question of the day: How should we be talking about the ethics of the Australian radio prank that resulted in a suicide?

Michael Christian Mel Greig

I told you we wouldn’t be able to avoid Kate Middleton’s pregnancy. Or at least I cannot, because the furore surrounding it is sending media tumbling into all new forms of journalmalistic hellholes.
In case you’ve missed the latest, here’s what happened. Late last week, a pair of Australian radio DJs made a prank phone call to the London hospital where Kate Middleton was being treated for pregnancy-related problems. The DJs, using outrageously phony English accents and pretending to be the Queen and Prince Charles, asked for an update on Middleton’s condition… and were given it by a nurse who fell for their hoax. This phone call was recorded, of course, and broadcast on their radio show, including all of Middleton’s private medical information. There were some complaints and some outrage, but that was nothing to the uproar that happened when, on Sunday, we learned that the nurse who put through the call — not the nurse who gave out detailed information on Middleton’s condition but the one who answered the call (there being no receptionist on duty during those late-night hours) and passed it on — had committed suicide.

By all accounts, the nurse, Jacintha Saldanha, was not in any trouble with King Edward VII Hospital and was not in any danger of losing her job. And as far as I’ve seen, she was not being pilloried in the press or in social media. But the results of her mistake — that is, the full phone call, which was not only broadcast on Australian radio but has proliferated on the Web, and is readily available on YouTube — are everywhere. Suicide is certainly an extreme reaction to making a mistake like this, but it’s not difficult to see how someone might feel a toxic combination of regret and shame.

Now, the DJs have been suspended and are receiving death threats, and the radio station they work for is being boycotted by advertisers. Death threats are an entirely uncalled-for overreaction, but the suspension and the boycott are sort of interesting. It says that the prank was fine up to the point at which someone died. If Saldanha hadn’t killed herself but instead lived the rest of her life depressed, riddled with guilt, that would have been an acceptable price to pay for juicy gossip on a royal. Of course, she would have paid that price so that someone else could benefit, but that’s obviously not a concern that those involved had.

A new interview with the DJs, which aired today in Australia, makes it clear that no one was thinking about much of anything beyond themselves. From BBC News:

In an interview for Channel Nine’s A Current Affair programme Mr [Michael] Christian told presenter Tracy Grimshaw: “When we thought about making a call it was going to go for 30 seconds we were going to be hung up on, and that was it. As innocent as that.’

Ms [Mel] Greig said: “We thought a hundred people before us would’ve tried it. We thought it was such a silly idea and the accents were terrible and not for a second did we expect to speak to Kate let alone have a conversation with anyone at the hospital. We wanted to be hung up on.”

The DJs may be “shattered, gutted, heartbroken,” but they’ll still deflecting accusations that they bear any blame at all in this situation:

Mr Christian said: “Prank calls are made every day, on every radio station in every country, around the world and they have been for a long time and no-one could’ve imagined this to happen.”

Ms Greig said they had expected to be hung up on and she said: “The accents were terrible. You know it was designed to be stupid. We were never meant to get that far from the little corgis barking in the background – we obviously wanted it to be a joke.

“If we played any involvement in her death then we’re very sorry for that. And time will only tell.”

Earlier the presenters’ employer, Sydney radio station 2DayFM, said at least five attempts were made to obtain the permission of the two nurses involved before airing the call.

The radio station said it was going to review its broadcasting practices.

Here’s what I think is the key thing: The prank did not go as planned, and permission was not received from those involved to broadcast the call… and the station broadcast it anyway. If there’s blame to go around, most of it should go to the station, not the DJs, because apparently the station’s current broadcasting practices saw nothing wrong with airing someone’s private medical information, even if it saw nothing else. Just because the prank was far more successful than anticipated doesn’t mean the station had to air it.

This is not a free speech issue: I’m certainly not suggesting that people shouldn’t say whatever they want to say. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to deal with the ramifications of your free speech. There may be no legal culpability on the part of the DJs or the station for the nurse’s death, but what about moral and ethical culpability?

There’s a corporate sociopathy at work here: if it’s not forbidden, it’s compulsory. If the law didn’t say they couldn’t air this prank phone call, then they must air it (seems to be the reasoning). Which is nonsense. And there’s no way that the station’s lawyers and executives couldn’t have known that, once they did air this, it would go viral, would be amplified around the world thanks to the Web. It’s one thing for a prank phone call to air once in a small local market, and then be forgotten. That was never going to be the case with this one, and it brought a vicious spotlight on two people — the nurses on the call — who were not celebrities or public figures in any way.

This entire story has made me terribly angry because, as in so many other areas of life, the notion that because one has the right to do something means that no responsibility in wielding that right is required. And it makes me angry because it’s stuff like this that is destroying media and journalism.

What do you think? How should we be talking about the ethics of the Australian radio prank that resulted in a suicide?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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