A Bad Call (and Response)

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On Thursday before leaving work I played a prank on a colleague…

A little background. He and I, two straight guys, work for an organization that historically has worked with, and within the gay community: as much as I’ve learned about the diversity of the membership of said community, contrary to popular gay stereotypes, there’s a persistent ‘Carry On…’ element within our working environment that on balance, successfully leavens the intrinsic seriousness of the work we do. It renders what might potentially become – and is perhaps inevitably perceived as – unduly morbid, as enjoyable as well as stimulating and psychically rewarding. You can’t beat the clinical environment for gallows humour, vulgar distraction – when you wipe butts, dress wounds and attend to the dying for a living, shock and disgust become relative – and downright silliness. Nowhere else are they more necessary.

It’s one reason (among many) that I love my job and why I’ve dedicated myself to it wholeheartedly for the last ten years.

So when I slipped a gay magazine –  an ’80s softcore porn job that someone had left lying around the office, and which to the modern eye appears more comical than arousing – into my mate’s bag, my main thought was of the inevitable smile that would crease his face when he went to pull out his copy of The Sun for some tit action and copped an eyeful of hairy chests and floppy dicks instead.

It was a silly thing to do, as is the nature of pranks, and in the event he was a little pissed off: not because of the mag itself but because he suspected it of being perpetrated by a different colleague with whom he enjoys a less congenial relationship than with me, and thus misinterpreted its intentions. When he found out I was the culprit – I ‘fessed up the next day during a phone call – he immediately saw the funny side, as I predicted he would. Sadly, as the following story from yesterday’s news shows, sometimes ‘harmless’ pranks can have unintended consequences that are not so easily laughed off:

Tragic death of nurse following 2Day FM stunt

Nurse Jacintha Saldanha, 46, died yesterday in an apparent suicide after she transferred a hoax call from Australian DJs who retrieved sensitive information about Kate Middleton while in hospital

There’s been the predictable, knee jerk condemnation via Twitter, public comments and message boards but is it really fair to blame the DJs? I think not; and I hope not too too much weight will be placed on responses such as (Twitter user) Michael Hird’s ‘I hope you’re happy now.. The receptionist (sic) you rang has COMMITTED SUICIDE! You have blood on your hands now!’

The ‘prank’ and its aftermath are revealing, though, on a number of fronts:

Mental illness remains sadly, seriously misunderstood: nobody with a modicum of knowledge about suicides would believe that the specifics of this situation alone would have led so Saldanha killing herself – supposing that the impending autopsy reveals this to be, indeed, the case. As someone who has grappled with mental health issues both personally and within my social circle I’m well aware that ignorance can prove damaging, and all-too-frequently fatal. Sharing knowledge, connecting sufferers with appropriate support and instilling everybody with a realistic estimation of personal responsibility for our own – and collective – health are key. It’s too early to apportion responsibility – as opposed to blame – for Saldanha‘s death, but one can state with certainty that herself, her family and her employer must shoulder their fair share, before considering 2Day FM‘s role.

The tabloid press, in defiance of possible fallout from Leveson continues to prioritize sensationalism (and sales) over truthful reportage; besides demonstrating a breathtaking lack of insight into its own corporate and civil responsibility . Having interviewed neighbours of Saldanha, the Daily Mail has revealed (and I realise I’m open to accusations of perpetuating similar standards by repeating the details here – but there’s a point to be made)

A neighbour – who said the family have lived in their £130,000 terraced home in Bristol for about eight years – said ‘They’re a lovely family – Ben gives my lad a lift when he goes refereeing at Bristol Rovers with Junal… [s]he must have thought there was no way back, that’s the only thing I can think of.’

Another neighbour (Marianne Homes, 49) said ‘I’ve always known her as the doctor, she was always very smartly dressed… [t]heir son was always really into football, we always saw him with a ball kicking it about with his friends… [s]he was a lovely woman, every time I saw her she would talk to me… I think her kids are secondary school age, she definitely has one boy and one girl.’

Either revealing personal information via the media is acceptable or it isn’t. There’s a facile distinction to be made, I suppose, between information obtained openly (I hesitate to say ‘in good faith’) and under comedic pretense – perfectly lampooned by Chris Morris’ Brass Eye vehicle – but ultimately it serves the same purpose in providing vicarious diversion to a public unhealthily addicted to salacious gossip.  The level and nature of interest – both public and journalistic – directed at The Royals is prurient by any reasonable standards – have we learned nothing from the Diana debacle? The feminization of celebrity, whereby excruciating details of every movement, utterance, wardrobe choice (or malfunction) and bodily function of the rich and famous are assumed to be in the public interest, effectively public property, is a perennial issue and an invasive media is both cause and effect of such. Claiming to be simply ‘following orders’ by capitulating to public demand – a demand the media themselves stoke – is no kind of excuse.

And are the press not irresponsible in announcing her death as suicide prior to an inquest and official announcement providing confirmation? Even if suicide turns out to be the case and, further, one accepts that fear of personal and professional consequences could be shown to be the factor that pushed  Saldanha over the edge, should Greig and Christian be held accountable? As 2Day FM CEO, Rhys Holleran has been quoted as saying:

‘…prank calls as a craft in radio have been going for decades … and are not just part of one radio station or network or country … [n]o-one could have reasonably foreseen what ended up being an incredibly tragic day.’ He added ‘I spoke to both presenters early this morning and it’s fair to say they are completely shattered. ‘These people aren’t machines, they’re human beings. What happened is incredibly tragic and we’re deeply saddened and we’re incredibly affected by that.’ The presenters have been offered counselling by their employer and rightly so – it would be deeply ironic and compound the tragedy if their actions were to rebound on them to similar effect.

I have every sympathy for Saldanha‘s family, friends and colleagues: theirs is a private tragedy that deserves better than to be mined for momentary headlines and ignorant playground-level gossip. I also sympathise with Greig and Christian – they may be guilty of thoughtlessness but they acted without malice, within a media culture that persistently affirms their style of behaviour. I don’t doubt that they are truly sorry.

And whilst I shudder to think of the potential fallout of theirs, mine and others’ innocent actions, I positively quake at the thought of a world where friends, refrain from playing jokes on each other for fear of – the statistically insignificant chance of – unintentional, tragic consequences.
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