There is little point in punishing the 2DayFM presenters Michael Christian and Mel Greig, who conducted the hoax call concerning the Duchess of Cambridge’s medical condition – or the radio station’s management, which apparently endorsed the stunt. However, lessons can be learnt from the incident, which appears to have had the unintended consequence of King Edward VII Hospital nurse Jacintha Saldanha taking her own life.
The advent of Facebook and Twitter has exponentially increased access to public knowledge, along with the prospect of public humiliation. Before the age of the internet, a person might be embarrassed by reports of his or her behaviour in a newspaper or in an electronic media report in a limited area and at a specific time. Now, success is a universally known phenomenon. And so is failure – or, rather, the perception of failure.
The circumstances surrounding Saldanha’s death have yet to be determined. Yet there is plausible evidence that the nurse was deeply embarrassed by the fact that she took a call from Christian and Greig believing them to be Prince Charles and the Queen – despite very poor impersonations by the 2DayFM presenters. This could induce a feeling of shame by a nurse with respect to any patient. All the more so when the recipient of such a hoax is a person of Indian birth living in Britain and the patient concerned is married to the Queen’s grandson. This despite the fact the royal family handled the situation well.
The tragedy should not be used by the regulators in our midst to introduce even more controls over the media. There are more than enough in this area already. As Professor Barbara McDonald pointed out on ABC News Breakfast on Monday, it is possible the incident has involved breaches of the NSW Surveillance Devices Act. Also, 2DayFM may have breached the commercial radio code of practice, which is monitored by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. The relevant authorities will determine these matters under the existing law.
In the final analysis, the private sector media is dependent on public support – that of those who advertise and those who choose to purchase advertised products and/or pay for newspapers or subscriber TV. The managers of 2DayFM and other similar outlets are just as capable of reading the public mood as was Rupert Murdoch when he saw the need to close down the News of the World in London following the phone hacking scandal.
The two lessons to be learnt from the royal hoax stand out clearly. First, an individual’s medical condition should always be private and confidential while he/she is receiving medical attention. The hoax of recent memory when a Canadian broadcaster, posing as the then Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien managed to have a discussion with the Queen in 1995 about Quebec independence was funny – and ultimately – harmless. An attempt to find out, by deception, details about someone who is hospitalised is never funny – and it may prove harmful.
On The World Today on Monday, the presenter of ABC TV’s Media Watch, Jonathan Holmes, confidently declared that before Saldanha’s death it was generally thought that the hoax was ”pretty damn funny, one has to admit”. Well, this does not have to be conceded because it is not accurate.
It is true, for example, that some ABC programs initially joined in the fun of the hoax. But not all. On 702, for example, Linda Mottram considered running the Christian/Greig interview but decided not to. A wise decision at the time – which looks even better in retrospect.
The second message to take from the King Edward VII Hospital incident is that it is wrong to kick down. It is a wise principle of life that the articulate and the bold should not play pranks on less articulate and ordinary folk – particularly if there is a difference in education involved. The pranks enacted by commercial stations like 2DayFM invariably strike at receptionists/janitors/police/security personnel/nurses in the first instance.
It’s much the same on the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster. For years, the ABC’s Chaser team was given permission by management to trespass on private property – despite the fact the ABC has elaborate security to keep trespassers away from its own premises. Also, the likes of Julian Morrow, who supported the Christian/Greig stunt before it turned sour, invariably humiliated receptionists, police, even sick children and others in their unsuccessful attempts to confront the powerful and the wealthy.
From experience, I know even some of the seemingly most confident media personalities are remarkably sensitive to criticism or ridicule. That’s why we all have to be so careful in the modern age about the feelings of others. Perhaps the best way to prevent improper media behaviour is to encourage a sense of self-awareness among presenters, editors and managers alike.
Gerard Henderson is the executive director of the Sydney Institute.