As the weekend wore on I could hardly believe the story of the ‘prank that went tragically wrong’. A recently appointed pair of radio hosts, pretending to be the Queen and Prince Philip, makes a telephone call to the hospital ward containing the Duchess of Cambridge. To their surprise, they are put through, get some details and ring off. What a lark, they cry, and enjoy their success. Prince Charles thinks it is funny.
But the nurse who takes the call seems to feel that it was her fault that the hospital became the victim of the prank, and later takes her own life. Now comes the blame game, and users of social media tell the radio hosts that they have blood on their hands, there are calls for their sacking, the radio station takes them off air, and the reaction is bad enough for Jeff Kennett of Beyond Blue to call for them to have support and counselling. The Prime Minister feels that Australia might somehow be to blame, and tells the Brits that ‘our thoughts are with her [the nurse’s] family and friends at this time’. Malcolm Turnbull feels that the Opposition better be there too, so he says something similar. The only sane comment I come across is that of Jonathan Holmes of the ABC’s Media Watch : ‘Isn’t this all quite pious? We all sit around and laugh at the antics of The Chaser team’.
It was The Chaser’s send-up of the APEC security lock-down in 2007 that was my first thought when I heard of the telephone call. The Chaser team hired a long limousine, dressed someone in robes and made him look a version of Osama bin Laden, and joined the queue of limousines, getting through the security. That incident got headlines, too, but I remember feeling that the team had taken more than a small risk: a trigger-happy guard might have fired first at the sight of the world’s most wanted man getting close to the American President, not to mention to John Howard.
Pranks are like that. Because they disturb the settled order of things — and are intended to — there is no knowing where they might end. In the case of the nurse who seems to have taken her own life, we know very little about her state of mind. The hospital says that she was not disciplined, and it is almost inconceivable that she could have taken her life solely because of the prank. No doubt we will learn more in due course. But to suggest that the radio hosts were responsible for her death seems ludicrous to me. While the hospital involved ruminated about pursuing legal action, it is hard to know what the charge would be.
One commentator said that those planning to undertake a prank should think first about what the consequences might be. That’s sound advice, but it doesn’t take you very far. I assume that in The Chaser prank I have referred to the team did try to assess how likely it was that they or one of them might be shot; they would have assessed the probability that they would go to court; and they would have come to a decision to go ahead. In the present case, you could not have assessed the probability that a nurse in the hospital would take her life. What harm could be caused to anyone by a simple spoof telephone call?
What struck me most about the whole incident was the prevalence of established themes in our society, such as the ‘star quality’ of the Duchess of Cambridge, which means that any news about her, however trivial, is important, and that she should not be subjected to any pranks. Another seems to be that Australians are colonial oafs, which was certainly the case when I first lived and worked in the UK. A third is the way in which the ‘social media’ can become the online equivalent of the mob. I doubt that the radio hosts thought in malicious terms at all, but they are certainly receiving a lot of malice now.
And a fourth, perhaps the most important, is the difficulty we have in dealing with suicide. We are urged to think about those who are vulnerable, but it is not always clear who they are. The long-term suicide rate among women in Britain is low — around 3 per 100,000 in 2000 — so that few have a lot of experience in sensing whether or not someone they know is really vulnerable, or just unhappy. The death of the nurse in London seems wholly unnecessary to us, but it seemed the only way out to her. We will know more in time.