It is all very well to be able to write books, but can you wiggle your ears?
It can’t possibly be right to blame Mel Greig and Michael Christian for the death of Jacintha Saldanha, the woman they prank called a few days earlier.
This might be a tough message in the week when Jacintha Saldanha tragically and senselessly lost her life – but here it is: sometimes things just happen. Sometimes, there is nobody to blame. Imagine getting in your car and driving sensibly to work on an icy day. Everything is routine. You leave the house at the usual time, and drive the same route as every other day. Only, imagine that on this occasion, you hit black ice and you skid and you run somebody down. It wasn’t your fault. You were driving sensibly. Your tyres were fine. Your speed was within the limit. You were paying attention to the road. Sometimes, things just happen.
The prank call that the two Aussie DJs made was, for them, routine. It’s their job. I’ve done it. So has pretty much everyone I know who works, or has worked, in commercial radio. Sure, this particular call was always going to get them a lot of headlines, but again that’s their job. They get paid to put on terrible English accents and poke fun at us poms. Good for them.
I remember making my first prank call. It was to a woman in a supermarket just before Christmas. I tried to convince her that one of the children’s toys from her store had taken on a life of its own and was trying to kill me. The call ended with the woman shouting ‘take the batteries out, for God’s sake take the batteries out’ down the phone at me. We burst into fits of laughter in the studio.
That was probably twenty years ago, and I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that she was hamming it up. I mean, nobody could really believe that my toy was posessed by the devil, could they? Whether she knew or not, it has never in twenty years crossed my mind that she might have been a victim. Later in my commercial career, we used to call the person we’d pranked back on the show, and have them laugh along with us as we played back the tape. It felt friendlier that way.
I never considered what we did was belittling the person we pranked. It was a pantomime in which each of us had a part to play. And the star of the call was, invariably, the person who was being pranked. Audiences love the perceived danger of prank calls. Of course in reality they’re nearly always pre-recorded and edited down to the funniest moments. We now know that the Jacintha Saldanha tape was run past lawyers too, before it was broadcast.
So why do radio shows prank call? Well, it’s obvious isn’t it. The basic job of a commercial radio Dj is to make more people listen for longer. And people like listening to prank calls. Actually, they LOVE them. And they love the people who are sharp enough to create those spontanious moments of comedy. The wit. The creativity. The brass neck. Audiences also love to tell their friends about pranks, which means free advertising for the show.
We can all remember laughing along at some point in our lives as some joker on the radio broadcasts a ‘funny phone call’. Britain has a rich tradition of it. Noel Edmonds, Jeremy Beadle, Dom Joly, and a million others. Like every job, some do it better than others. Some are more skillful practicioners. Some just have funnier bones. Here’s a darker call. It’s Victor Lewis Smith swearing at a BBC employee. It’s a clever premise and has a subversive, political undertone. But is he bullying the person who picked up the phone?
Prank phone calls are fun, and frivolous, and generally they’re a colourful part of life’s rich tapestry. As a broadcaster who has pranked plenty of people in the past my blood ran cold when I heard about the tragic action Jacintha Saldanha took in ending her own life. But could anyone possibly have forseen that outcome? Of course not.
So. What to do, what to do? This is the problem. This modern prediliction with cause and effect, and the clamour for restorative action. For my money, there seems to be nothing to be done, except for to mourn the unneccesary loss of a good woman. But should we ban prank calls in case it happens again? No, we should not. If we did, we’d have to ban comedians from putting down hecklers. Cold callers from pressure selling. High jinks at school and work. Jokes. Fun.
What I really think though is that some people, especially journalists and editors, should take the compassion and empathy they’re claiming to feel towards Jacintha Saldanha and extend it to Mel Greig and Michael Christian. They’re two people who set out to do their job, crummy British accents and all, just like every other day.Now, as a result of what they did, a nurse has taken her own life.
I can’t imagine how they must feel. Could they have known? No. Did they go beyond the pale? No, they were pretty tame, really. Now they are being hounded by the world’s press and by half the world’s twitterati for something which they really weren’t responsible for. They were the couple driving to work who hit the patch of ice. It wasn’t their fault. Neither was it Jacintha Saldanha’s. It was just a terrible thing that happened, as terrible things sometimes do.