Friday, December 07, 2012

The Tragedy of an Australian Radio Phone Hoax

A family mourns, two children are now without their mother, and a nurse, who was said to be inconsolable is now dead.

Earlier this week the nurse had taken a prank call from two Australian radio DJs.  They posed as the Queen and Prince and in a faked voice asked the nurse to be put though to the Duchess of Cambridge.

She did and the second nurse also taken in revealed confidential medical notes about their patient, a royal patient.

Anyone reading the story in the press is entitled to feel deeply saddened and angry.  Saddened because the Jacintha Saldanha, 46 years of age, an experienced nurse, it's reported in the press took her own life.

An inquest will attempt to explain the cause of this tragedy,  but it appears obviously connected to the events of the past two days.

Angry because two DJs who, given they were the only DJs who tried this, must themselves be in reflective mood.

How can a radio programme, the other side of the world, be responsible for a family being orphaned in the most public way?

The pair Michael Christian and Mel Greig, who have since deleted their twitter accounts from the weight of public abuse, must be ruing their prank.

It's not an unusual prank in that scores of radio stations do this "candid camera" or "gotcha", but few would have dared to imitate the Queen in a situation deemed highly personal. Remember the Queen's daughter-in-law was in hospital receiving treatment for an early pregnancy.

This was a prank preying on the misfortune of someone else like kicking away the walking stick of a an old lady as she hobbled across a road.

These variables come together to provide a powerful cocktail that should have warned of many, as it did, except one.

But the two presumably would have not been given carte blanche; they would have had a producer for the show, or an editor, who in monitoring the show's output could have pulled the plug at any point.

Then there's the radio's management. In the UK she or he is called the programme organiser, who constantly listens to the output and will use the hot-phone to the studio when they deem something is not what it should be.

The pair of DJs say sniggering in their broadcast if they get through this would be one of the easiest calls. Obviously they've done this before.

The question becomes what is acceptable as limits? Every broadcaster has a limit on taste and decency, or should do.

Angry too because of the invasion of privacy, irrespective of who it was. Angry too because as I listened to it I couldn't help think the following.

A royal VIP has been admitted to the hospital. It's unexpected, and its big news, so its conceivable that a memo or gathering of all staff is called to brie or remind everyone of procedures. In any media scenario for crisis management that would have been page 1.

1. Will the Queen or any member of Royal Staff be making any phone calls themselves?
2. Is there a liaison person to handle those calls, presumably the press officer?
3. If any other call comes through, whom should it be sent to?

Obviously we don't know whether a call to arms or address was made, but you would have hoped it was, given the currency of the situation.

But the outcome on the news was an excruciating one. The nurse was utterly taken in, and if the accounts reported elsewhere are anything to go by, she was distraught, inconsolable, but was being helped by the hospital.

It was not enough. Will prank calls stop? No. Will Djs and broadcasters need to be more thoughtful that this powerful tool and medium they work in has the capability to undermine the public at its sharpest end? You would hope so.

Which ever way you look at this, its tragic all around.

In the Facebook age of wearing your emoticons on your sleeve, and the idea that everyone should have their say, the pair took to the air to explain their actions.

In PR terms, and from accounts they received media training,  it would have been designed for them to answer to their actions, but also to restore the public's faith in the radio station 2Day FM. After all 2Day FM is a business which has temporarily lost its sponsors.

The station will not be unhappy with the results. A majority of Australian's polled do not blame the pair. And perversely, given their innocence, they really should not.

You hire young people to be risque and to come up with ideas, which is shared in editorial meetings. More sage, experienced producers and management should have been the counterpoint.

A couple of things, that the reportage has now turned to the idea of a British witch hunt is not helpful, particularly to the Saldanha's dignified family.

The press conference held by the Austereo CEO Rhys Holleran left a main defense still unanswered.

Did the station get permission to broadcast the prank phone call. No!
Did they try to? Apparently five times Mr Holleran says.
But, and this is the important bit, the fact that he tried and couldn't get through doesn't make the recordings any more broadcastable.

David Dunkley Gyimah used to be a radio presenter for BBC Greater London Radio