Keeping Perspective: Things To Remember Following The Tragic Death Of Jacintha Saldanha

Yesterday, while drinking tea and pointlessly wishing my desk was big enough that I didn’t have a scattered mess of papers everywhere almost all of the time, I was contacted on Twitter by one Stephanie Hegarty. Who is this Stephanie Hegarty character? I thought (sorry Stephanie, it only lasted a couple of seconds, and you can be sure that everyone gets the exact same tweetment…oh dear), while secretly hoping that she might have a solution to my desk-is-too-small problem (if you didn’t know, thinking pointless thoughts is a fantastic way of wasting work time). Well, she was a journalist for the BBCs World Service channel, as it happens, and today she was contacting me – like she had many other bloggers, writers and other people ending in ers, but not all people ending in ers, obviously – to see if I wanted to get involved on tonight’s installment of World Have Your Say, the popular current affairs programme where real people from all over the world get to…well, have their say about lots of newsworthy things. And I did want to get involved, so I said, “that sounds good.” It was nice to say a whole sentence on Twitter without having to resort to abbreviations, for once, that’s for sure.

In the end I sat there waiting for a phone call which never transpired, and never got my chance to go on the radio and do my best radio posh voice (yes, I’m doing a sad face right now). Nevermind. I dealt with it by thinking about consuming far too many Wagonwheels. So instead of letting all my thoughts go to waste, like so many of them do, I thought I’d write this blog. Being totally serious now, for a change, here are a few things I think we need to stay aware of following the tragic death of 46-year-old London nurse and mother and wife Jacintha Saldanha (previous blog here).

1

Following the onslaught of newspaper articles, tweets and blogs concerning the strange series of events which have led to the unfolding of this horrendous news story, it’s extremely tempting to draw a number of simplified conclusions. The obvious ones are as follows: A) the prank phone call which the two Australian DJs made caused the death of the nurse in question, or was pivotal in influencing it. B) the two presenters should have known better and should have known that the prank could have dire consequences. C) The two DJs — as well as the radio team behind them, who were all responsible for creating the prank-call hoax — wanted to humiliate the person they were calling, and, thus, they are evil and deserve to suffer. And suffer some more.

Except there are a few very large and complex problems with this argument. Hence them being simplified, as I said before. The first is that right now, as it stands, we still know very little about why Jacintha Saldanha actually killed herself. What we do know is an edited version of the truth presented to us by the papers and online news (that Jacintha felt devastating shame as a result of the call, etc, as has been widely reported). Was the prank call the sole reason for the nurse and mother killing herself? I highly doubt it, although of course it’s entirely possible and impossible to discount. The chances are, we may well never know for sure. Was it pivotal in inducing this tragedy? Another difficult question. Sadly, that does seem to be the case. But, again, right now it only seems to be the case…until we know more – make that much more – we don’t really know anything for sure. Lastly, as for the DJs wanting to deliberately humiliate anyone, this seems somewhat unlikely. 2 Day FM may have a worrying track-record of similarly foolhardy on-air stunts, but the video which appeared today — the presenters talking more openly than must have been easy — shows this story in a new and yet more unsettling light. According to the video, the DJs never intended for anything like this to happen and are quite clearly broken. It’s your choice to believe their plight or not.

2

We live in a culture of blame. We can all jump on Twitter, shove a hash-tag in there and blame people and be heard, and many of us do so with ruthless certainty to tens-of-thousands of followers. Nowadays, we’re all armchair journalists, even grandparents and people who are barely literate enough to spell their own name (which is handy or even helpful on Twitter where every character counts and correct spelling is a burden). And it’s tremendously empowering to be heard and believed, isn’t it? Yet, not everything is a simple matter of one person – or two people – doing one thing and there being one single catastrophic result. Many things can and do happen in-between to divert and spread the blame, and in this case we know very little about what did or did not occur. One thing that’s always been true is that it feels awful to not have somebody or something to blame. Nearly always, this triggers hostility and rage.

3

Now look at probability. Probability is one of those amazing things, and probability, as far as I am concerned, says that if this same situation were to play out 1,000 times, it would play out in 1,000 different ways, all of them unpredictable and surprisingly unique. How many of those 1,000 people might take their own life as a result of the exact same prank call? It’s impossible to say without staging a mass unethical experiment. It might be 12 or it might be zero. But let’s do some massive assuming, shall we? Chances are that of those 1,000 people, many of them would think positively about the joke and none would take their own life. Maybe at least several-hundred people would think the joke was at least mildly amusing. Be honest: a lot of people, one hell of a lot of people, would surely find the prank amusing, and many of those might go on to try and make money off of it. They would likely succeed, too.

With no death to worry about, a joke feels infinitely more amusing, does it not?

4

Think what you like about the DJs, but don’t forget that the hospital have been exceedingly vague in the wake of this disaster, in particular about their role and what happened in-between the prank and the nurse’s death. Here’s a good question: why wasn’t protocol in place to prevent just anyone from ringing through to the nurse’s station? It seems crazy to believe that there wouldn’t have been at least some obstacles or rules there as a matter of logical prevention. After all, this is the Royal Family we’re talking about. It’s not like this couldn’t have been predicted.

5

Pranks are funny. Not all pranks, but some — even Prince Charles thought this one was funny at the time. No matter how nice you think you are, when something unfortunate happens to someone else — you drive through a puddle, for example, soaking an overweight pedestrian, making your day 10 times better — and they don’t end up killing themselves, you might laugh or say “brilliant!” yet it’s only when someone goes and kills themselves that we learn about the deep dark things inside. That it hurt them so horribly. With all the other pranks we never usually find out. So what do we do? Ban all pranks? I don’t want to live in that world and I am willing to bet that you don’t either.

Yet clearly something tangible needs to be done to protect at-risk people. Some kind of psychological/cultural profiling, perhaps, or some sort of legislation that everyone follows. Yes it’ll ruin the spontaneous nature of pranks forever, but people staying alive is clearly infinitely more important. In the future, more care will surely be taken in hospitals and institutions, as a result of this nightmare — that much is almost sure. I just hope we haven’t got too short a memory to learn from the mistakes and keep them in mind in the future.

6

All this madness about the DJs having blood on their hands needs to stop now. It’s not on. When the nightmare image is reflected on ourselves, it’s not a pretty thing. You may not wish to try out the following example, and if that’s the case you’ll want to skip this next bit after the colon and go straight to the next paragraph:

you may have heard about a school friend who recently killed themselves. Let’s say you don’t know why this happened. In that case, it’s easy to speculate and forget about them. Especially if you never really knew them and were not ever close. Yet, how can you be absolutely certain that you or a friend of yours didn’t play some small part in their later death? What if, many years ago, you were one of the bullies and that thought — the thought of what you had done to them — went round and round and eventually led to their demise? It’s a horrifying thought. It’s nasty to even consider or visualize that something we’ve done may have caused someone else to physically hurt themselves, let alone end their own life. I’m having that thought even as I write this. What if somebody read this blog post and hurt themselves…or worse? I’d be absolutely devastated. Yet I’d like to think that if that did happen, I wouldn’t be hauled off to prison for making someone think about something they’d rather not have.

7

The DJs and the team involved in all this aren’t going to be forgetting about Jacintha any time soon, that’s for sure. Chances are, they’ll always feel like they have blood on their hands, even if it ends up turning out otherwise when more information eventually comes to light.

royal panic: when a phone-call prank becomes not very funny…

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and the breaking news about nurse Jacintha Saldanha’s death – reported as apparent suicide, following a telephone prank by two Australian DJs at the London King Edward VII hospital where the nurse worked in close proximity to the newly pregnant Duchess of Cambridge – will, no doubt, be triggering an onslaught of grief, remorse and dread for the two people at the centre of the storm. Radio DJs Michael Christian and Mel Greig probably never thought the prank would initially work as well as it did. Now it has, they’ll be wishing it didn’t. And it goes without saying that they’re not the only ones…

Personally, my mind is still boggling and trying to make sense of all this. Like everyone else, I heard about the prank, in which the DJs pretended to be the Queen and Prince Charles. At the time, although I didn’t actually hear it over the radio, I thought it mildly amusing and a bit bizarre. Neither then, nor after, did I consider that it might have such grave side-effects.

Emphasis on the might. Because while the newspapers and online news sites are already out in force, painting a picture of cruelty on behalf of the two DJs, I think we need to keep some perspective on this before things spin wildly out-of-control — that is, unless things already have and already are. There’s no doubt about it: looking at what we presently know to be the facts, the hoax surely contributed to the nurse’s death. Yet that’s simplifying things a bit too much, isn’t it? I mean, think about it critically and logically: these two DJs, for whatever reason, pretended to be two very famous people, who were then believed. Following this the nurse, presumably in shame — if what we read holds any truth, which is hard to say with certainty when such huge journalistic mistakes have been made in the past — apparently committed suicide. For me, the facts don’t add up. Without knowing any more about what actually happened, or, for that matter, Jacintha Saldanha’s state-of-mind in the weeks, days and hours leading up to this event, it feels wrong – and I think is wrong – to go pointing the finger and casting aspersions. All of which I expect will happen with relentless force over the next 48 hours and beyond. I am bracing myself, and that’s tragic: a woman has died. Surely that’s what we should be focussing on?

One thing that is, apparently, a fact, is that the Sydney radio station in question is already in trouble for breaching its regulator’s code. Then again, show me one single big radio station on the face of this Earth which hasn’t been in trouble for violating something at one time, whether it be it’s code or the Law. It all adds up to a very murky picture. My sympathy is with the family and close friends of Jacintha Saldanha at what must be a truly disturbing and horrible time. With some luck, the internet will think before it speaks and we’ll be given a bit more information first, before we start issuing rights and wrongs. It just all seems a bit premature to me.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with the fact that this was clearly a misjudgment on the part of the radio station itself. After all, it’s their responsibility to vet and control its employees, and this could so easily have been avoided — surely by now we’ve heard enough radio pranks to last a bloody lifetime? Yes, undoubtedly it was their fault for making the phone-call, but could they have foreseen it would have such dire consequences so soon after, if indeed it was the call which induced the nurse’s decision to end her own life? I find that extremely unlikely, and I know that because I’ve seen what happens when people play pranks. Most of the time it’s a spontaneous event. Most of the time, you could never have seen the bad news coming.

You can probably think of a prank or a hoax or something that went horribly wrong, so this may well seem like nothing very unusual, even if it did at the time. I recall one particular prank that happened when I was at sixth-form-college, and, as pranks go, it was a good one: that old classic, wait until the person goes to sit down and then pull their chair away quickly…to much embarrassment and a huge round-of-applause from the rest of the class. Only what happened didn’t play out quite like the person who was playing the prank expected, or as any of us could have predicted, either. One moment the boy was sitting down, the next he fell backwards, all of his weight driving his inertia. The sound of his head cracking against the side of the table is something I’ll never truly forget. Entirely oblivious to the prank, he’d fallen with all his weight in one solid mass. There was no warning. From the colossal impact, it was more or less a miracle that he didn’t break his neck.

In the days and weeks that followed, my friends and I often sat about and joked about the prank. We were kids, young adults thinking we knew the world, and we thought it funny. But, much as we knew that the boy was alright – aside from a gigantic bump on the head and a serious case of distrust in anyone who was standing behind him – there was always the nagging feeling that air could have been expanding in his brain. That the prank might have had some long-term side-effects that would take months or years to fully come to surface. As it happened, there wasn’t. Years later, that same boy came out as gay, but despite what some might say, I highly doubt that has anything to do with what happened to his head.

So…how do you punish two radio station DJs who made a mistake and probably should have known better? Throw them in prison for a while to beat the life out of them? Send them to a rehabilitation clinic to learn the perils of having fun? Scotland Yard may have launched an investigation, but what, if anything, is it an investigation into? Once again, I’m confused…

There’s no doubt that it seems right that someone should pay for the nurse’s death, I’m just not sure it’s going to be easy figuring out who that might be, especially when we presently have no idea about what happened after the prank and how this connected with the nurse’s fatal decision.

How to sell yourself

PLEASE NOTE: the following post contains some swearing, in places where I found it necessary. If you’re offended by swearing and would rather not subject your mind to such things, then I strongly suggest you a) stay inside the house for quite some time until the novelty wears off for everyone (the novelty of swearing, not the novelty of you staying inside the house for years, although that is very novel) and b) do not read this post past this paragraph. If you are offended by swearing and read this post past this paragraph anyway, even though that’s a very silly thing to do, then you email me to tell me I shouldn’t have published this post, then I’m not going to respond to your email. Or I might, but I’ll probably swear.

Nowadays, everything you write has a double-meaning, and even a simple blog post about marketing and selling yourself can be misinterpreted, making you wish you’d been born in a time when sarcasm was a novelty, rather than an epidemic. So, just to be crystal clear, if your profession is prostitute then reading this post is unlikely to explain to you why you can’t get any work (I say unlikely, but the internet is a very big place and all kinds of people seem to end up here — someone found it the other day by typing in the unfortunate phrase manky penis, for example — so, who knows, you just might be a veteran hooker whose starting out selling baked-goods and giving up the game, in which case you may find some helpful tips below, maybe). If you’re in any other business, though, the following might be of interest.

This blog is about the mistakes that people make when trying to sell themselves professionally. There I go again. What I mean is, it’s about people who are offering a service – wait! – and are going door-to-door with leaflets. Or people who are selling online. Or selling anywhere, for that matter.

Because, just to the right of my keyboard as I type this is yet another flyer from a tree services company. Allow me to explain…

Fuck me is the first expression that comes to mind. Yes, I swore in words and I don’t even care — the mark of a true blogger, writing on his personal blog where, for once, he is also the editor (and no, I don’t swear when I am writing for other people, with the exception of when they say it’s appropriate or necessary, which is not very often). I use this expression here not to try and shock, but because, very simply, it’s the best and most accurate expression to be used. Like I’m sure many atheist and even naughty religious freelancers do, I say the words Fuck Me probably half-a-dozen times a day, for a wide variety of reasons. No jokes, please, and let’s not be smutty — I’m talking about when something annoys me, and only those two words together seem to do. One of those reasons might be when our dog snatches my Birthday card off the table and chews it into un-recognition, and I only discover this when it’s much too late, and I can hardly blame her, can I, because it was all my fault for leaving it there, and the other reasons, well, you know: you forget something critically important which then triggers a chain of annoying events which delay you further and make your work day one hour longer. Or you over-cook your pasta. Things like that.

Anyway, today I said that expression for the first time when a man appeared outside my ground-floor office window. He had that curiously vague way about him where he was there for a purpose, and so rang the front-door bell, but didn’t seem to be sure of what that purpose really was. From my chair, looking in the mirror to the right and above my desk, I could see that he was wearing a dark green and yellow all-in-one suit, which then gave the game away. When he rang the bell again, I said the aforementioned phrase-of-despair once more. I knew as I went to the door that I was about to be confronted by a man who was selling tree-pruning, lopping and various other services. Which, as I will explain, was irritating.

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If you’re going to try and be amusing, at least use spellcheck first. Otherwise you’ll be amusing and look like an absolute idiot

On marketing websites and in numerous other places, both online and off, the mythical they say you have just seconds to catch the attention of someone you are trying to sell to. The man I opened the door to looked uncomfortable or indifferent and had clearly taken this advice to heart: within mere seconds of my opening the door he was facing away from me, not really looking at me, and then he opened his mouth and said “you need any trees cutting.” Lacking any question mark, it took me a second or two to realise he was actually trying to sell me something. That maybe, just maybe, he had a mortgage to pay and this was what he did to pay it (unbelievable as that seemed at the time). The problem was…that was his fourth or fifth or six mistake, so by the time I saw him holding the leaflet out, I wasn’t interested, I was feeling a little bit grim towards door-to-door humanity. Not that I was interested before that, I mean – as I told the guy, we only had 3 trees out the back and every single week 3 or 4 companies vied to cut them or lop them, whatever the hell that actually means – but I was especially not interested now. In fact, I felt a bit offended. Yeah, I was never going to take the leaflet, and yeah, he was the worst person to send out to sell anything to anyone door-to-door ever, but it would at least have been nice if he’d not looked at me like I had I’M A MASSIVE RAPIST! tattooed across my forehead.

The weird thing was that, at this point, even after telling him we didn’t and wouldn’t need any of his company’s services – politely and accurately, mind you – I was still willing to give the man a second chance. I thought If he can tell me why we should have one of our 3 trees lopped or pruned or chopped down, I might say Yes, just for the hell of it. I’d have been happy with anything, really. “Because two trees is the optimum number of trees to have in a back garden,” would have done it, I reckon, but “you need to because your trees may be diseased with a dangerous alien bacteria that may well get inside your lungs and kill you within days,” would have really done the trick.

Not that I should be condoning that kind of illegal behaviour from tree service companies. It’s just, well, I wanted the guy to liven up and at least seem like he had a passion for something, even if it was being illegal.

So I looked at him. Come on, I thought. Seriously. Now’s your chance. Besides that, I’ve got children’s toys to write about so I haven’t got all bloody day. Do something. Make this worth my time.

What happened next was marginally offensive, looking at this from a marketing and sales point-of-view. Instead of telling me one good reason why we ought to even consider using them in the future, he just stared at me blankly. And tried to pass me the leaflet. No words came out of his mouth. I suppose when you’ve handed over about ten-thousand leaflets or flyers, your hand just does this without you knowing. Obviously I didn’t take it. If the bloke can’t even give me one good vocal reason why I ought to consider him or his firm, then I’m not going to waste my bloody time hanging about on my own cold door-step. Fact!

So that was his second major mistake, or maybe his tenth or nineteenth, I’d lost count of these by now: if you’re going to sell anything at all to anybody, no matter what it is, you need to speak the hell up. You don’t need to shout or be a weirdo, but you do need to actually care about what you are doing. If you don’t, nobody else will. With one exception: if you were to suddenly break down and fall on the ground and start moaning “woe is me! I hate my job! I want to become a dentist! I will become a dentist!” I might start to care a bit. Because at least that’d be something. When you’re selling, even desperation and crying and tragic sadness is better than nothing, you know.

That was almost the end of the shockingly-inept-tree-services-man-incident, but later, going back to the door to see if there was any post – which there wasn’t – I was to be proven wrong about the man. Yes he’d been clueless, but there, caught in the letter-box, was a white leaflet with green lettering. “You…you sneaky tree service man!” I said. “Well, it worked. I am going to bloody well read it.”

And read it I did. Being a copywriter and freelance writer, what I held in my hands here was nothing less than amateur gold. There I stood, braving the draught of the open door-way, gazing at the leaflet flyer thing, and actually, if I am honest, it was quite good. It definitely hadn’t been professionally conceived or written, but that didn’t matter, because there were quite a few things about the leaflet that really got it right. They’d used thick-ish card, for instance, and the quality was alright, too.

The first main thing was the typeface. I could read it easily. That’s absolutely crucial but still something some people manage to totally fuck up. If you start out with a typeface or font that nobody can read and even the person who invented it truly doesn’t know what it meant when they had the idea for it, this is very bad (hello to you wingdings). Bold and green, it was alright. The only issue was the number of different fonts that had been used, which made it look a bit confusing. I counted five in all, which, in my opinion, if that’s worth anything, was at least 3 too many.

Something else the tree people had got right – and this they usually didn’t, I’d seen enough to know – was the amount of white space. There was a fair bit of it between the lines and the words and it worked quite well. The use of logos and pictures was also under control, which made a nice change. From a design point-of-view, you do want to show that you’re creative, but at the same time, you don’t want to come across as a child who can’t draw for shit and who really loves trees.

There were two more things which immediately stood out. The first was the 10% DISCOUNT THIS MONTH across the middle of the flyer. This was in white writing on the same formulaic dark green background and did stand out. Additionally, the phone numbers were in bold white on dark green and there was even a 24 HOUR EMERGENCY CALLOUT NUMBER, along with street name of the business. Not bad. I was semi-impressed.

But it wasn’t all good. And this isn’t just me being picky. In fact, the eagle-eyed among you may already have picked the following up.

First up, although it said 10% DISCOUNT THIS MONTH, it didn’t state the actual month or year concerned. A minor thing, really, but in 4 months time when we finally decide that one of our 3 trees badly needs lopping – I’l have Googled what it means by then, maybe – I don’t want to call up whoever it is — there was also no name on the card — and be told that they were only doing it in December 2012. By then, I may have got confused about time, thanks to the crazy world of children’s toys I write about. By then, I may think that the leaflet had only recently come through the door. All that could have been avoided if they’d printed the month that the discount was valid for. That’s another thing to make note of: if you want people to buy from you, make it easy. As easy and simple as you possibly can.

Next up, we have the 24 HOUR EMERGENCY CALLOUT NUMBER, which I thought was a nice touch. Only problem is, I know precisely jack shit about trees and emergencies, so having it really didn’t help me much, and spun me into a kind of crazy daydream. So when I read this, I thought What, I should call them if a tree attacks me? which I assume wasn’t the response they were after. If they’d have given me a firm example of a tree-based emergency then it would have saved me panicking about being attacked by trees, such as in the film Evil Dead when a young woman is raped by a particularly savage one. Ugh. This is a common trap that businesses fall into, of course. They assume that everyone who reads their advert is as clued-up as them, and this inevitably leads to confusion. Just don’t do it.

The last thing which really could have been avoided was mucking-up the address. OK, they’d printed the street number and name, but they hadn’t put the town or the city where the firm was based. I couldn’t tell from the mobile or free phone number where they were located, either. Obviously, if I ever found out what a real tree emergency was then I’d like to know how long it’s going to take them to come and help me out. By then I could have been molested by numerous kinds of trees. You just never know, do you?

I’d love to say that this was all the flyer got wrong, but there were one or two more things. Obviously. Let’s focus on one: the bit that said Book Your Trees In For A Makeover NOW!

A makeover? I thought. Sorry…you mean, a makeover?! As in…an actual makeover? No. Just no.

I couldn’t help it, could I? I knew nothing of trees or lopping, so it was perfectly reasonable to imagine one of our 3 trees sitting in a kind of tree salon, having it’s branches done. It’s leaves waxed. It’s roots polished. This vision conjured-up a sensation of unsettling tree perversion which the flyer hadn’t prepared me for. And with that I was decided: this new fad of giving trees makeovers might be the next big thing, but I wasn’t going to allow any of our 3 trees to be subjected to it.

I still have no idea what the hell a Tree Makeover is. If they’d just given me an example of what this might entail then I’d never have had such a horrifying vision where the tree at the end of the garden was crying and feeling left-out because all the other trees in the village had had makeovers and she hadn’t. It really wasn’t nice.

So there we have it: if you don’t have a clue about writing or designing a leaflet, flyer or poster, do some research first. It makes sense. Not only will it give your customers a much better idea of what they can expect from using your services, but you’ll actually get people ringing you up and wanting to spend real money — instead of reading your leaflet, writing a blog post about it and then chucking it in the bin.