Prank calls are an accepted form of radio comedy practised around the world. DJs have embarrassed politicians, celebrities and hapless regular folk for decades. Even the royal family wasn’t particularly put out when an Australian morning show crew obtained an update on Kate Middleton’s health by calling the hospital she was in and pretending to be the Queen and Prince Charles. Until, that is, the death by apparent suicide of the nurse who put the call through shocked the world. The tragedy has given louder voice to those who point out that pranks always come at the expense of another person, and is a reminder that there are lines that must not be crossed.
We still don’t officially know the circumstances of the death of Jacintha Saldanha, the mother of two who took the prank call and passed it on to a colleague, who in turn provided an update on the condition of the Duchess of Cambridge. There is a tacit agreement among police, her family and her colleagues that she killed herself, and that this came as a result of the prank. There are now calls for tougher privacy laws in the United Kingdom, and there is the possibility that the two radio-show hosts and their station will be charged with a criminal offence. The station in question has been very repentant and vowed to hand over all advertising revenue from the show to an appropriate charity.
Canadians should remember that one of our own, a French-language radio host from Montreal named Pierre Brassard, pulled off one of the most memorable pranks in history in 1995, and that it involved the royal family. Mr. Brassard managed to have a long conversation with the Queen by passing himself off as then prime minister Jean Chrétien and asking if her majesty would deliver a speech in defence of Canadian unity during the referendum battle of that year. Many people were outraged by such brazen cheek, and many were amused.
While it was embarrassing for the Queen, it wasn’t fatal, and people got the joke. When it comes to satirical radio pranks, one can argue that all public figures are legitimate targets. Where the tragic case of Jacintha Saldanha is different is that Ms. Saldanha was not a public figure. What is also important to remember is that, in today’s wired world, the audio of her being duped by what was a very poor imitation of the Queen was heard around the world. Pranks always have a victim; these days, the victim can become a global laughingstock, which is something that must be taken into consideration, especially when the victim is a well-meaning and completely innocent private citizen.
More importantly, it was simply unacceptable for the two radio show hosts to pry into the Duchess’s medical condition. There must be absolute privacy in that regard; no person, however public, loses the right to that privacy. The hosts should have ended the prank as soon as they realized they were going to be given private information – something they now claim they never wanted in the first place; they say they expected their deliberately poor imitations would give them away, and that the joke would be on them.
Radio pranks can be funny. They can deflate the oversized egos of celebrities, and they can be legitimately satirical. But they can also cross a line and do irreparable damage. Ultimately, it would be wrong to blame the two Australian radio show hosts for so inexplicably extreme a reaction to their prank. But there is no question that they were insensitive, and that they were wrong to go as far as they did.