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).
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.