By MARK PEARSON Follow @Journlaw
The royal prank call saga has been so disturbing an episode that a worthwhile policy outcome should result from this regrettable human tragedy: the total demise of the prank call.
This blog is not aimed at the 2Day FM disc jockeys who are attempting to deal with the emotional fallout from the prank call that preceded the suicide of a nurse at a London hospital.
They were indeed ‘just doing their job’. We now need to dispense with that job – the practice of making prank calls.
The law and ethics of the matter are quite clear.
The NSW Surveillance Devices Act prohibits the broadcast of recorded private conversations without the permission of the participants.
The Commercial Radio Code of Practice does likewise at section 6.
As with any legal or regulatory matter, the lawyers for the radio station might argue over interpretations of both – and whether the conversations were ‘private’ or the parties ‘identifiable’ – but the path is certainly open for both the police and the regulator to move against them.
My beef is with the genre of prank calls more generally – not merely those where the consent of the target has not been granted to broadcast them.
I’ve heard many arguments in their favour in recent days, including that they are a time-worn practice in commercial radio, that they are just a bit of fun, that good sports will laugh them off, that they are part of an Australian tradition of laconic humour.
Well, so were racist jokes and workplace bullying pranks last century, and neither are acceptable in the modern era.
The basic premise of the prank call is to exploit the naivety, trust, and vulnerability of the target for the entertainment of the listener.
A prank call typically involves a family member, friend or work colleague contacting the radio station to set the target up with some information about something they know has upset them and will likely trigger a reaction.
By definition, the individual is already vulnerable in some way – frustrated by bureaucracy, upset over a relationship, feeling guilty about some trivial misdemeanour, or just known to be gullible and an easy target.
Just a few decades ago all this might have been written off as good fun – just like the workplace tricks colleagues would play on their apprentices or the racist and misogynist jokes you could read in the newspaper or watch on television.
But society has moved on. Both of those practices are now illegal under harassment and anti-discrimination laws.
And we now have data that tells us that the prank call ‘victim’ might be much more vulnerable than we previously suspected.
According to Sane Australia, about 20 per cent of adults experience a mental disorder in any year – typically anxiety or depression.
When a radio station conducts a prank call, they are never absolutely sure about the mental and emotional state of the person they are calling. Sooner or later that call is going to reach a person at a particularly vulnerable moment of his or her life.
A moment when they are low on self esteem, high on anxiety or perhaps under the influence of a substance – prescribed or otherwise.
They might well feel the world is set against them.
The idea of the prank call is to lead them on and to encourage their level of anxiety or emotion – all as part of the theatre of the ruse – and to end by laughing at their expense.
We now have decades of psychological research proving that this may be detrimental. What vulnerable people need at that moment in their lives is not a prank call but expert counselling.
They need their friends to support them, not set them up to be the laughing stock of society.
And any ‘consent’ they may give to a DJ encouraging them to go along with the joke – in the moments after they have just been deceived – has to be questioned.
Peer or societal pressure to “be a good sport” might generate an “Oh … okay” kind of permission from such an individual still reeling from the experience, but is that true consent?
Then we all hear it and have a good laugh at them for being so naïve or gullible or anxious or angry and then leave them to pick up the emotional pieces.
This particular radio station has made emotional exploitation part of its commercial model. Just look at the long history of complaint and relative inaction over its leading disc jockey Kyle Sandilands in recent years, well documented on Media Watch.
It is good that the 2Day FM management has been moved to suspend its prank calls.
Now it’s time for the rest of the industry to do so as well – permanently. We are at a pivotal moment in media history and it is time for industry to build the public’s trust, not to exploit it for a cheap laugh at someone’s expense.
* This blog has dealt with mental health issues. If you are in Australia, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 for 24 hour counselling, information and referrals or the beyondblue info line 1300 22 4636.
Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.