Wednesday 13 December 2017

Prank unleashed wave of fury about wider issues

The Australian DJs' prank phone call is symptomatic of an age in which we're not gentle enough, writes Julia Molony

FROM minor celebrities to bewildered figures of hate, it's been a far fall for Mel Greig and Michael Christian in the space of what must feel like the longest fortnight in their lives. Two heretofore obscure Australian radio personalities have recently become the faces on everybody's television set and computer screen.

We are all, by now, well versed in the unfortunate chain of events they set off, when they called up the Edward VII hospital and, claiming to be the Queen and Prince Charles, enquired about the convalescing Kate Middleton's progress. The receptionist was off duty and a nurse, in good faith, put them through. Their fluke success became a global news story. But the tone of the coverage changed dramatically when Jacintha Saldanha, the unsuspecting hospital employee who had answered the phone was found dead by suicide several days later.

Since then, they've received death threats from people who view the outcome of their prank as simple cause and effect, and who conclude therefore that they are entirely to blame.

But they're not to blame. Not really. Sure, shame is a powerful thing. but in some circumstances it can trigger irrational, destructive thinking and behaviour, bringing about a loss of perspective to such a degree that only the shame exists (looming larger, as it did to Jacintha, than one's connection to concrete things like family and home and love) so that life becomes flooded with it to the point of being unbearable.

Anyone who has experienced depression could easily understand how that might happen. When somebody dies tragically, we always want to establish who is responsible. But in suicide things are rarely so clear cut.

Our need for moral clarity on this rushes us into scape-goating. And thus, this prank gone wrong seems to have opened a release valve through which a tsunami of fury has poured.

The DJs have been recreated as representatives of certain, ugly aspects of our culture. Muddled in there is all the concern, dismay and public fury over many public issues; trolling, bullying, the power of the internet to expose, eviscerate and shame. The power that people now have, without accountability, to malign, torment and humiliate from afar. Remote emotional terrorism has become an ugly feature of our age. It's out there, and we can't put a face on it.

So it's easier to put Mel Greig and Michael Christian's faces on it. Mixed in amongst the condemnation of their actions is disgust at some very worrying contemporary trends; the spate of suicides amongst school children who have been bullied online. And there's trolling angst in there too.

But what those Australian DJs did was none of those things. It was thoughtless, sure. The phone call was intrusive and uncouth. Had they not been so busy pursuing their own amusement and glory, they might have stopped to think that a successful attempt at getting personal information would probably cost somebody, somewhere down the line. The phone call was pre-recorded. A rightthinking and responsible producer, recognising that the hospital had been duped, might have decided not to broadcast it. Might have thought that someone could be in for a telling off, might have worried for their job.

But that their actions would cause despair to the point of suicide couldn't have been foreseen. And it wasn't the act of a bully who deliberately sets out to cause hurt and harm.

Unfortunately, sometimes the worst of emotional damage is carried out under the guise of 'fun'. The worst kind of torment is the one that is concealed inside the weapon of a joke. Laughter can be worse than unalloyed insults, when it's malicious in intent.

But that wasn't what this was. This somewhat clumsy attempt at humour wasn't vicious or derisory. Hearing about this incident before Saldanha's death, most people would probably have agreed that the comedy of, say, Ricky Gervais, which so often deliberately, pointedly mocks the disabled and disfigured in a directly "point and laugh" school-yard sort of way, is of an altogether darker shade than simple impersonation.

It was reasonable for those two DJs to expect that this sort of prank would cause nothing more harmful than a few red faces. But the unusual and terrible thing that happened reminds us that, wherever possible, we should do our best to be gentle with each other. There's more fragility out there than you'd think.

Sunday Independent

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