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Roeper: Prank call to Kate Middleton’s nurse stupid, but not criminal

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Updated: January 11, 2013 6:17AM



Unless it’s artfully executed, the prank phone call ranks just slightly above the prop comedy and the whoopee cushion as a means of getting laughs.

It’s part of the Practical Joke school of comedy, in which the practitioner preys upon the goodwill and gullibility of most people, extracting laughs at the victim’s expense.

This is why I’ve never been a big fan of the prank phone call. Far too often it’s mean-spirited and unfair. It’s professionals picking on amateurs. (Though I do enjoy the work of Sal and Richard on Howard Stern’s show. And Comedy Central’s “Crank Yankers” worked because of the talents of the creators and jokesters, and the use of puppets to heighten the ridiculousness and soften the blow.)

If you take all the Morning Zookeepers and afternoon wacky DJs in radio history and played all their prank phones one after another — well, not only would that take years, but it would be an effective tool to obtain information from prisoners in time of war.

So many of those calls are just deadly. But until a couple of Australian DJs duped a nurse at a London hospital and that nurse committed suicide a few days later, that term was never literally applied to a prank phone call.

‘Blood on your hands’

The first time I heard the recording of Sydney DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian prank-calling King Edward VII’s Hospital in central London, I wondered if it was a hoax-within-a-hoax.

From Greig identifying herself as “The Queen ... Kate’s grandmother” to the ridiculous notion of the Queen calling the hospital herself at 5:30 a.m. to the ludicrous discussion about the Prince of Wales giving the Queen a ride to the hospital to the absolutely dreadful British accents, it was such a poorly executed attempt at humor, I wondered if the nurse who described Kate’s condition in detail also worked for 2Day FM in Sydney. Perhaps no call had even been placed to the actual hospital and the whole thing was a double-layered gag.

Turns out it was a real prank call, with nurse Jacintha Saldanha as the chief target of the joke. A few days later, we heard the shocking news Saldanha had taken her own life.

The DJs deleted their Twitter accounts and they’re off the air. They’ve gone radio silent. On Social Media, there’s talk of the pranksters having “blood on their hands.” The Australian Communications and Media Authority and the station have been flooded with complaints, with more than 14,000 comments posted on the station’s Facebook page.

Kelly Osbourne Tweeted, “Mel Greig and Michael Christian should be put in prison for what they’ve done!”

At a news conference in Melbourne, Rhys Holleran, the chief executive of the station said, “This is a tragic event that could not have been reasonably foreseen and we’re deeply saddened by it. I spoke to both presenters this morning and they’re completely shattered. These people aren’t machines, they’re human beings…”

Holleran noted prank calls have been “around for decades” and “they’re not just part of one radio station or one network or one country. They’re done worldwide.”

He’s right on all counts. Nobody knows for certain why Ms. Saldanha took her life. Of course it’s reasonable to assume the prank contributed to her despair and was the trigger point — but we don’t know.

Argue that point with me, but you can’t argue anyone should have seen this coming. In the history of DJs planning prank calls and lawyers and program directors vetting those calls, you can’t tell me anyone has ever said, “We should consider whether our target will be so humiliated she’ll take her own life.”

One can understand Ms. Saldanha’s embarrassment. By all accounts, she was a dedicated nurse and a lovely person living a private life — and all of a sudden, two clowns from Australia have a laugh at her expense and her name is trending on Google. But even in the immediate aftermath of the prank, it felt like worldwide consensus was against the radio goofballs. In fact they apologized for the stunt almost immediately.

Blood on their hands? Criminal charges? One can understand the visceral reactions, but no. This wasn’t one of those idiotic radio stunts gone tragically wrong, e.g., the 28-year-old woman who died of water intoxication after competing in a contest to see who could go drink the most water without going to the bathroom.

It was stupid prank call, notable at first only because of the connection to the royal family — and then because of the stunning news of the nurse taking her own life.

But it is not the fault of those two DJs that Ms. Saldanha committed suicide. That was her 100 percent her decision, her action, and her responsibility. Her life.



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