Daryl Ilbury

Jacintha Saldanha – Radio’s ‘Diana’

In Eish!, Scoundrels on January 2, 2013 at 10:12 am
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A small memorial to Jacintha Saldanha. Image: The Times

When I heard about the tragedy around Jacintha Saldanha – the nurse who was found dead after receiving a prank call from an Australian radio station – I knew I would soon start taking calls from people wanting my opinion on the matter. Most wanted to know if I agreed with their summation that the two broadcasters who made the prank call – Mel Greig and Michael Christian – were responsible for Jacintha’s death. They were all surprised when I said I didn’t, and were then shocked when I explained who was ultimately responsible.

To find out whom that is, we need to go back to the night of 31 August 1997, and the death of Diana, the Princess of Wales, following a car crash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris. Her death was shocking for many reasons, but mostly because she was such a popular person; and therein lies a clue.

When someone dies under what is considered ‘tragic’ circumstances, and their death is carried in the media, there is invariable an outpouring of anger and grief, and with it a quest for causes and, ultimately, a measure of responsibility. A case in point is the recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut in the US and the killing of staff and children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. It’s human to try and make sense of tragedy in an attempt to avert its future reoccurrence, and the best way to do that is to try and identify a chain of causal links.

In the case of Diana, suspicion of causality soon fell upon a group of celebrity photographers – paparazzi – following Diana and Dodi Fayed’s car on motorbikes as the car rushed through the streets of Paris. Shock of the event soon gave way to anger at the paparazzi, whose behaviour was seen as reckless and a contributing factor to the speed of the car in trying to elude them. Blame was then extended to the paparazzi in general who followed Diana, and they way they intruded into her life, capturing every moving moment, often in grainy, gritty detail.

The media also got blamed, after all, they were the ones who carried the pictures and paid, and therefore encouraged, the paparazzi. But then the blaming seemed to stop, because to go any further would have been a little too uncomfortable – it would have shone the light directly on those ultimately responsible: those who drove demand, namely the media consumer who had the voracious appetite for all things Diana.

In a similar way, Jacintha Saldanha was the victim of media consumer’s demand for prank calls, in my humble opinion, one of the lowest forms of radio programming.

Over my 20 years in breakfast radio, I lost count of the number of programming consultants flown in from the US, UK and Australia, at great expense, who bemoaned the absence of prank calls on my show. I was told time and time again how popular they were: “Listener’s love them!” They’d often provide reams of research and focus group studies to support their argument.

However, I stood my ground because, not only was their’s a classic ad populum fallacy – the belief that the popularity of something is justification enough for accepting it – but I had a solid reason: I fully understood the possible psychological impact of prank calls. Eventually one programme manager pulled rank and instructed my producer to record a series of prank calls; and, against my protestations, they were broadcast for a short period before I got my way.

The problem is that prank calls bring out the nasty side of listener behaviour. They are the radio equivalent of sticking a ‘Kick me’ sign on the back of the child sitting in front of you in class. Those next to you and behind you laugh at them, whilst they remain unaware that they are the butt of the joke. It’s in bad taste and it’s silly.

The real damage however occurs when the child realises that they have been the victim of a prank; and ‘victim’ is the operative word. They invariable feel deeply upset by the very public nature of their humiliation, and that often stays with them way after the event. There’s a phrase for that: bullying

When Mel Greig and Michael Christian picked up the phone and called the hospital where Jacintha Saldanha was working, they wouldn’t have known of Jessica’s state of mind, of any possible frailties of her character, and for that reason they cannot be blamed for her decision to end her life. One thing is clear though: they wouldn’t have cared about possible outcomes, because if they had, they would never have agreed to make the call in the first place. So if there’s one thing they’re guilty of, it’s insensitive and tasteless radio.

So who’s ultimately to blame? It’s the listeners who enjoy other people being subjected to publicly embarrassing and humiliating situations. Unfortunately, they can now become producers of such content. The rapid growth of social media has blurred the ethical boundaries of the dissemination of electronic content, and now anyone with a smartphone can capture someone’s unfortunate moment and within in minutes make it very public. There’s an adapted phrase for that: cyber bullying.

The effect this has had on radio is to lower the bar on the ethics of programming, and encourage tapping into a consumer market that is gorging itself on no-holds barred, ethically corrupt electronic content.

Unless radio grows up, and starts making morally correct programming decisions instead of those based purely on popularity, you can expect more Jacintha Saldanhas.

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