On the Media: Law here a barrier to Aussie DJ prank
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In the aftermath of an Australian radio prank on the royal family gone horribly wrong, it would appear the grown-ups -- who should have known better -- are now being blamed.
Yet radio pranks are nothing new; they are part and parcel at some stations here and abroad.
"It's sort of that 'morning zoo -- we're the crazy, zany guys' mentality," said David Jamison, Robert Morris University provost and adjunct professor at the Duquesne University School of Law.
Last week at Sydney's 2DayFM, someone believed it would be a great idea to call the London hospital where Kate Middleton was being treated for acute morning sickness. Disc jockeys Michael Christian and Mel Greig tricked nurse Jacintha Saldanha into believing she was talking to members of the royal family.
In the long-distance call, Ms. Greig and Mr. Christian impersonated the Queen and Prince Charles, while at least two young producers at the station chimed in as the monarch's pet Corgis in the background. Ms. Saldanha forwarded their call to the duchess' nurse, who provided a medical update.
It might have been just another childish gag had Ms. Saldanha, a wife and mother of two teens, not hanged herself in the hospital nurses quarters a few days later.
"It wasn't about trying to fool someone," a tearful Mr. Christian said, speaking Monday on the Australian program "A Current Affair."
"I mean, we just assumed that with the voices that we put on, you know, we were going to get told off and that was the gag -- on us."
The fallout was swift and severe. The DJs were suspended, their show was cancelled, and media parent company Southern Cross Austereo also suspended advertising for more than a day on the station, pledging to create a memorial fund of at least $500,000 (roughly the same amount in U.S. currency).
It also announced that pranks will not be tolerated in the future.
By Monday morning, when news of the nurse's death was widespread, StarPittsburgh's 100.7 "Bubba Show" polled listeners as to whether pranking should be stopped. Some who called to respond said "yes," and one likened it to cyber-bullying.
"Cyber-bullying? Absolutely," Mr. Jamison said. "It's a closely related tort."
Mr. Jamison noted the important distinction between radio stations making prank telephone calls and, say, the random broadcast of private citizens in public places.
"If you're at a ballgame with your arm around someone you're not married to and the camera pans you, you may regret it later but they're allowed to show what's in a public place," he said.
"This [radio pranks] is invasion of privacy."
In London, the investigation continues. It's unknown if Australian authorities will file their own charges. The Aussie DJs involved have told the public "naturally, we're shattered. We're people, too."
A firestorm of social media excoriated first the DJs, then the station, then SCA, which appeared to come across as unapologetic.
Indeed, a statement issued by Southern Cross Austereo Tuesday promised a "comprehensive review" of relevant policies, yet noted "The Company does not consider that the broadcast of the segment has breached any relevant law, regulation or code."
Domestically, pranks gone wrong include a station in Southern California that once ran a "Touch the Disc Jockey" contest, urging listeners to find the company car on the freeway, touch it, and win a prize.
Yes, there was an accident.
"People will do insane things for prizes, so that's near the top of the bad ideas list," Mr. Jamison said.
In Albany, New York, one station's morning team regularly perused photos of local brides in the newspaper and would choose the "ugliest." The DJs made the mistake of announcing the full name of one young woman who worked for a rival radio station.
Mr. Jamison said even Orson Welles got into the act. His 1938 broadcast of "War of the Worlds" caused such distress among listeners who thought the story was real that the Federal Communications Commission established regulations to help prevent the kind of broadcasts leading to panic.
More locally, in Pennsylvania, it is illegal to record a telephone conversation without first notifying the other party. The FCC takes pranking seriously in recent years, with threats of fines up to $25,000 when several stations in the Spanish Broadcasting Systems aired telephone conversations without permission.
Still, stations continue to run dumb gags and tasteless promotions. If something goes wrong, the question remains: "Was it foreseeable?"
Mr. Jamison said that British Common Law has many similarities to American regulations, and that "from a liability point of view ... probably no one would have anticipated that sort of suicide."
Another issue here involves finding proximate cause: Was the prank the legal reason Saldanha killed herself? Or were there other, larger factors in play?
The nurse's family and friends have stated she would have been "ashamed" by the events. Embarrassing a total stranger for the amusement of others, even in the mildest of circumstances, will do that.
First Published December 12, 2012 12:00 am