Monday, 10 December 2012

Thoughts on Jacintha Saldanha Case and The Media

There is a well-thought out piece by Bel Mooney worth reading, below the main Daily Mail article on Jacintha Saldanha's death last week. Saldanha was the receptionist nurse who initially answered the prank call from Australian DJs Michael Christian and Melanie Greig, poorly impersonating Prince Philip and the Queen, and transferring them through to an on duty staff nurse at the King Edward VII Hospital. I won't link to the original Australian 2Day Radio clip. It can be easily found on YouTube. However, I would point out that the two DJs' interaction with Jacintha Saldanha lasts nothing more than about five seconds and the bulk of the prank call is conducted with the staff nurse in the ward where Kate Middleton was staying.

The consequences for everybody involved – from the distressed royal couple, to the shocked and hounded Australian DJs, and most of all to the tragic nurse Jacintha Saldanha and her family – are a reminder that every thoughtless prank has a victim and that nobody can predict how a vulnerable individual will react to what somebody else thinks of as ‘a bit of fun’.

Cheeky, high-spirited Australian DJ Michael Christian thought it a great wheeze to try to talk to the Duchess of Cambridge’s medical team on the telephone, even though he knew she had been taken into hospital suffering from acute morning sickness early in her pregnancy.

The first sign of unthinking cruelty comes right there. His female co-host Mel Greig thought this would be ‘awesome’. That, in turn, shows a very modern take on the word ‘awe’ – which correctly implies respect as well as wonder. Never mind the ethics or legality of the broadcast, there was no respect for anybody’s feelings in this sorry incident; no hint of decency or basic human compassion.


The Victorians paid to gawp at people with deformities and disabilities; in our day TV turned the freak show into an even more popular form of entertainment, taking cruelty and mockery right into people’s sitting rooms, whether through hidden camera shows that made the likes of Jeremy Beadle and Dom Joly into household names or in the routine humiliations meted out to (often mentally fragile) contestants on Big Brother or I’m A Celebrity.

That very familiarity means that broadcasters have felt the need to be ever more sensational, to court controversy, to ‘up the ante’ all the time, regardless of the potential consequences.

The human mind is a very fragile island and compassion and understanding for our fellow brothers and sisters should exist all the time, and not just surface after an awful and tragic event. I've heard a great deal of comparisons made to comedy programmes like Jeremy Beadle, Dom Jolly, Michael Barrymore and PhoneJacker, but we should not forget that these programmes were made for TV, often months in advance, leaving plenty of time for producers to seek permission and liability clearance from any unsuspecting victims involved. It should also be noted that the prank call segment of Christian and Greig's 2Day programme did not go out live and was pre-recorded. The two DJs did not have to think on their feet live on air and decide if they should proceed with a piece specifically devised and acknowledged as an attempt to be put through to Kate Middleton, a woman in the early stages of a pregnancy with complications in a private hospital--let alone a Duchess of the Royal British family.

I don't for a minute believe Christian and Greig are heartless and compassionless people, and they were clearly amazed their prank elicited direct and personal medical information from the nurse at the King Edward VII Hospital. Even had their radio producers decided to omit this detail during the second part of the prank--I fear the damage was already done. Saldanha's family described her as a devoted mother, a devout Catholic, and proud of her professional medical role. We may never know whether this prank call led wholly or partly to her suicide 48 hours later. Her family admitted that she was ashamed, upset and traumatised by the events of that early morning phonecall. Mooney, in his insightful Daily Mail piece, rightfully underlines what may have been a cataclysmic clash of cultures--a woman from Mangalore, India, whose first tongue was not English, against the cheeky brashness of two young, confident, high-energy DJs from Australia out for a skit at someone else's expense.

We've all been the subject of pranks, whether at school, in the workplace, with friends or family. Often the best part of the prank is the moment of exposure, quickly followed by the disclosure and the cries of; the look on your face, combined with the friendly bear hug from Jeremy as he pointed to the hidden camera and whispered consolingly; we're all in this together! You see, that is what Beadle's About and Candid Camera were wonderful at--the shared joke. We happily moved on to the next programme, safe in the knowledge that no one was hurt or died. The joke might have been on Saldanha and her colleagues at the King Edward VII Hospital, but it was the world's media and her employers who let her know later that the joke was on her. Certainly, the King Edward VII Hospital has a great deal of soul searching to do about procedures and protocols in light of all this.

No. This was no Beadle's About prank and none of the victims shared in the giggles and hilarity shared by Christain and Greig, and make no mistake about what you hear in the aftermath of all this. Both DJs regailed and basked in the attention during and after their programme of childish stupidity. Their social network accounts were only pulled after a torrent of abuse and the death of Jacintha Saldanha. They were whisked away into secrecy and obscurity and provided the most intense counselling and legal advice under the umbrella of a corporate media organisation--the kind of kid-glove treatment you can be assured has not been afforded to Jacintha Saldanha's family and friends.

In the big bad adult world--it seems--this was bullying and control and is only afforded to media organisations and their kindred souls, or as Sandy Kaye (spokeswoman and media trainer for the pair) states:

“We are concerned for the well-being of our talent. They are very distressed...Mel is very vulnerable. She has been very vulnerable in the past and is in a very fragile state. They are receiving counselling.”

“It is easy to blame us. It was supposed to be a harmless prank, not designed to humiliate.”

Greig has already engaged in the violin-playing of 'I ran away from home aged 15' in previous media expose in Australia since she was plucked as a model from obscurity after an inane reality TV show with her sister. No doubt we will soon hear of her years of childhood angst and anguish in further media and magazine exposes.

The radio station, 2Day FM. declared that the pair on Sunday were:

“negotiating the best way to reach out to the family”.

Well forgive me, but 'I'm sorry' is simply not an emotion, reduced to a gesture, for commercial or legal negotiation in such circumstances, and though tears, regret (for the prank) and remorse (for what subsequently happened) is in full flow throughout their first media interview (full transcript) since the death of Jacintha Saldanha, no direct apology of comfort or real value to the family and friends of Saldanha was forthcoming.

Greig: "It doesn’t seem real because you just couldn’t foresee something like that happening from a prank call. You know it was never meant to go that far. It was meant to be a silly little prank that so many people have done before. This wasn’t meant to happen."
Interview Transcript

Greig clearly needs considerable help. I'm no psychologist, but she is demonstrating the classic signs of someone in shock and desperate to deny or remove herself from a clear reality and her own assimilated actions in it. I really don't think counselling provided by a media organisation knee-deep in all this is the right kind of balanced, impartial care and support she needs. Michael Christian struck me as being a little more together despite being several years younger than Greig, and on a number of occasions took the lead in the interview when words appeared to fail them. Clearly, both have developed a deep bond in the relatively short time they have worked together on radio.

However, there is a worrying undertone throughout the interview. Like two misbehaving children caught after a prank has gone terribly wrong--they seek constant approval and validity for their actions from 'the team' and their producers and radio managers (as if speaking about childhood peers, and surrogate mammies and daddies). I'm not sure what is more disturbing--their naivety or their unprofessionalism. And maybe in all this, that is the greater question. Years ago, you would not be let near a live microphone or broadcasting network without a serious grounding and training in journalism and media. Now, some of our young broadcasters are plucked from the latest reality shows or whether they can balance ten pennies on end on the underside of their elbows and catch them in their hand. Our most successful entertainment seems to be underpinned by reality freak shows, contests and social commentary, not designed to celebrate our brightest and best talents and ideas, but, instead, to ridicule, marginalise, exploit or simply feast upon our most vulnerable and naive for the purpose of entertainment.

Mind you, our so-called veteran broadcasters and journalist have not steeped themselves in glory in recent years either. It's not too long ago we were discussing the Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand prank call to Andrew Sacks. The Leveson Enquiry is also a testament to some of the standards held dear by some of our media corporations.

Sometimes we treat the humanity we see and experience with the most casual responses. Compassion and empathy should be our greatest strengths, no matter what our goals are in life. The moment we lose sight of this is the moment our entertainment and pleasure becomes exclusive, without consequence.

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