The Australian Pranksters - A Question Of Judgment

17/12/2012 17:33 GMT | Updated 16/02/2013 10:12 GMT

It's been almost a fortnight since perhaps the most catastrophic phone prank in radio history actually took place. The Australian duo whose jolly jape set about a tragic sequence of events are now in hiding and require 24-hour security following death threats.

It's clearly disproportionate that these broadcasters' lives, let alone their careers, should be completely destroyed because an ill-judged stunt went horribly wrong. But there's the expression to focus on for broadcasters and comedians alike - ill-judged. It's assumed that entertainers, be they on the radio or TV, on stage or in print, are primarily focused on getting laughs. You'd think that's the muscle they work the hardest. However, there is also the other half of what they do: exercising judgment.

Where a stand-up is concerned, it's judging what jokes might be acceptable in advance and then judging the mood of the room for every moment they are on stage. The audience sit there like a jury, laughing when you are deemed funny, silent when you are deemed not, and perhaps most helpfully, murmuring their disapproval when you've gone too far. It's helpful because the audience are effectively saving you from yourself. A comedian has the opportunity to pull back from a poorly judged joke (usually about Princess Diana or Michael Jackson) by acknowledging to the crowd that they have crossed a line. The audience will often reward such self awareness and humility with an approving chuckle, thus allowing the comic to segue to a slightly safer topic.

But a professional broadcaster working in a studio doesn't have the luxury of a live audience guiding them along the way. A radio or TV presenter is effectively working in a vacuum and can self destruct with worrying ease. That judgment vacuum extends to the entirety of a radio station in the case of 2Day FM, where it is alleged the management heard the stunt before it went out and similarly failed to make the right call.

By the way this is not being wise after the event. The stunt backfired long before a dedicated nurse tragically took her own life. There may be more to learn about what Jacintha Saldanha was going through when she took that fateful call at 5.30am on 4 December, and how she might have been treated by those around her after it happened. But global scorn was poured on the DJs almost immediately after the stunt aired, and it became an international news story in a matter of minutes.

It was global news because a future queen was involved, but it received scorn because it was essentially a crap stunt. Before the tragic aspect of this story emerged, the newly crowned king of comedy Jack Whitehall tweeted "I mean sachsgate prank was crude but at least it was quite funny. That Australian Radio hoax call was rubbish. Hope those DJs get sacked". Harsh words from a fellow entertainer, but one who treads that fine line between hilarity and horror absolutely beautifully, and all whilst wearing a very tight-fitting suit.

So let's look at the facts as they were, when the gag was conceived: you have the Duchess of Cambridge in hospital, apparently chucking her guts up with suspected morning sickness. So there you go, we know three things - firstly that this lady is pregnant, secondly that she's not feeling very well and thirdly that she's in hospital. Any one of those factors should have been enough to put them off in the first place. It didn't and the rest is history.

Now whether something is funny is pure alchemy - it's a dark art, it's witchcraft and it's actually out of a comic's hands. Woody Allen said he was always happy if simply the majority of his jokes - literally 51% - got a laugh. Then he felt he was winning. But the careful assessment of whether a joke is the right joke to make, whether it's acceptable to the teller and the audience and whether it might make the world a slightly better or slightly worse place, is in the hands of anyone who holds a microphone or fires off an article.

You always hope that your work will entertain, that's the gamble you take as a comedian with every new joke, but it's in your gift to make sure you've at least thought it through carefully before putting it out there; it's effectively a duty of care to the audience. Which is why I'm not going to do that joke about Michael Jackson.