Ethics are only genuine if they are consistent.
The problem is that, by definition, ethics can’t be applied on a situational basis. You either believe in something or you don’t.
People are lining up to attack Mel Greig, Michael Christian and Southern Cross Austereo over this weeks prank call.
However it is only now, after the call set in place a terrible train of events, ultimately tragically leading to the suicide of nurse Jacintha Saldanha, that some have seen fit to express their ethical outrage over the content.
We have to assume that Southern Cross Austereo is on stable legal ground over the airing of the call, as they have said it was vetted by legal advisors. At the media conference SCA CEO Rhys Holleran said;
“we’re very confident that we haven’t done anything illegal”.
Even if this were to prove not to be the case, given the call was ‘legalled’, Mel and MC are not at fault.
Holleran used the word ‘unforeseeable’ five times in his media conference. Whilst this was clearly him staying ‘on message’, it is accurate.
Nobody could have foreseen such a horrific outcome.
And whilst their ‘prank call’ started the wheels in motion, Mel and MC are not responsible for the nurse taking her own life.
They were doing what radio shows have done for a hundred years.
They were doing what Matt Tilley has done countless times on Fox, won ACRA’s for, and released CD’s of. They were doing what Fitzy & Wippa have done dozens of times on Nova 969. They were doing what any number of Morning Crews (Jamie Dunn, Wendy Harmer, Rabbit, Paddy & Ciel) did for years on Breakfast radio in capital city and regional markets around the country.
They were generating ‘water-cooler’ talk content, in a way that has been done by broadcasters since before they were born.
Chairman of Beyond Blue Jeff Kennett said on ABC Radio; “It was a harmless prank, now they will be under extraordinary pressure and I just hope that they get our support and that their employer provides them with the professional support to help them get through what will be a terrible few weeks,”.
Kennett is right.
It is irrelevant whether, on a personal level, you like prank calls or not. What is relevant is if any ethical outrage that you feel is being applied situationally, or is consistent with how you feel about ‘prank calls’ more generally.
Is a spear tackle in Rugby League okay if the recipient is not injured? Or is it always wrong?
Is drink driving okay if you don’t hurt somebody? Or is it always wrong?
You can’t practise situational ethics. It’s either wrong, or it isn’t.
The prank call to the London hospital did not contain any malicious intent. To the contrary, it was so ridiculous that it is surprising they even got through. Even Prince Charles joked about it a couple of days ago saying “how do you know I’m not a radio station?”.
And he wasn’t the only one. Speaking to Fairfax Media (prior to Jacintha’s death) The Chaser’s Julian Morrow said; ”It’s funny and I think Austereo was fairly silly to apologise. Prank calls are really legitimate and there’s plenty of really good ones”.
Nova 969’s Wippa also commented; ”Anyone that doesn’t laugh at this story, and works in the media, is just angry they didn’t do it themselves. They’ve done well, I take my hat off to them. The gag is they would be in disbelief that they actually managed to convince someone”.
For absolute clarity, both Julian and Wippa’s comments were made prior to the death of Jacintha Saldanha.
What Jacintha’s family will be going through right now is impossible to comprehend, and it is an absolute tragedy.
However Mel and MC are not responsible for her death.
Both will be in a dark place right now. And now is when they need support from an industry that has trained and encouraged presenters to push boundaries to generate water-cooler content for years.
They were doing what they had been taught to do.
If they were to be hung out to dry by radio, then it says more about the industry than it does about them.
Dan Bradley is Executive Director of Kaizen Media; a boutique international radio consulting and artist management company, working with radio stations, media talent and music artists.
You can contact Dan here.