As the two Australian DJ's responsible for the 'Royal Baby Hoax' were interviewed on television this week, their composure could not have been any further from the charismatic radio presenters they had been a few days ago. Disheveled, insecure and broken, both Mel Grieg and Michael Christian appeared tearfully remorseful in their desperate attempt to seek redemption. Yet, the DJs were not just seeking forgiveness from the bereaved family of Jacintha Saldanha. They also appealed for clemency from the wider media culture that in the past few days has transformed them into villains.
There is however, a peculiar irony that lies behind such characterisations. For while the actions of Grieg and Christian were certainly deplorable, they are also far from uncommon in the modern media industry. Nor is the exploitation of humiliation and shame something novel to to the culture of entertainment. Indeed, it is often the case that even our most beloved sources of popular entertainment thrive on such vindications, and worse- our society has often been too complacent in allowing this to take place.
This is clearly demonstrated in what has become a staple of British prime-time television, The X Factor, which aired it's 2012 series finale last weekend. While positioning itself as a champion of meritocracy, it routinely juxtaposes two different narratives, and in so doing creates a peculiar pantomime-like spectacle; contrasting a 'rags to riches' theatrical tale of the victors ascendance to fame, while intermittently broadcasting a series of purposefully cringe-inducing and less than melodic renditions of well-known pop songs.. Though maintaining the popularity of the franchise, such a dichotomy inevitably results in a cynical dehumanisation of the latter category of contestants, who find themselves rendered as objects designed solely for entertainment pleasure. They are designed for the purpose of humiliation, which in itself contributes to the overall success of the show.
Even when this structure changes, perhaps most evident through the 2009 runner-up Susan Boyle, this mentality resonates. In this case, it was not Ms.Boyle's vocal talents which amazed viewers, but rather the idea that she was devoid of all the aesthetic qualities viewers had come to expect. Ms.Boyle was not simply a contestant- she was also an object who's oddity attracted higher viewer ratings.
Further, one only has to look at the recent controversy surrounding a Brazilian prank show that used terrifying practical jokes to humiliate unknowing people using an elevator, or indeed it's milder and more popular counterpart, the MTV hit show 'Punk'd'. Both programmes use staged practical jokes as a means to trick their victims, of which are then broadcast for viewers to enjoy. But in doing so, this type of programming continues the process of dehumanising and objectifying their victims, ultimately rendering them helpless to forces that exploit their shame.
What is often forgotten in cases such as Ms. Saldanha's, particularly by consumers of these forms of media, is the intensity of the trauma that comes afterword- the embarrassment as well as the personal convictions of inadequacy. Indeed, it is easy to forget that outside the pantomime world that these practical jokes take place in, are the victims who have involuntarily become sacrificed to satisfy an almost fetishised addiction for public humiliation.
What has created this misanthropic media culture? Some have blamed a cosmopolitan notion of individualism that has replaced empathy with apathy. Others lay blame on the infatuation with celebrity- one where consumers take pleasure in seeing the inadequacies and imperfections of public figures exposed.
However, it is perhaps the case that the actions of Grieg and Christian simply reflect the way in which popular entertainment has transformed, particularly in the wake of new technology and the methods by which consumers can participate with modern media. Where it is designed to inform and entertain, media culture naturally orientates toward the wants of prospective audiences, providing them with the cheap thrills, raunchy stories and public shaming needed for a brief moment of escapism. Whether in reality television, soap operas or the pages of gossip magazines, such stories appeal to us simply because it feeds into a fantasy world that we can peculiarly relate to.
While Grieg and Christian to hold some responsibility to the tragic death of Ms.Saldanha, we should not be apathetic to the culture which allowed such humiliation to take place. In particular, it should be understood that beyond the fictional worlds created by popular media are those victims, like Ms. Saldanha and many others, who have the same insecurities and vulnerabilities as the audience that observes them. If there is anything that we can learn from Ms. Saldanha's case, it is surely that they deserve the right to retain their dignity too.