Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse who answered a prank call from two Australian radio hosts pretending to be Prince Charles and the Queen, was found dead recently, an apparent suicide. Unaware she was dealing with imposters, Ms. Saldanha transferred the call to the attending nurse, who, in turn, relayed medical information about the pregnant Duchess of Cambridge.
The story resulted in the public humiliation of both nurses. In addition to broadcasting the call, the DJs promoted it on Facebook, highlighting their “unconvincing accents” – the implied message being that the two nurses were dimwitted for failing to note their Australian accents.
If anything has come out of this, it’s the fact that the issue of pranks has been raised to social consciousness. Two types of arguments can be found in the media. The first holds that the nurse was an innocent victim and her suicide the result of deeply felt shame and embarrassment. Proponents of this view call for the resignation of the radio hosts and the public shaming of the radio station. On a broader level, the demand is for higher journalistic ethics and stricter media regulation.
The second argument holds that the nurse happened to be the random target of a harmless, albeit juvenile, prank call and her suicide the overreaction of a fragile psyche. An editorial in Australia’s Sunday Telegraph best exemplifies this position: “There is often [in suicide] a long history of depression. Ms. Saldanha’s true mental state may well remain a mystery even to those who were closest to her. … While the prank may have been stupid, [the DJs] surely did not mean to hurt anyone. Prank calls are among the oldest tricks in radio. … They usually result in mere pointless humiliation of a hapless victim.”
The seventh-century BC Greek lyric poet Archilochus knew much about humiliating his victims by making them objects of public laughter. It is said that, after he was dishonoured by Lycambes, who had withdrawn his offer of marriage to his daughter, Archilochus began writing venomous poems that ridiculed Lycambes and his daughters. Unable to withstand the public shame, the father and daughters killed themselves.
This type of hostile poetry flourished in the fifth-century BC genre of Old Comedy. The likes of Cratinus, Eupolis and Aristophanes used this method in their comedies during the Dionysian festivals, lampooning prominent figures through vitriolic political satire imbued with sexual and scatological innuendo. The poets enjoyed an unwritten, yet clearly defined, immunity from political persecution. The Athenian demos understood that these comic playwrights provided a valuable service to the democratic polis by deflating politicians’ bloated egos and chastising deviant behaviour.
Another unwritten, yet clearly defined, code of conduct was implemented by these playwrights: They refrained from targeting innocent, non-public figures. If a layman were targeted, it was on the basis of some social or sexual deviancy.
Voltaire once wrote: “With great power, comes great responsibility.” While radio stations might not hold great power, they’re not powerless – they do have the power to entertain and influence public opinion. Greater responsibility must be shown in their choice of targets. When they fail, they shouldn’t be allowed to abdicate their responsibility by claiming it was all in the name of good fun. As the Greek philosopher Bion of Borysthenes said: “Boys throw stones at frogs in fun, but the frogs do not die in fun, but in earnest.”
Eleni Panagiotarakou teaches political theory at Concordia University.