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Royal hoax call: Making scapegoats out of the hospital pranksters

This is shaping up to be one royal mess. Nurse Jacintha Saldanha is dead. The Australian radio hosts behind the prank call to the hospital say they are “shattered, gutted, heartbroken.” Apologies are flying all around and the share price of Southern Cross Media, the owner of the radio station, has dropped almost 6 percent. What started out as a silly prank by radio hosts to try and call the Duchess of Cambridge’s hospital room, has unexpectedly become a moment of truth for a media that cares only about ratings and rides roughshod over feelings.

“Where is the line, it keeps moving. I think this is the line,” said  the Most FM’s ex-station manager Dave Haskell.

Except, is this really the prank that crossed the mythical line?

In the long dishonour roll of egregious radio pranks and out-of-line shock jocks, Michael Christian and Mel Greigs’s now infamous hospital call is pretty tame stuff despite the horrendously tragic outcome it might have triggered. In fact, they didn’t imagine it would go anywhere beyond the hospital reception desk. Mel Greig said “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.” Honestly, can one really imagine Her Majesty  Queen Elizabeth II getting on the phone herself to call a hospital switchboard?

Even when they got through to Kate’s ward, the hosts didn’t go berserk, make double entendres about the pregnant princess, or mock her morning sickness.

In this video screengrab from "A Current Affair" program by Australia's Channel Nine, radio DJs Michael Christian, left, and Mel Greig appear during an interview. AP

American vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin fared much worse when a Canadian prankster called her up on a radio show pretending to be Nicolas Sarkozy. Poor Palin fell hook line and sinker leading to memorable exchanges like this one.

FAKE SARKOZY: Exactly, we could go try hunting by helicopter like you did. I never did that. Like we say in France, (says long French-sounding phrase).

GOV. PALIN: Well, I think we could have a lot of fun together as we're getting work done. We could kill two birds with one stone that way.

FAKE SARKOZY: I just love killing those animals, mm mm, taking away life, that is so fun. I would really love to go as long as we don't bring vice president Cheney, haha.

GOV. PALIN: No, I'll be a careful shot, yes.

And then this:

FAKE SARKOZY: I must say, Gov. Palin, I love the documentary they made on your life - you know, Hustler's "Nailin' Palin".

GOV. PALIN: Oh good, thank you.

FAKE SARKOZY: That was really edgy.

The line between humour and obnoxiousness is a fine one. Shock jocks and radio pranksters are constantly stepping over it because they have to keep outdoing each other to stay in the game. Generating outrage is part of the job description.

So Australian radio host Kyle Sandilands felt free to shoot his mouth off about India last year calling it a “shit hole” and taking potshots at the Ganga. That caused the usual flurry of protests here which Sandilands no doubt lapped up. Every time he can get people up in arms about something he spews, he can pat himself on the back for a job well done.  Then there was the Kiwi television commentator who had himself in stitches deliberately mispronouncing the name of Sheila Dikshit triggering a Ministry of External Affairs protest about his “bigoted views.”

But even Sandilands and Henry were pretty bland fare compared to the singing deejays at New York City’s Hot 97 (WQHT-FM). After the 2004 Christmas tsunami, the DJs thought it would be very funny to sing this ditty to the tune of We Are the World:

"... There were Africans drowning, little Chinamen swept away you could hear God laughing, 'Swim you bitches, swim' So now you're screwed, it's the tsunami you better run or kiss your ass away, go find your mommy I just saw her float by, a tree went through her head and now your children will be sold to child slavery ..."

There is obviously a certain power and an adrenalin rush that the microphone confers which is really tempting to abuse. Sometimes it’s satire that goes over the edge like a 1926 BBC broadcast about angry jobless workers on a looting rampage through London. It was not true and the announcer claimed that even Big Ben had fallen triggering immense panic among listeners. Sometimes it’s the gullibility of the listening audience like those who tuned in to a much-too-realistic radio dramatisation of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds in 1938 and thought the United States had actually been invaded by Martians.

Radio and television hosts play pranks not because they have not outgrown their sophomoric ways but because audiences take great delight seeing some hapless soul be the butt of the joke that everyone else is in on.  Ryan Seacrest in his KIIS-FM radio show has a segment called Ryan’s Roses where a woman (and it’s usually a woman) who thinks her partner is cheating on her calls in. The show calls up the man and pretends to be a florist who offers him a dozen roses to be sent to any woman he likes. Then everyone listens to see who the “winner” chooses. Jim Moret,  chief correspondent for the Inside Edition writes:

Now that is a gag with a potential for a nightmarish conclusion. Imagine what an enraged man or woman might do during their first encounter with their partner after being caught on the air and publicly humiliated? Luckily, and somewhat amazingly, nothing horrible has happened, yet.

So let’s face it. All this holier-than-thou finger-wagging about a prank too far isn’t going to change who we are as human beings. "Exploitation and humiliation are the biggest money-makers other than sex. Prank calls are not going to stop,” said radio shock jock Iain Stables. It’s pointless to try and make Michael Christian and Mel Greig the scapegoats for our secret pleasure in these candid camera moments. They were immature pranksters whose prank royally misfired. That does not make them criminals.

If anything, the fact that someone even conceived of this prank shows the audience’s unending appetite for tidbits from the royal table, even if it’s about a princess with morning sickness. That’s what’s really nauseating about the whole joke especially given that its target was a family where another princess died in a Paris tunnel in a speeding car trying to get away from the intrusive lens of the paparazzi. Now that was media at its most cruel. Greig and Christian were merely juvenile.

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