Talking Politics

The brutal hypocrisy of the royal prank witch hunt

Let's be clear. Those attacking the Australian radio DJs who made the prank call to the hospital Kate Middleton was staying in are guilty of the very crime they are protesting against.

2Day FM presenters Mel Greig and Michael Christian will have had the floor fall out from under them when they heard of the death of Jacintha Saldanha, who transferred their call. Their careers are probably ruined, but the real cost will be psychological. They will be devastated with guilt.The company which owns the station, Southern Cross Austereo, is concerned about their mental health and described their emotional state as "fragile".

The death of Saldanha is unbearably tragic, but it was also unforeseeable. The presenters put on unconvincing impressions of the Queen and Prince Charles and saw what would happen. It is bog-standard prank radio. No-one could possibly have predicted it would prompt a suicide.

On the morning of the death, I watched this Brazilian prank video, which went viral on the internet last week. It made me cry with laughter. The Guardian linked to it. It was hugely popular on Twitter. No-one is launching a highly emotional campaign against the TV station which made it. But the morality of this video is not very far removed from the prank call. It could just as easily have ended tragically, say with a heart attack or a traumatic mental episode. And yet it received no complaints — because that did not happen. This is a fatal flaw in our response to a crisis. The morality of an action is not simply defined by its repercussions, but by the risk of the action itself.

We are not responsible for events which are unlikely to result from our actions. If I get drunk before driving I am responsible for any ensuing accident, because it is a likely eventuality. If the sight of my car triggers a violent, jealous outburst from a passer-by that is not my responsibility, because no reasonable person could have predicted such a strange turn of events.

Doing an absurd prank call where you pretend to be the Queen fits firmly in the latter category. No-one could have predicted the tragic result.

And the prank, taken alone, is not so irresponsible as is being made out. The fact it was in a hospital does not innately make it intolerable. Suggesting it should not have been allowed also suggests other similar forms of comedy — such as our Brazilian elevator video or the innocent high jinks of ancient programmes such as Beadle's About - should also be banned. And why stop there? Presumably plenty of political satire depresses powerful men. The vitriol directed towards Nick Clegg must affect his wife and children. Should that mean we treat politicians with kid gloves, in case one of them becomes so upset they take their own life? Such an eventuality would be no more foreseeable than the tragic events at King Edward VII's Hospital.

So instead let us talk about something which is foreseeable. It is perfectly possible the two Australian DJs could suffer a mental or emotional breakdown as they face worldwide condemnation and their own psychological torment. Those currently hurling abuse their way are responsible for a worse crime than that which they committed. With the full knowledge of the possible repercussions, they aim fire at their targets, heap social humiliation on them, deploy aggressive and puritanical rhetoric. The Twitter witch hunt - that most dangerous, pernicious and modern of political phenomena - whirled into action within minutes. It is rank hypocrisy. Anyone directing their anger at the pair should think long and hard about what they have done.

At least those whose emotions got the better of them are merely guilty of thoughtlessness and hypocrisy. The saddest part was to see campaigners for the Leveson report seize on the tragedy as ammunition for their battle. There is no lesson to be learned about the British press by what happened at a radio station in Australia. It is not evidence of a media out of control. It is the sort of silly behaviour which has been typical of radio, TV, evenings down the pub and schoolyards since time immemorial.

Evidently, some of the campaigners for media reform are willing to risk the mental health of two people on the other side of the world in order to further their mission. They've clearly been gazing too long into the abyss.

Judgmentalism should be absent from our response to these events. This is a human tragedy, one which we could not have prevented without unacceptably limiting the terms of public debate and entertainment. The most honourable response is compassion. The least honourable response is moral outrage.

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