Saturday, 8 December 2012

Radio Prank

I’ve been to Australia twice and I loved it both times, even though I nearly drowned surfing on Bondi beach, I still love the place. It is important to be clear about that. So what comes next is not aimed at Australians in general, neither, if any of them happen to read this, am I doing a whinging Pom act.
Two DJs from the Australian radio station 2Day FM called King Edward VII hospital in London and pretended to be the Queen and Prince Charles. They phoned at about 5.30 am and hence the call was taken by a night nurse, rather than a trained receptionist. That nurse put the call through to the ward, where another nurse was taken in, and gave out some details of their royal patient.
One of these nurses now appears to have killed herself.  Details are available all over the media, including three BBC reports at:- and On the face of it, this is just another example of the media not caring a damn about anyone other than themselves. To my mind, the matter has been made a lot worse by the chief executive of the radio station, Rhys Holleran, defending his reporters by saying:
"I think that prank calls as a craft in radio have been going on for decades. They are done worldwide and no-one could reasonably have foreseen what happened.”
He should have said that the whole thing was his fault. He is the chief executive, and therefore responsible for the culture of the station that thinks it is OK to try to deceive hospital staff. That thinks it is OK to phone a hospital at five am and see if nurses can be caught off guard.
Why should the hospital have to act as though everyone phoning them is a possible fraudster or some lying prankster? Is nothing sacred? Has no one at the radio station ever had a relative in hospital? Is there any difference between this prank call and the Levenson Inquiry description of blagging in order to try to obtain information illegally? This sort of stunt, and hacking Milly Dowler’s phone come right out of the same stable that says “fuck you” over the door.
Was it actually illegal in this case, I don’t know, there is obviously some work there for international law experts, who will no doubt charge a lot. I was under the impression that you were supposed to tell people if you were recording them, and certainly if you then intended to broadcast the material.
Whether it was illegal or not does not alter the fact that it was bloody stupid, and more likely to lead to adverse consequences than good ones.
I can understand all the people who have hurled abuse in one form or another at the two radio presenters who carried out the prank. I hope they survive, the last thing the world needs is another suicide. The DJs obviously did not ask themselves how they would feel if a member of their family was on the receiving end of that sort of trick. It is probably reasonable to say that it would be difficult to imagine that the nurse might kill herself, but it is not hard to think that she might have been disciplined or fired. Do we want to live in a world, where radio presenters phone people, who are going about their normal job trying to help the sick, and pull tricks on them that might get them fired?
If one uses a little imagination, it is easy to see another possible side effect from this. Every relative phoning to ask about their loved ones in hospital in future is likely to find it harder to get through and harder to find out anything about a relative in hospital. As I write, armies of PR people are probably busy writing new protocols for how to take calls from the public. I can just imagine all the additional data being collected in every patient’s record in order to ask bank style security questions every time a mother phones to find out if their child is getting better.
I find it sad that Jeff Kennett, the Chairman of Australia's national depression charity, Beyond Blue, said the radio pair had no intention of causing any harm and urged the public not to condemn them. He has an odd definition of harm. They must have known that at the very least anyone who fell for the joke risked public humiliation and possibly being disciplined or fired. If that isn’t harm, I don’t know what is. It is not clear exactly who dreamed up the stunt, but neither they nor the two DJs should be blamed on their own, others too, have a responsibility to bear.
We are given to understand that lawyers approved the transcript. I went to a seminar by a very senior British judge a few years ago, where he said that there was hardly any teaching of ethics in law schools, so it may be too much to expect ethics from lawyers, though they ought to have an eye on risk management. Someone at the station should consider getting new lawyers.
The buck really stops with the chief executive. He is the one is responsible for the culture of the organisation; he should have considered whether this was a sensible thing to do. He should have asked what the downside might be if this went wrong. Hopefully the station will lose a lot of advertising revenue and the trustees or owners, or whoever sits on top of the chief executive, will fire him, unless he has the decency to resign first.
The station also ought to compensate the nurses family. Just because they say they meant no harm, it doesn't let them off. 

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