The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Andrew Telling Headshot

A Culture That Bred the Fatal Prank

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

I wonder what the public at large think of Mel Greig and Michael Christian following their first public appearance after the death of the Jacintha Saldanha? Anger? Pity? Disbelief? Empathy? I know the outpouring of condemnation on Twitter was as vitriolic as it was vast; 'blood on their hands' cited many observers. 'Manslaughter charges should be bought' demanded others. Yes, they were the voices behind the hoax call but I believe any spotlight of blame must extend much further.

I worked as a breakfast radio producer for many years. It was a relentless machine; no sooner had one link passed than another needed prepping and delivering to an increasingly critical audience with many competitors to choose from. The quality ranged from award winning to poor and everything in between. But we were always looking for the big one; the one piece of radio that would stop people in their cars, make them late for work and cause them to discuss it endlessly around the coffee machine. Nail a link like that once in a while and we'd bought ourselves an audience who would uncomplainingly put up with the average.

But that wasn't our only reason to strive for notoriety. In fact, much of our modus operandi wasn't audience focussed at all; it was to appease the ever vocal and highly critical wall of senior management. Salesmen who knew little about creativity were constantly pushing us for 'big one' on the back of which they could sell their airtime and make money. There's nothing wrong with that of course; it was a commercial radio after all. But the pressure they applied was sometimes disproportionate and unrealistic. Often, it was downright cringe worthy. "Get Gary Barlow to sign the co-host's tits!" was the command from one senior member of management prior to an interview with the Take That star.

That didn't happen.

At 2DayFM, Mel and Michael were undoubtedly at the sharp end of an organisation that operated in much the same way as the one I used to know. In fact, I suspect it was worse because culturally, Australian 'zoo' format radio has always been more risqué, more cutting and infinitely more edgy than anything we were used to in the UK. Driven by the need for status and revenue, the bar was raised higher and higher until, literally, nothing was off limits. The 2DayFM breakfast show hooking a 14-year-old girl up to a lie detector before she confessed to being raped at the age of 12 is one example where the boundaries were not just blurred, but ceased to exist all together.

The hoax call performed by Mel and Michael wasn't funny or clever; few prank calls genuinely are. It's 'value' came from the stark invasion of privacy surrounding the heir to the throne. Nobody could have predicted that outcome. It was 'money can't buy' global exposure for a radio station in a competitive commercial market. It was the coo programme directors, sales directors and station owners dream of.

And as we know, global exposure is exactly what they got.

I watched with interest as the axe of vilification fell on the DJs. At first, like many, I thought they deserved it. But as days passed, I realised they played only a small part in the dreadful events that followed. Of course, they could have vetoed the call. They could have said it was simply too invasive. Their participation is likely to haunt them for the rest of their lives. But let's not be under any illusion that they were solely responsible. Amid everything, they were trying to maintain a presence in a radio culture that demanded such risk taking.

Jacintha Saldanha's death was truly devastating and the circumstances surrounding it should never have come to pass. But to lay the blame entirely at the feet and Michael Christian and Mel Greig is to overlook a far greater contingent. It's to overlook the fact that they work within a radio culture that allows that style of radio to go unchallenged. It's to overlook the fact that the radio culture actively encourages the pushing of boundaries, that it clearly considers the feelings of the victims secondary to global stature and revenue.

They say it was unforeseeable and to an extent, this is true. But in an environment where the lines of decency are regularly crossed there will inevitably be a breaking point; no boundary can be pushed forever.

And Jacintha Saldanha's death demonstrates how tragic those limits can be.