misogyny, but continues to pollute the airwaves.

Community reaction to Greig and Christian is partly driven by displaced anger at the unwillingness of the broadcaster and the inability of the broadcasting regulator to deal appropriately with a far worse offender, who has flouted basic expectations of decency with apparent impunity because of his capacity to generate revenue.

Money, free speech and community reactions are all pulling the issue in different directions. The reaction of both the UK and local media is driven by the need to monetise the story, and if exploiting it means the likes of the Daily Mail turning on a penny, that’s fine: reverse all the ferrets.

But the tragedy also touched that deep-seated Australian instinct to regulate away unpopular things. The ultimate logic of much of the anger directed toward the broadcaster is that nothing that causes offence to anyone anywhere should be broadcast, because there’s always a possibility that someone will react in a tragic way, even if that couldn’t have been reasonably foreseen by a broadcaster.

That’s our growing offence culture, our growing insistence that nothing we see should conflict with our views or somehow offend us, taken to its logical end-point, and it’s a shabby basis on which to extend broadcasting regulation. Moreover, a tragedy like this — assuming there’s any connection between the prank and Saldanha’s death, which has yet to be demonstrated — is such an unusual occurrence that any regulatory reflex prompted by it is bound to make for poor outcomes. Hard cases, after all, make for bad law.

So here I am, defending the right of a broadcasting licensee I loathe to make a poorly-executed prank call that seems to have caused a heart-breaking outcome. Still, none of the alternatives — the baying for blood of the hypocrites of the British tabloids, the imperial mentality of a discredited police force, or the impulse to further restrict speech based on unforeseeable consequences — strike me as preferable.

* If you are in need of help or information visit beyondblue.org.au, call Lifeline on 131 114 or visit this page for a detailed list of support services.

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62 comments

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62 thoughts on “Resisting the witch hunt on the royal prank call

  1. klewso

    The Herald Sun, with their record, wanted to get out and lead a lynch mob?

  2. ulysses butterfly

    The professional media have a blind spot on their abuse of power because they are addicted to hyperbole and emotional violence, where a debate is a “war”, irritation with a stakeholder is an “eruption”, and a response is an “explosion”. These are the immoderate words of the leading practitioners Oakes, Clennell, Benson etc.

    Mike Carlton taking the hypocrisy line himself is hopelessly immoderate to get attention. The very description reptile eating carrion exists for a reason.

    Really you are the last people to judge on emotional violence. Fact is a prank is a fraud, probably an illegal impersonation of a public official (no less the head of State), and a calculated cruelty by immature buffoons. It’s Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King only it’s not fiction.

    Fact is you pros in the professional media all feel dirty and you probably should because you all live in that house.

  3. Mark out West

    Bernard are these are not the foreseeable consequences;
    1.If their call was put through the first person to take the call would be in trouble for not vetting the call properly.
    2. Once through, to ask for confidential medical information would also bring into question the person who provided that information.

    Given the high anxiety of the British to intrusions of the press, the consequences it had on the Royal Family in the past and the high regard the two individuals are held in, is there any wonder those poor nurses felt under pressure.

    The antic was morally bankrupt as it was seeking to obtain confidential medical advise and it was obvious those providing it would be under enormous pressure to explain why.

    Bernard have you been pulled into the office and asked to be more right wing to broaden the readership?

  4. Gavin Moodie

    If the nurse did suicide because of something related to her work did her employer the hospital monitor and protect her health appropriately?

  5. Venise Alstergren

    BERNARD K: Good one. Also, the pranksters involved were merely playing to the crashing obsession of the average Australian who grovels towards British royalty. Without this unhealthy interest in foreign royalty, there would have been no prank.

    Despite the waffling of the British press, to suppose the nurse committed suicide because of it, is ludicrous.

  6. klewso

    Would they have been “Murdoch journalists” (with that institution’s record for man-handling the truth – anything for a by-line) despatched to Australia to hunt down Greig and Christian, for another head-line?

  7. kraken

    Whilst I agree with many of the sentiments expressed here – particularly the breathtaking hypocrisy of the British & Australian gutter press – I’m afraid BK goes a little lightly on radio jocks who breach privacy through low-rent pranks – it is a form of bullying and public humiliation that privacy provisions are supposed to prevent, especially protections around the recording and broadcasting of material. The rights and wrongs of how the British establishment and all media respond are tangential to the overriding privacy issue. This has little to do with ‘class’ but everything to do with common decency, with an emphasis on ‘common’. Yes, the royals are fair game but hospital employees are not reasonable collateral victims under any circumstances.

  8. Shakira Hussein

    The most likely outcome is that the barriers between public figures (not just the royals) and the rest of the world will be further reinforced, which I would consider A Bad Thing.

  9. ulysses butterfly

    And to add a little more legalese to the analsis, it’s the emotional violence version of connecting with the proverbial eggshell thin skull victime in an accident in a civil claim for negligence as taught in torts in first year law degrees.

    Such as this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eggshell_skull

    You didn’t know the victim was extra vulnerable, but you could reasonably foresee some degree of injury if only to reputation and emotional well being. The extreme consequence is but an extension of the same qualitative wrongful action. A question of degree not type.

    Better get a lawyer, better get a real good one.

  10. drsmithy

    The only good that might come of this is a self-imposed ban by radio stations on prank calling – quite possibly the lowest form of humor one can find on radio (and that’s saying something).

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