We are all shocked and saddened by the news of the death of the nurse who took the phone call purporting to be from The Queen. The Australian radio station responsible for the prank has taken the usual action when something goes wrong like this and suspended its most junior staff. They have also issued a reasonable sounding statement apologising and claiming that no one could have expected such a tragic outcome.
Well, I’m not so sure about that. What after all was the point of the ‘joke’ in the first place?
I started writing this a couple of days ago, and when I saw the media reaction hesitated to post it. Most people it seems feel the same way I do. I have also seen the Daily Mail’s contribution today and was beginning to think I might do better writing a Mr Angry letter to them. But I had originally assumed that the radio programme was live. I have just learned that it was in fact recorded and then approved for broadcast. I think that changes everything.
I have to say here that the radio station concerned is apparently very popular in Australia. It prides itself on its ‘edgy’ broadcasting, which presumably means saying things on air that are at the limit of acceptability. It garners its main audience from among 15 to 25 year-olds, who seem to like that sort of activity. And the DJs concerned are also very young, if not quite in that age group; one had just started working for the station that day. I am not quite in that age group myself, so I discussed this with some who are, including journalists, and found to my surprise that my views were not held by those half my age. Apparently, they find this sort of prank perfectly acceptable, if not necessarily universally amusing, and legitimate broadcasting. I have to accept that.
But what would a reasonable controller of broadcasting think, when giving approval for the programme? The DJs’ defence is that, with their silly accents and voices and daft comments, they thought they would be told to go away as soon as they telephoned. Well, OK. However, they were put through and given confidential information. So what should a controller of broadcasting do then? What he actually did was to agree to put the programme on the air. The DJs followed that up in subsequent programmes by crowing about the ‘scoop’ and giggling like schoolgirls that they were believed. So, I ask again - what was the point of the ‘joke’ in the first place? I’m afraid that even the DJs’ words at the time made it clear to me that the prank was an attempt to fool the hospital staff and draw out the laughter at their expense.
Surely anyone considering approval of the programme would reason that the nurse taking the call would be made to look stupid; she would be humiliated on air before hundreds of thousands of Australians; the British, and without doubt the rest of the world’s, media would quickly pick up the story and deepen her humiliation; there might be (but weren’t) Royal complaints about her actions; much of the population of the world would tweet, poke and text the extent of the nurse’s stupidity and make jokes at her expense; cartoons would appear basing their humour on her naivety and incompetence; she would be forced to listen over and over again to her voice on TV and radio and listen to commentators laughing at her; her credibility, her competence, her abilities in her job would be questioned; she might even lose her job under a cloud of ignominy. In short, her life would be made a misery. As ever, I have the benefit of hindsight, but is it right to say that no one could have expected a tragic outcome? Surely someone might have wondered just for a moment what effect such an appalling attack might have on an innocent nurse? They knew nothing about her circumstances or state of mind; they certainly didn’t speak to her again, or to anyone else in the hospital, least of all to ask for consent to the broadcast. Why do they think that no one could have considered that she might be so distressed that she might take her own life?
I mentioned at the start that my views are different from those of young persons. I had previously thought that ‘edgy’ meant challenging societal norms and that it was primarily a young term. I intensely dislike comedians who rely on this sort of material; I have never found anything clever (and therefore amusing) about jokes about persons less fortunate, physically or mentally, than me. We can all make up such jokes and they are only funny to the extent that we are laughing at others. But I know that other people, not only those a lot younger than me, find such humour hilarious. Anyway, I looked up ‘edgy’ in an urban dictionary and found the following definition, which just goes to show how out of touch I am – ‘edgy occurs when middlebrow, middle-aged profiteers are looking to suck the energy -- not to mention the spending money -- out of the youth. They come up with this fake concept of seeming to be dangerous when every move they make is the result of market research and a corporate master plan’. Hmmm.
But, back to Australian radio – one problem for me with this sort of prank is that it so resembles the sort of cruel bullying that we see on social media. Either someone somewhere finds all this great fun or the young have become educationally ignorant, incapable of sensible debate and insensitive to societal norms. I know the latter is not entirely true, so I guess it must be amusing to someone.
And here we have the problem. Giving control of radio programmes to young people who are not fully capable of liaising with intelligent adults, or, in other words, running a radio station entirely for those who are not yet mature enough to understand what is fun for others and what is a societal norm, seems to me irresponsible. I admit that I am now definitely speaking with the benefit of hindsight. Previously, I would probably have dismissed the radio station as pandering to a lowest common denominator and accepted that it was successful because it was making a lot of money. Now I am hard pushed to see what the value of it is. I know it plays pop music, but so does BBC Radio 2. Or is it wrong for the media to be informative, entertaining and mind-expanding?
There is another point here that I haven’t heard discussed yet – there is a law in Australia explicitly forbidding the broadcasting of a recording without the express permission of the person concerned. The DJs have been suspended; I expect the radio station will eventually be fined, as the BBC was for a similar Ross and Brand prank some years ago; but, if there is a criminal offence too, as it seems pretty clear there might be here, then the faults lie much deeper.
The poor DJs, silly though I think they were, have been traumatised apparently by events and the radio station has provided them with counselling. That shows a certain responsibility by the station. The next thing I would like to see is the programme controller taking responsibility for letting the programme go out. Maybe he should resign. I don’t know what the punishments are for transgressing Australia’s broadcasting laws, but clearly the station should be fined and maybe also prosecuted. But, finally, I think maybe it’s time to accept that this sort of station has had its day. This isn’t the first time the station has got itself into trouble with the law and the public over its view of what constitutes acceptable programming. The Australian authorities can now understand, if they didn’t before, what human consequences puerile, uninformed, trivial broadcasting can have. So now I suggest they close down the radio station and put out a tender (or whatever process there is in Australia) for a licence for another radio station that might give more value and be of more benefit to the young and to society as a whole.