Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Aussie pranksters feel world's fury

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BRISBANE -- Australia appears to have spent the week shouldering a collective sense of guilt over a simple radio hoax gone horribly wrong.

Aussie broadcasters Mel Greig and Michael Christian are in the global village stocks this week, and social media is throwing more than just rotting fruit their way.

The whole affair is almost too hideous to contemplate -- lives destroyed by a simple, adolescent attempt at humour.

The hosts are now internationally infamous after purporting to be Queen Elizabeth II and calling up the hospital where the pregnant Duchess of Cambridge was recovering from morning sickness.

It was Mel who asked how the "daughter-in-law's little tummy bug'' was going.

Before the tragic suicide of nurse Jacintha Saldanha, who had accepted the call as genuine, the joke was one of those mildly-funny-but-didn't-quite-hit-the mark affairs.

The lame attempt to mimic the Queen's accent was only slightly less appalling than the fake corgis barking in the background.

Greig and Christian went on a national current affairs show Monday night to claim they were stunned when their call was put through to the hospital ward -- the planned punchline was being hung up on.

Many Australians have expressed sympathy for the family of Saldanha and for the two hapless announcers.

The radio hoax is part of Australian culture. It's a minor evolutionary advance from the old prank telephone call and a close relative of the whoopee cushion in the hierarchy of humour.

But in a country not known for its deference for the powerful and privileged, it's also an accepted form of satire, provided it's designed to capture the instigator in the general frame of stupidity while not seriously humiliating or denigrating the target.

Australia has history in this genre. One of our most famous comics in the 1970s was "Norman Gunston'' -- a bumbling fool created by actor Gary McDonald who falsely presented himself to visiting celebrities as a serious journalist to create cringe-inducing, but often hysterical, mayhem.

That Greig and Christian don't possess the satirical genius of McDonald might be the only charge laid against them but for the catastrophe that followed.

Whatever the reasons for Saldanha's death, the pair is now being openly accused of being responsible for it.

Following Monday night's tearful expressions of regret in the 21st-century equivalent of the confessional box (a television interview) they then participated in a public act of contrition.

Their radio station's parent company, Southern Cross Austereo, will donate profits from advertising until year's end to Saldanha's family with a minimum of $500,000 expected to be raised.

Social media has provided the forum for vicious attacks on the pranksters, who are themselves in a fragile emotional state.

While Saldanha's death will be investigated and no conclusions can yet be drawn, it's fair to speculate some of the online commentary calling her a "stupid nurse for taking the call'' may have played a role in exacerbating her anxiety.

The venting of almost hysterical fury at Greig and Christian on Twitter and Facebook is equally thoughtless and, potentially, just as destructive.

Almost every good-humoured practical joke has the capacity to misfire at some level. And most of us are aware a lack of "intent" is recognized as mitigation not only in our everyday social interactions, but in almost every legal framework on the planet.

But while few have the moral right to cast the first stone in this sad story, a quarry full of rocks will continue to be hurled towards Australia for some time yet.


Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2012 A12

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