It’s easy to call it a prank gone wrong. Two Australian radio jockeys pretended to be Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, in the hope of getting Kate Middleton, or Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, as she’s officially known, on the phone line. A nurse transferred their call, though it wasn’t within the permitted hours, and another nurse supplied details of Kate’s condition.
When the first nurse was found dead, the RJs – Mel Grieg and Michael Christian – issued a tearful public apology. They tried to reinforce their humanitarianism by saying the first question they had was whether Jacintha had children. They offered up their terrible imitations of posh British accents as evidence that they did not expect to be taken seriously by the hospital they were prank-calling.
And when reports about suicide notes began to come out, the Australian radio station claimed it had contacted the hospital for permission before airing the audio. The station had earlier claimed it had been trying to reach the hospital, and the bereaved family, to apologise.
It’s easy to say the whole thing would have been a silly, harmless prank if Jacintha hadn’t died as a result. Quite like Candid Camera, eh?
But, let’s look at what the RJs were really out to do. Going by their conversation, which can be found on YouTube, they were trying to get Kate Middleton on the phone line, by impersonating living people who are too important for hospital staff to risk offending. In other words, they thought it would be funny to try and get a pregnant woman who was ill enough to be hospitalised, a pregnant woman who happens to be married to the second in line to the British throne, on the phone, by pretending to be her in-laws.
How is what they were trying to do any less callous than the actions of the paparazzi hounding the late Lady Diana, literally driving her to her death?
If the prank call hadn’t led to the death of a nurse, perhaps the RJs wouldn’t be seen as the monsters they’re seen as now, but would that have made them any less low, cheap, and cruel? How can someone who was setting out to snoop into the private life of a woman who was in hospital claim that he or she didn’t intend to cause any harm?
Sadly, while the incident has opened up debate on the broad issue of prank calls, the intent of the RJs hasn’t been so much in focus. In their response to the outrage, Christian and Grieg said, respectively, that “there was no malice in the call”, and that “there is nothing that can make [them] feel worse than [they] do right now.”
A seemingly sympathetic interviewer wanted to know whether they felt like they were the victims of a witch-hunt, and how they were coping with the backlash – rather absurd questions to pose to people who didn’t appear to realise that what they had planned to do was nearly as unfeeling and cold-hearted as what they ended up doing.
Christian replied that they were getting the support that they needed, and Grieg made a conditional apology, saying they were sorry if what they had done was in any way linked to Jacintha’s death.
Do people like that deserve any support? At best, their act was thoughtless and uncaring. At worst, it was yet another manifestation of an ugly belief that famous people are entitled to less privacy than anyone else.
It bewilders me that no action has been taken against the RJs, and that, instead, there are voices speaking up for them. Media reports say the two have resigned indefinitely from the radio station, and are now undergoing counselling.
It bewilders me because this isn’t, and wasn’t intended to be, harmless. It’s one thing to prank the likes of Sarah Palin, Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, but it’s quite another to air personal information about a woman who is in hospital; it’s quite another to try and get her on the phone, without even knowing how serious her condition is.
In this context, how can the two actually claim innocence? And would the royal family been as reticent about the issue if the radio station had succeeded in getting through to Kate?
There’s a difference between calling up a fertiliser company to ask for weed, and calling up a hospital under the pretext of being Queen of the country. And it’s bizarre to claim one doesn’t know that.
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The author is a writer based in Chennai.
She blogs at http://disbursedmeditations.blogspot.com