“It was the worst phone call I’ve ever had in my life,” sobbed globally disgraced DJ Mel Greig to Tracy Grimshaw and the viewers of A Current Affair, explaining how she first heard of the heart-rending suicide of a nurse. Tragically, the dead carer in question, Jacintha Saldanha, had endured a worse call courtesy of Greig and her co-host Michael Christian.
Pranks are, of course, standard fare for media around the world. A faux Prince Charles wanted to book a room for his horse, and we sniggered as the hotel accommodated the request in an on-air orgy of obsequiousness; Panorama reported a bumper crop for Swiss spaghetti farmers; New Mexicans for Science and Reason claimed the Alabama state legislature had voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159 to the “Biblical value” of 3.0.
But a death is altogether more serious. Giggles transmute to gravitas.
With less solemn consequences such brouhaha is coveted, based on the long-standing principle that “all ink is good ink”. Radio announcers, especially commercial FM announcers, crave one thing besides a microphone to build their career: the attention of other media. It’s the shockingly open yet undisclosed secret most announcers practise, and the rest of the media is too distracted to comprehend.
It’s why shock jocks shock. Not because they get a perverse thrill out of being gratuitous and nasty for its own sake. It’s a marketing and advertising strategy — basically, getting it for free. Who needs to pay some PR hack to tell the world what a bastard you are when A Current Affair or Today Tonight, or Today or Sunrise, will do it for you?
Last night Mel and Michael were paragons of contrition. They are doubtless gripped by genuine grief, but their lines, however sincere, appeared suspiciously scripted, and sat easily within proven frameworks for outrage reduction. The commandments for such situations are simple:
Acknowledge the mistake
Apologise and look like you mean it
Recontextualise your behaviour — make it seem normal and own the middle ground
Don’t pass the buck to co-workers
The media can only report what you say – don’t stray off message
Express hopes and wishes
Offer a practical way forward.
Their responses, however genuine, were textbook crisis management …
1. Acknowledge the mistake
“… obviously, you know, we’re incredibly sorry for the harm that we may have helped contribute [to].”
2. Apologise and look like you mean it
“If we played any involvement in her death then we’re very sorry for that. And time will only tell.”
“[Crying] There’s nothing that can make me feel worse than what I feel right now. And for what I feel for the family. We’re so sorry that this has happened to them.”
“I’m just so devastated for them. I’m really feeling for them.”
“Gutted. Shattered. Heartbroken.”
3. Recontextualise your behaviour — make it seem normal and own the middle ground
It was, they repeatedly asserted, an innocent everyday prank that went wrong. Such things are done hundreds of times every day across the industry:
“These are prank calls. They’ve been around for as long as radio’s existed and they’re done by every radio station.”
The intended gag, such as it was, was apparently that their preposterous accents would cause the hospital to hang up, but to their amazement they got through. This, of course, neglects the considerable chutzpah it would take a nurse in a royal hospital to tell someone claiming to be the Queen to bugger off.
“You know it was never meant to go that far. It was meant to be a silly little prank that so many people have done before.”
“This wasn’t meant to happen.”
4. Don’t pass the buck to co-workers
They were steadfast in their protection of fellow workers and management. When questioned about who approved airing the pre-recorded segment the answer was:
“There’s a process in place — it was out of our hands.”
When pressed about this “process” and the people involved — producer, lawyers, management — they studiously avoided names.
“People above us. We’re not privy to what happens.”
When asked if they considered identifying themselves at the end of that call:
“That’s where the process comes in. We just record everything and pass it to the team. That’s what we do.”
When asked who rang them to break the news of the suicide:
“I don’t know … a group of people.”
5. The media can only report what you say — don’t stray off message
Their simple responses were repeated ad nauseum. Their answers were bawled with a consistency that would shame a process worker and no enquiry beyond them was entertained. This smacks of formal media training. While their angst may be honest their contained response appeared disingenuous.
6. Express hopes and wishes
“I think that, you know, what’s important right now is, you know, that the family of Jacintha are getting the support and the love that they deserve. And I mean that’s what’s important here.”
“The focus should be on the family and the other nurse.”
7. Offer a practical way forward
Prank calls have now been suspended from all Southern Cross Austereo shows.
There were three points at which the station could have thought the better of this disaster — the idea, the execution, the airing. Nobody involved was sensible enough to fix it.
The tasteless antic of the naïve duo and the sanction of it by their management is another arrow in the quiver for advocates of further media regulation. This sorry tale of an unfunny, ill-considered prank call and the consequent unimagined tragedy may well become the rallying call for further restrictions to freedom of speech. The price of a largely unregulated media is a media out of control; conversely the price of a state-controlled fourth estate is one that’s scared of the very government it must hold to account.
And that’s no laughing matter.
*Toby Ralph is a marketer and crisis management consultant who has worked for the Liberal Party, British American Tobacco and the live cattle export industry. Earlier this year The Power Index named him one of Australia’s most influential spinners and advisers.