We didn't need this ritual humiliation to learn that DJs can be devastated, too

Wed, Dec 12, 2012, 00:00

There was something unsettling about the reaction to the television appearance earlier this week of Michael Christian and Mel Greig, the two Australian DJs whose names are now, rightly or wrongly, linked with the apparent suicide of nurse Jacintha Saldanha.

Christian and Greig stammered and sobbed their way through an account of their “heartbreak” over the fallout from the prank surrounding Kate Middleton, the duchess of Cambridge. The DJs had phoned the King Edward VII hospital, where the duchess was a patient, and had pretended to be Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles. As the radio presenters expressed their regret, you could almost hear the “whoosh” as the pendulum of public opinion swung the other way.

That’s more like it, it seemed to say. The humiliators themselves humiliated, and publicly expunged of their guilt. It was a relief once the ritual self-mortification was over, and we could all go back to watching YouTube videos of monkeys in shearling coats, while we waited for the next mass hate figure to come along.

Social-media sites are often likened to a kind of Salem of public opinion – a place where witch hunts start in the time it takes to press the retweet button.

Occasionally, this is a fair assessment: when I tweeted last week that I had sympathy for everyone affected by Saldanha’s death, including the two DJs, I was immediately accused of being “crass”, “insensitive” and, in one case, “repulsive”.

However, in this instance at least, Twitter merely seemed to reflect what was being said or implied elsewhere: by those supporting the visibly distraught family; by the public at large; by the advertisers who pulled out of the radio station; and even by the very same news organisations that had run versions of the audio on their websites only a few days before, and had now decided it was an artless and hurtful prank.

Jacintha Saldanha’s death is unbearably sad, for her family and for her colleagues. But it is also shattering for Greig and Christian, who must try to rebuild their lives in the shadow of their possible role in it – a shadow that will linger long after the story has faded for the rest of us to the “awful case of the princess, the nurse and the DJs”.

But facts can get lost in the semiparasitic feeding frenzy that occurs in the aftermath of an event like this (and yes, hands up: articles like this are part of that same ecology). In this case, the things we don’t know yet far outweigh the things we do – beginning with the question of whether Saldanha’s death was actually a suicide. Neither do we know what security procedures the hospital had in place to protect the privacy of patients. We don’t know the nature of the support offered afterwards to either nurse. We certainly don’t know what else was going on in Saldanha’s life.

Then there are the things we do know. If this was a suicide, the visible factors will probably provide only part of the puzzle, as is the case with most suicides.

But whatever the cause, Greig and Christian are not the only ones at fault. By their account, the prank wasn’t even their idea. They weren’t responsible for making the story global news.

They could never have anticipated that a silly, juvenile prank would prove fatal – not when radio stations have been carrying out silly, juvenile pranks almost since the invention of the wireless. As long ago as October 1938, radio listeners across the US were stunned to hear that America was being invaded by aliens from Mars.

The station that employs Greig and Christian, 2Day FM, has a particularly unedifying record of this type of stunt: two of its DJs were taken off the air for three weeks in 2009 after a horrific lie-detector gag, in which a 14-year-old revealed live on air that she had been raped.

Previous offenders

The other thing that everyone seemed to overlook in last week’s first, heady rush of outrage was that this wasn’t even the most serious hoax perpetuated on the royal family. Nine years ago, a reporter from the Daily Mirror blagged his way into the palace and spent weeks working there as a footman. He emerged with the revelations that Prince Edward and the Countess of Wessex kept teddy bears on their bed and that breakfast cereals on the royal table were served in Tupperware.

If Ryan Parry carried out his stunt today, would he still be rewarded with the Hugh Cudlipp award for outstanding tabloid journalism? Or would he be subjected to a social-media witch hunt, calls to have him fired, and a possible criminal investigation? Somehow, I don’t think he’d be making space on his mantlepiece.

What has changed over the past decade? The rapid growth of the internet and its power to magnify and lend longevity is part of the story. We also now live in a post-Big Brother world, in a culture that craves both ritual humiliation and the public purging of guilt.

It is only 12 years since “Nasty” Nick Bateman sobbed his apology in front of a live television audience after he was caught cheating, and yet in cultural terms, it seems a lifetime ago. What was a strange and uncomfortable sight then – a grown man humiliated to the point of tears over a TV show – has become a routine part of the Saturday night viewing expectations of millions.

It was telling and slightly disturbing how, in the aftermath of Greig and Christian’s distraught television appearance, the public mood shifted from one of fury to something approaching empathy.

But is our compassion really so dulled that we needed to see the tears in order to understand that they, too, might be feeling devastated?

Tax deductions for foetuses

Legislators in Michigan in the US have been considering amending the law to allow parents to claim tax deductions for foetuses. The proposal would alter the state’s tax code to include foetuses in utero as “dependants”, which would effectively extend to them from 12 weeks the same benefits that apply to children.

On the face of it, supporting women during pregnancy with health expenses sounds like a good idea, but this proposal is problematic – not least because of the confusion involved were it to emerge later that one foetus was in fact two, or several; or if something went wrong with the pregnancy after 12 weeks.

Critics of the bill, which had its first hearing in the House Tax Policy Committee at the end of November, claim that rather than being designed to help pregnant women, the Michigan Republican party’s real intention is to give unborn foetuses the status of equal citizen, opening the door to recognising them in criminal or health law.

Opponents also point out that the party’s insistence that it wants to help women with the medical expenses that come with motherhood is undermined by the fact that, just last year, the same group tried to eliminate the earned income tax credit – a benefit that applies to children.

Another political slogan for the scrapheap

The annual respite care grant: cut by €325. State maternity benefit: treated as taxable income. Child benefit: cut by €10. Drugs-payment scheme: changes mean families to pay €144 per month. Back-to- school allowance: cut by one third.

As the dust settles on last week’s Budget, we’re left with one question: is the job of caring for our most vulnerable valued by this Government? In the roll call of the most hollow political cliches of the past decade – and there are many – the battle cry of “protecting the most vulnerable” is up there with “rent is dead money” and “we’re in for a soft landing”.

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