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Princesses, pranks and presenters

December 10, 2012

In the middle of a longer piece about something else, I find the Babel Fish is required once more and I must pause to explain what has happened over the last few days concerning the so-called ‘prank’ call by two 2Day FM presenters to a London hospital and the subsequent suicide of the nurse who took the call and put it through. Australians are clearly shocked and surprised by this development, don’t understand why she would have reacted like that, and have described it as unforeseeable. They are mistaken. It was foreseeable, at least to some extent, once you understand that a three-way culture clash is at the heart of it. To see why things turned out the way they did, first you need to know a few things.

I was watching something the other day, I think it may have been one of those ‘Grumpy Old Men’ things the ABC has from time to time. Yes, I know it’s fluff, but even I can’t be serious all the time. Occasional light relief is required. It was about class. Someone made the point that Britain is still very much a class-ridden society, quite possibly unique in that you instantly know exactly where someone comes from geographically, as well as their precise social class, the moment that person opens their mouth. This is true. You need to know this because the incident could never have taken place but for the fact that the nurse who took the call was not British born. If she had been, it is simply inconceivable that she would have been fooled by what was in fact a truly terrible impersonation of the queen. The accent was all wrong.

In addition to that, the queen doesn’t make her own phone calls. You’d get a palace official on the phone saying, “I have Her Majesty…etc.” Think about it. When President Obama returned Julia Gillard’s congratulatory phone call on his re-election, do you think she answered her mobile and heard, “Hey Jules, it’s the big O here!” Of course not! A Whitehouse official would have called her office and said the President wished to speak to the Prime Minister. Only when she was already on the line would the official have given the President the sign to wind up his conversation with the President of Antigua, and put him through. It’s the same with the queen. She is not kept waiting. She has people to do her waiting for her. Only when the person she wants is already on the line would the phone be handed to her. You’d know that if you were brought up in Britain. She does, or at least did, have a nasty habit of dropping in on some random person when visiting a town. And she visits a lot of towns. I was two the first time she visited my town, and she’s been back a couple of times since then. So, if you live there you grow up knowing that there is always the remote possibility that one day the queen just might drop in for a cup of tea. Which could make you a bit paranoid, but you do get a warning – an official comes round first and tells you she’s coming, and how you’re supposed to behave, etc. You get a chance to say, “What? Shit no! The place is trashed/I’ve just put a joint out/I’m a republican and I don’t want the octogenarian scrounger anywhere near me!” in advance. The same applies to phone calls. It’s not solely to ensure she isn’t kept waiting, it’s also to allow the other person a chance to compose themselves. The officials who make such calls require much patience, as most British people’s first assumption is that it’s a hoax. They probably have to say, “No, this really IS Buckingham Palace!” a lot.

So this woman, brought up in an Indian culture, on a diet of honour and shame (as Salman Rushdie put it), plus some knowledge of British culture, pre-1947, when it was a lot stuffier than today, has come to Britain and been, as she might see it, accepted into at least the fringes of the establishment – a job as a nurse in a hospital so exclusive the royal family go there. As an immigrant, that is realistically as high as she can aspire to in that class system. She probably feels pretty lucky to be so accepted and takes her responsibilities extremely seriously. So now some Australians come blundering into her world. We don’t really ‘get’ shame any more. We’re pretty much shameless. We don’t really get class either (that’s not because we have a classless society, we don’t, we just think we do). We’re iconoclasts. Nothing is sacred to us. And these particular Australians happened to have a particularly infantile sense of humour. Prank calls? Let’s face it, we’ve all made them, but I grew out of it by the time I was nine or ten. If you are an adult who still thinks prank calls and fart jokes are funny, you really do need to grow up.

Anyway, because of the combination of her Indian background and her perception of the British class system, this poor woman failed to spot a hoax that would have been blindingly obvious to a British born person, and put the call through, which resulted in a breach of the doctor/patient confidentiality of a member of the royal family! She simply found the shame of that mistake too much to bear. If you have some knowledge, as I do, of all three cultures, it’s really not that difficult to understand why she acted as she did. Nor is it hard to imagine why the presenters don’t understand it. They’re just regular Aussie bogans, why would they understand? There are excuses for them. They’re young, and probably haven’t had much exposure to other cultures (although given that was the case, was it wise to let them make ‘prank’ calls to other countries?).

What is difficult to understand is why nobody at the station, although they had the chance to vet the recording before broadcast, spotted that there were two major legal problems with it. The first is fraudulently misrepresenting oneself in order to gain confidential medical information. That shouldn’t have been hard to understand, doctor/patient confidentiality works exactly the same way in Australia as it does in Britain. The second is that it is a breach of NSW law to secretly record, and then use, a phone call without the other person’s permission. Hint: that’s why whenever you call a company or govt. dept. you are warned up front that the call may be recorded, and given the chance to opt out. It’s a legal obligation for them to do that. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised, these are the people who continue to bring us the vile Kyle Sandilands after all. That’s where the blame should lie – with management. Anyone who thinks Sandilands (or Alan Jones for that matter) is a fit and proper person to host a radio show is, by definition, not a fit and proper person to hold a radio license. And don’t go bleating about freedom of speech, not unless you are prepared to offer me my own radio show too. You have the right to say what you like, you don’t have the right to be listened to. I have the right not to suffer fools gladly. Does freedom of speech really mean that we cannot excercise any kind of quality control, but must rather be obliged to listen uncritically to idiots? I think not.

  1. Well said. I think the hospital management have a lot to answer for too, but agree the call should never have been made. Shocking situation all around.

    • I think there’s still quite a bit to learn about what role the employer played in the aftermath of the call, and that could well have a significant bearing on what transpired. Also, as has been pointed out to me on Twitter, we know little or nothing of the poor woman’s psychological state. I can’t see any excuse in that however. If you’re going to have prank calls, the intent of which, after all, is to humiliate people, sooner or later you’re going to strike someone in a vulnerable state. This is the result.

      Who is it that’s known for repeatedly making prank calls? That’s right, Bart Simpson. Who is supposed to be ten years old. That is about the mental age we’re dealing with here. I just can’t reconcile the fact that in the name of ‘freedon of speech’ we encourage intellectually challenged presenters to promote stupidity in the population. Maybe it’s because when I grew up the only radio we had was the BBC. Four stations, Radio 1 for pop, Radio 2 for easy listening, Radio 3, classical and Radio 4, news and talk. It was public service broadcasting, meant to educate and inform. It used to work pretty well. Then in the 70s they introduced independent radio, one license per city, but they were all music stations. That’s what radio’s for – music. Talkback only encourages stupid people to think their ill-informed opinions are worth hearing. They’re not.

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