Saturday, December 22, 2012

Tragic radio stunt: who's not to blame?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 19.)
We become almost impervious to bad news. We have to be, otherwise we would go through life in a permanent state of crippling despondency.

Yet even as blasé as we are, every now and again something happens that has the capacity to shock.  Two such items on early morning radio news bulletins have penetrated my semi-conscious state in the past two weekends.
The more recent, and by any measurement the more appalling by far, was the news of the Connecticut school shooting. But this column concerns the earlier item, in which the newsreader announced that a nurse who had put through a hoax call at the London hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge was being treated for morning sickness had been found dead. It was clear she had taken her own life, presumably out of shame.

I wondered, in my half-awake state, whether I’d heard correctly. Could a silly radio stunt really have had such tragic consequences?
Well, yes – it could, and it did.

My first reaction, like that of many people, was anger that a pair of infantile radio hosts, eager to make names for themselves, should have perpetrated a hoax that led a mother and wife to kill herself.
Mine was a natural response, but not entirely rational. The young radio hosts had no malicious intent. Their motive was another M word: mischief. But it was mischief of an essentially innocent kind. They could have had no premonition that their amateurish, juvenile prank would result in such misery.

Now they too are going through their own private hell. Even if their radio careers survive, they will have to carry this misconceived act on their consciences for the rest of their lives.
And human nature being what it is, they have become victims themselves. They are now experiencing the cowardly rage that always surfaces when someone is the butt of wholesale condemnation and is therefore deemed an easy target. 

The people reportedly making anonymous death threats against the radio hosts belong to the same wretched sub-group of lowlifes who turn out to shout obscene threats and curses whenever a much-vilified criminal – usually a sex offender – appears in court. These people get very few opportunities in life to feel morally superior to anyone else and they always make the most of them, even if in doing so they expose their own pathetic inadequacies.
The best that can come out of this ghastly business is that ratings-obsessed radio stations and so-called shock jocks (another contemptible life form) will think very carefully in future before perpetrating their puerile stunts.

These pranks may be ostensibly harmless in their intent, but I’m inclined to agree with my fellow columnist Rosemary McLeod that practical joking is often a form of bullying. How else can you explain a form of humour that usually relies on humiliation and embarrassment for its impact?
In any case, the two radio hosts are not the only people who should be ashamed of what happened at King Edward VII Hospital.

They would never have made the phone call if such pranks weren’t condoned, and possibly encouraged, by their bosses. We now know that the radio station management approved of the stunt. It was run past the station’s lawyers before being put to air. They too could have had no idea of the consequences, but they must share culpability.
The station’s claim that it tried to alert the hospital before broadcasting the hoax call is not convincing. For one thing, the hospital insists there was no attempt to warn it; but more to the point, it would be highly unusual for a media outlet to provide advance notice that such a stunt was to be broadcast.

So the station has been badly bruised too. If, as a result, radio station owners are motivated in future to curb the excesses of their attention-seeking personalities, that will be no bad thing.
But the net of blame can be spread more widely still. What about the hospital management, for example?

They had a royal patient who was the subject of intense worldwide media interest. Previous experience (the hospital is no stranger to royalty) should have alerted them to the probability of media incursions.
Fleet Street photographers were camped outside. You can be sure that elaborate precautions were taken to ensure Princess Kate’s safety and privacy. The place would have been swarming with police and security officers intent on protecting the patient not just from prying photographers and reporters, but from terrorist attack.

In the circumstances, how could the hospital management be so naïve and careless as to leave it to an unprepared nurse, the hapless Jacintha Saldanha, to intercept outside phone calls?
The hospital owners have done a great deal of indignant harrumphing over the radio station’s behaviour, but their own handling of the situation appears to have been at best sloppy and complacent, at worst incompetent.

There are other possible factors that we can only speculate on.
Most nurses in Mrs Saldanha’s position would have felt embarrassed and ashamed, but not to the point of taking their own life. The nurse who gave the radio station details of Princess Kate’s condition – arguably a far worse misjudgement – obviously didn’t feel so guilty as to hang herself. Was there something in Mrs Saldanha’s cultural background that gave her a heightened sense of shame and disgrace – a feeling that she had brought dishonour on her family? That might help explain why she thought her action could be redeemed only by killing herself and leaving two children without a mother.

Another possible explanation is emotional or mental fragility, but I have seen nothing to suggest Mrs Saldanha suffered from any such condition.
Was she harassed by the notorious London tabloids? Again, there has been no such suggestion. That would very likely have been her fate had she lived, but the tabloids scarcely had time to identify her before they were reporting her death.

One aspect of this sad affair not widely commented on is the shadow it has cast over what should be a happy event: the birth of the royal couple’s first baby in a few months’ time. That will now forever be tarnished by association with tragedy. But establishing who is to blame is far from straightforward.


1 comment:

Mark Hubbard said...

I listen to streaming BBC radio: it was reported in their newscasts of yesterday (Sunday here, Saturday there), that the nurse concerned had twice tried to take her life in the past.

So there were 'problems' long before this.

Don't know if this factoid has made it to NZ MSM.