Whose responsibility?

By December 10, 2012ABC, Health, Media, Society

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.



Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • whyisitso says:

    Disagree entirely. The thug announcers MUST take personal responsibility. I’m sick of perpetrators in our society being treated as victims after doing harm to others. I’ve absolutely no sympathy.

    It’s said that this incident will be a permanent stain on their lives. Justly so – a small retribution to the harm inflicted on Jacintha Saldanha.

  • Fay Thomson says:

    This will be another lesson to me, I who still smile over a prank I played on a friend one April Fools Day.
    Another lesson came through the first judge , for the 2010 series of Art Toppling Tobacco. When the judging was concluded I asked Stafford why he had not chosen the submission that I particularly liked . It is titled “Suicide Slowly” with comment by the artist Kristine Ballard “Cigarettes, the secret to a short life”.
    I was told by the architect that it is because the art could have a bad influence on people who are in a bad mental space.
    I remain to this day grateful to Stafford Watts for his wisdom.

  • Patrickmurrumbateman says:

    Julius Sumner Miller was a great man who I admired and have been inspired by. Your use of his catchphrase and image, as well as the level of stupidity of your remarks, makes me sad and I am now going off somewhere quiet to cut myself. AND YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE!

    Even though I’m sure you never intended your connection with the great Julius to offend or upset someone to the point of them harming themselves, it is still all your fault and you MUST take personal responsibility.

    Oh, I’m sure you will claim to have done nothing wrong, and that you are the victim here, but sorry, I have no sympathy for you. For you, and people like you who over react to an unfortunate event, are a permanent stain on society.

  • Steve Hardy says:

    Setting aside the sad death for a moment, is it now the case that phoning a hospital for the purposes of entertainment (and commercial gain) is now acceptable as long as it “doesn’t break any laws”?

    It would be interesting to know, for instance, how many entertainment calls a hospital should be expected to handle a month. Could this humous activity be extended to other under-employed sectors like the police, air-sea rescue and perhaps
    with and element of profit sharing involved to encourage cooperation?

    Then there are the training opportunities: making sure anyone who might have to face the public has media handling skills.

    I’m also interested to know at what age a person becomes responsible for their own actions without resorting to the increasingly popular return of the “Nuremberg

    I do agree that we are not in possession of all the facts and things might not be what they seem but sadly the one person who appears to have taken responsibility for
    their actions is no longer with us.


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