Prank phone calls have long been a staple of a certain type of radio show. The Montreal-based comedy duo Marc-Antoine Audette and Sebastien Trudel, who call themselves the Masked Avengers, have practically made a career of impersonating world leaders in order to prank well-known victims from UN chief Ban Ki-moon to US politician Sarah Palin.
But the death last week of a nurse in the UK who apparently committed suicide after she fell for a phone prank by a pair of Australian radio DJs has triggered a firestorm of criticism and raised important questions about media excess and culture in the wake of a British inquiry into press abuses.
A gag gone wrong
As phone pranks go, it wasn't that clever. DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian called the London hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge – aka Kate Middleton – the pregnant wife of Britain's Prince William, was being treated for severe morning sickness. Impersonating Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, they asked about Middleton's condition. The nurse who answered the phone, Jacintha Saldanha, put the call through to the duchess's private nurse, who gave the pranksters a report on her health.
Greig and Christian said they never expected to get put through, given their dodgy English accents and silly sound effects. But having pulled off this coup, they soon aired the call and had a great old laugh about it. Websites and newspapers around the world reported on the hoax. Christian wrote to Facebook friends: "The only bad thing about our Royal Prank and [sic] is knowing that I will NEVER EVER top this ... Less than a week in the job & I've already peaked.''
But after the 46-year-old Saldanha was found dead, apparently having committed suicide, everybody stopped laughing. The chairman of the hospital wrote a letter to the radio station saying the "truly appalling" stunt had "humiliated" hospital staff. Everyone involved with the prank was quick to express their deep sorrow at the tragic turn of events – the DJs' show was suspended and Southern Cross Austereo, the company that owns the radio station and broadcast the prank, said it was reviewing its policies and pledged to co-operate with any official investigation. Greig and Christian describe themselves as "shattered" to think they may have contributed to someone's death.
Obviously, nobody at the radio station expected someone to kill themselves over the joke. To say, as some did in the explosion of anger that lit up the Twitterverse following Saldanha's death, that the DJs and the radio station have "blood on their hands" seems excessively harsh. At least at this point, no one knows what other factors may have played into Jacintha Saldanha's decision to take her own life.
But let's be clear: there is a section of the media that values getting a reaction above all else. Christian himself reportedly relished the global notoriety he gained recently when he made a major nuisance of himself by playing the harmonica on pop star Rihanna's private jet.
It's a bit of a stretch to connect these sorts of annoying, sophomoric antics to the tales of phone and computer hacking, bribery, celebrity stalking and other abuses that so repelled the public during the Leveson inquiry in the UK. But there is a common thread – a growing belief in the media that the best headline, copy or video is whatever shocks, humiliates or outrages. Those in media – print, broadcast and online – that feed on such sensationalism often see the suffering of others as a sign of a day's work well done. (Of course, the public's seemingly insatiable appetite for sensational and cynical coverage plays a role of its own.)
This culture is shallow and toxic, and it coarsens the public conversation. But it also fails to fulfil the vital function the news media are supposed to perform: to keep the public informed of important events and perspectives. Democracy suffers when that function is neglected in favour of celebrity gossip, "gotcha" stunts, and profits.
Read more: Paul Waldie in the Toronto Globe and Mail paints the prank-gone-wrong as part of the media feeding frenzy surrounding the royal pregnancy.
Sources: CTV, Daily Beast, Sydney Morning Herald, Guardian, Avaaz, Globe and Mail