Emma Cowing: Time to rein in abuse of Australian DJs

Australian DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian
Australian DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian
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DURING the 1990s, no less than 15 million Britons sat in front of the television every Saturday night to watch Beadle’s About.

That’s right, 15 million. Embarrassing, isn’t it? It’s like finding out a family member has appeared on Wife Swap, or you’ve been walking about all day with your skirt tucked into your knickers. Beadle’s About was packed full of practical “jokes” (I use the term loosely, I’ve had more fun at an endoscopy) on unsuspecting members of the public. The sort of pranks that involved elaborate set ups and a fair bit of chutzpah. The sort of jape that is quite often carried out nowadays by radio DJs.

The radio prank played by the 2Day FM DJs Michael Christian and Mel Greig last week, in which they called a London hospital impersonating the Queen and Prince Charles and extracted details from an unsuspecting nurse about the medical condition of the Duchess of Cambridge, was not funny. Not only was it puerile – the sort of humour that appealed to those people who considered Beadle’s About a pinnacle of British broadcasting – it also showed a lack of respect.

It showed a lack of respect for the nurses the DJs spoke to – both of whom were in danger of losing their jobs over the stunt, something that should have occurredoccurred to the DJs and their superiors; for the Duchess of Cambridge who, whatever you might think of her and the Royal Family, has as much right to privacy when it comes to medical details as the rest of us; and for every woman who has suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum, a ghastly and once deadly condition that does not deserve to be made light of.

And yet, for all its childish tastelessness, its flouting of the rules and the inability of those who conceived it, approved it and put it out on air to see that it constituted a serious breach of privacy that put two innocent women in the firing line, no- one could have predicted it might have caused a death.

We do not yet know that it did. We may never know. What we do know is that two days after the prank, Jacintha Saldanha, 46, the nurse who had received and transferred the call, took her own life. Her death is a tragedy. Two children have lost their mother. A man has lost his wife. And a hospital has lost a highly-respected nurse.

People, particularly in Britain, where there seems to have been a collective amnesia about the fact that practical jokes are as much a part of our culture as they are in Australia, have been quick to demonise Christian and Greig. They have received death threats. They have been informed repeatedly, by people who have never met them or Ms Saldanha, that they have blood on their hands, and that the nurse’s death is their fault. The two have had to go into hiding such is the level of abuse.

Anyone who has seen the TV interview they gave on Monday will know their remorse is genuine. Greig, in particular, comes across as distraught, her concern only for Ms Saldahna’s family, the horror of what has happened etched across her exhausted, tear-stained face. I found it particularly concerning that she has been reading coverage online in an effort, she says, to learn more about Ms Saldanha. Her mental state appears far too fragile to be able to cope with the bile that has been directed towards her and Christian on the internet, where people so often leave their kid gloves next to the keyboard.

And still the hate keeps coming: their remorse was just for the cameras (it wasn’t); they must have been paid (they weren’t); they don’t deserve to be looked after and counselled (they do).

When things go wrong, it is human nature to hunt out someone to blame. We are angry, we want answers and we want a monster to point at and say “you did this”. But blaming the DJs – whose superiors and radio station lawyers should have told them not to go ahead with the prank – solves nothing. Instead, it creates a vicious cycle of publicly played out nastiness that threatens to become as dangerous as the ill-conceived prank was in the first place.

The two DJs have been lambasted from every corner of the globe for their lack of compassion towards Jacintha Saldanha, but now we are failing to show these two young people that same compassion.

Every day for the rest of their lives, Mel Greig and Michael Christian will awaken to the knowledge that they may have caused the death of another person. That, surely, is more than enough.