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13 December 2012

There seems to be a perception that practical jokes and prank phone calls are funny. This is two-sided. To the perpetrator they are hilarious, they may be regarded as funny for bystanders, but for those who are the butt of such events, no matter how much they they may appear to be entertained by their own fright or humiliation and good sports about it, they are rarely honestly amused. Again for perpetrators there seems to be a perception that practical jokes are harmless by their nature, and that no matter how dangerous that event is, no one will be harmed. Over the past thirty years I can recall a number of times when as a practical joke someone has been set on fire – and severely injured. A recent case in Hawkes Bay where several youths held down a boy, poured petrol over him and set him on fire resulted in a sentence of three years for the ringleader and rightly so. This was done to a sixteen-year-old who was still unwell at the time (effects of a serious illness) bystanders stood around laughing, and refusing to help him, and he was left alone to bicycle home in considerable pain, and horrified at what so-called friends had done to him. The fire has left him permanently scarred and most probably also short on the ability to trust people in future . My comment would be that I’m very very glad I don’t have “friends” like that.

Then there was the hoax call by Mel and Malcolm from a Sydney radio station to the hospital in which Kate Middleton was ill. Pretending to be members of the Royal family they gained access to private information and they then broadcast the call and information. To achieve this result they lied to two nurses one of whom appears to have taken her own life as a result. Alternatively she may have been so distressed by her part in it that she self-medicated and accidentally overdosed. Apparently the practical joke was hilarious until then with the hoaxers posting on Twitter, and finding their actions clever and the verbal discussion of their call wittily amusing. All the way up until the nurse’s death was announced and then abruptly, the pair are on leave out of respect.. Oh please. They’re on leave while their employers find out how big a row this is going to cause. In fact as I understand it, what they did breached Australian Broadcasting standards. What part of, medical information is private? What part of, you’re risking the jobs of these two women? What part of, this is in breach of the laws of your own authority didn’t they understand?

A journalistic scam can be for the public good. Watergate, discovering that a prince’s ex-wife is prepared to sell introductions to him to all and sundry so long as the money is right, uncovering a politician or media personality who stands loudly for family values while sexually abusing small children, all of that is legitimate. A prank call where the station checks with the pranked that they are still okay with the call being now broadcast, and they agree to it, that’s fine too. But hoaxing a nurse into putting you through to a ward, where you hoax the private medical details of a current patient out of another nurse, is far from the public good. It calls into disrepute every journalist of integrity.

Practical joking is not funny most of the time. It relies on the pain, humiliation or distress of another person. I have a sense of humour certainly, (and I have seven published non-fiction humour books – the first published in 1993 and still selling – to prove it ) but I don’t find the pain, fear, or humiliation of someone else that amusing. Nor do I find possible outcomes – a heart attack, emotional distress that can last for days, actual injury, or loss of trust in those you believed to be your friends, something to strive for. It’s probably unlikely, but I hope this pair lose their jobs, I hope the Australian Broadcasting Authority brings charges against the radio station people who cleared this, and most of all, if it is definite that their hoax was the direct cause of this nurse’s death, I hope that her family sue vigorously. And I hope that whatever the legal outcomes, that the death of Jacintha Saldanha is a lesson to those who think that practical jokes, prank calls, and hoaxes are funny, without penalty, and without consequences. Because all too often they aren’t!

And a week later – The aftermath on this phone call continues. The DJs in question appeared on TV to make a public apology which certainly seemed to me to be very much a case of crocodile tears for public consumption. The Station claims that they tried to call the UK hospital five times to no result. Tried isn’t the point! They should not have broadcast until they’d succeeded and received clearance on something this intrusive and as we can all guess, they wouldn’t have got it, which may be why they accepted an “inability” to reach the hospital, and went ahead. And on the list of those who need a reality check has to be the station lawyer or lawyers. How could they have felt that this call was okay to broadcast? It is looking more and more likely that there will be legal action, even possible criminal charges as a result of this event. I wonder who’ll stand up to accept that they had some part in this tragedy? The hospital who seem to have been short staffed and allowed a nurse (untrained in protocol) to work the switchboard, and who also seem to not be assisting the grief-stricken family? The Radio Station Djs, lawyer/s, and administration? The station has now offered the family a large sum in compensation. They’re damned if they did and damned if they didn’t on that one. I’ve already heard someone ask if they offered the money to get ahead of a possible court case for a lot more – something that also crossed my mind when I heard of the offer.

And I notice that now too there are claims the nurse must have already had mental problems to be so distraught. That’s possible. What’s also possible is that a naive woman, deeply venerating the royal family, feeling that she had betrayed them, betrayed her nursing ethics, and brought disgrace upon her family, might have simply been so distressed that she reacted. She comes from a country where honour is everything. She may have seen her act as a necessary atonement and no, that isn’t crazy, just a different mindset. But whatever the ultimate outcome of all this, I hope that it will result in a tightening of regulations that cover this type of phone call, with clearer guidelines and stronger penalties. Because I’d like to see this event as the last one of its kind, and the last injury or death that results from what was supposed to be a screamingly-funny practical joke and ended up as anything but amusing.


  1. What was I doing December 2012 to have totally missed this going down?

    Comment by Glenn Hibburt — 25 March 2016 @ 17:42

  2. Possibly being so busy with Christmas stuff it passed you by. But the fallout went on over several months.

    Comment by lyn — 26 March 2016 @ 15:06

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