09 December 2012

Not Big, Not Clever, Not Funny

At it's best, radio is a magical medium which can take the listener into a different world.

Great  presenters, well produced and prepared, carry listeners on a journey which will surprise and delight with music, humour, intimacy, insight, and familiar features to punctuate the routine of the day; 'if it's three-in-a-row it's time to get the kids from school'.

The more creative take those listeners to an imaginary world in the theatre of the mind, populating the studio with cartoon characters (Comedy Dave, Old Woman, Bionic Richard) or hold the audience spellbound in their cars as a competition such as Real Radio's 'Risk it for a Biscuit' reaches its climax; stay tuned five more minutes, you'll find out if Pauline has won the car or the custard cream.

Only on radio can Santa land on the station's roof with his sleigh and reindeer, narrowly missing the forest of aerials, enter the studio shaking snow from his boots, share a mince pie with the jock whilst taking last-minute requests from kids on the phone; then slip away, invisible, through a crowded reception. (Memo to all Dec 24 producers - remember the webcam)

The problem comes when presenters start believing the world of their ego is bigger, or more real,  than the world outside. They can do anything. They are superman or woman with a great idea for a prank.

It'll be a scream.

Over the years all kinds of things have been done for entertainment.

Bear baiting, for instance, in which a beast is tormented in a pit until it bellows and rages in pain to thrill the audience with its fierceness. Dog fights, in which bystanders bet on which of two animals carefully bred for aggression will kill the other. Not to mention Victorian freak shows, in which human beings with physical or mental abnormalities would be displayed for the amusement of the paying punters.

It's commonplace for women to be paraded in swimsuits, clutching numbers in lieu of anything personal like names, whilst their breasts, legs and backsides are assessed by a panel of judges. All a bit of fun.

When I was growing up in the sixties and seventies TV entertainment presented a chucklesome view of the black people living next door with Love Thy Neighbour, whilst John Inman taught me all I needed to know about gay men as he minced across the floor of Grace Brothers in Are You Being Served?  All very entertaining.

Another popular TV show was Candid Camera, the programme which created the 'prank' genre by fooling members of the public with bizarre situations and filming their reaction. That show had its origins in US radio.

Originally innocent (did that man really eat a goldfish he pulled from a tank in the pet shop? No it was a piece of carrot, but did you see that woman's face?) the genre evolved into the cruel deceptions of 'Beadle's About' when a hidden camera was on hand to record to reactions of a woman who thought her family car had just splashed into a harbour.

But she's only a punter. So it's funny.

I've clashed with presenters over the years who genuinely seem to believe that the laws of Libel and Contempt of Court don't apply to them - because they're not doing serious news, which lives in a capsule called a news bulletin. They're just having a bit of fun suggesting this married celebrity is having an affair with that well known model. Or that the TV star up in court on a theft charge is obviously guilty, because don't you remember he played that bad lad once in Corrie?

For the ego-driven it's an easy extension from that to genuinely believe that anyone in the real world is 'game for a laugh' and that anyone who doesn't play along is 'miserable' or a 'sad git'.

They're having a whale of a time in the studio, so anyone out there (often at unsocial hours, as windup shows are usually on post-watershed because of potential 'adult' content) must be too. The little people taking orders at the pizza place, delivering leaflets for the MP or answering the phone in the hospital are just pawns in a game where the presenter is king.

I have no idea yet of the full circumstances surrounding the death of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse who took the call from the Australian radio 'pranksters' at the London hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge was being treated.

What is fact is that she died, apparently taking her own life, within hours of the incident. I'm sickened by the stream of internet comment which implies or directly asserts the victim 'must have' had other reasons for her suicide - if that's what it was.

What is also fact is that this incident has made life more difficult for every radio journalist in the UK from now onwards.

Dealing with hospitals is an important part of the radio journalist's day.

When police sources reveal that 'a man was taken to hospital with serious injuries' following an accident reporters need to know the man's condition. I won't outline the whole procedure online in case it inspires the next joker to copy it when a celebrity is undergoing treatment, but it can be drawn out and time consuming, usually ending with a statement that the subject's condition is 'critical', 'stable' or 'comfortable'.

The fourth option, of the hospital refusing to comment, often carries a tragic meaning frequently betrayed in the tone of the person refusing to comment. Such nuances inform the tone of the subsequent reporting.

When I do media training courses for the NHS, of which I've done probably dozens over the years, I drive home the point that they can trust and work with local media - especially radio and TV, whose activities are regulated by the Broadcasting Act and the BBC Charter.

That message will now be forgotten. The first thought in the mind of any nurse answering any call from any radio station, any journalist, in the foreseeable future will be to tell 'em nowt. Hang up. Get rid of the threat.  This will impact on the quality of local journalism in every community.

OFCOM is likely to review its guidelines on the use of covert recording in all circumstances, its journalistic applications as well as its use in (alleged) entertainment. You can be absolutely certain in the current post-Leveson climate the rules won't get any easier. This will impact on the quality and depth of investigative journalism in all radio newsrooms.

There is an argument for the 'prank call' amongst consenting adults. A presenter ringing his mate in the pub 'cos he'll be sloshed, or waking up a fellow presenter who's taking over the morning show, or 'surprising' a celebrity with a funny voice (I wonder how the station got the number to call?) are all conceivably justifiable as B-grade entertainment .

But prank calls involving the unwitting victim, often a low status easy target, are anything but funny.

They have always been a form of bullying, involving an 'in group' (the presenter, their studio cronies and the audience) picking on an outsider for a laugh. The humour comes from the embarrassment, discomfiture or humiliation of another person. That's abuse. If they don't play along they're being 'boring' or 'oversensitive' - the same insults suffered by women or minorities who don't laugh along with sexism or racism.

Now apologists for the genre are squirming, saying 'prank calls' are part of what radio is about.

Not in my name, sport.


  1. And don't forget the despicable Jonathan Ross incident.

  2. Your characterisation of us presenters as collective bonebrained airheads who don't posess an ounce of forsight or sensitivity is both inaccurate and insulting. To conceptualise, craft, and execute link after link of entertainment is just as demanding and requires just as much skill as researching stories, writing and reading a quality news bulletin. The focus in a presenter's mind when planning a link is always "how will this affect the listener" - will they be educated, entertained or informed.

    On the day the evening show on 2Day FM decided to air the call, the world's media was consumed by the news that a member of the Royal Family was pregnant and had been hospitalised. News programmes and news channels around the world led the hysteria - I'm told Sky News interviewed Kate's old piano teacher and asked her whether she thought Kate would make a good mother. Is this the kind of insightful journalism and bridge-building you are referring to? As the day drew on and the hysteria grew, so naturally the amount of 'new' material that could go into these bulletins and shows shrank, because ultimately the 'news' was simply that a woman was pregnant and had acute morning sickness. Beyond those facts there wasn't anything else.

    As a presenter it has always been my core belief that when you present material you should always take a 'sense of day' subject beyond the basic - do more than mention it. If there is a subject that everybody is talking about it is a golden opportunity as a presenter to create a piece of radio from it that will be above and beyond what the competition is doing. You want those conversations of "did you hear the story about X?" to be followed up with "yes, and did you hear the funny thing that they did on XYZ FM this morning?" because that word-of-mouth coverage is the best way to increase those all-important RAJAR figures by which us presenters ultimately live or die.

    So when I saw that 2Day FM's evening show had placed a call to the hospital using comedy voices I was pleased. Pleased that a show had taken the biggest story of the day and created a piece of radio from it that would chime with their audience. The station and show aim for a young audience and this show in particular tries to give itself an image of being slightly edgy and sometimes making radio that doesn't sit comfortably with those who aren't in its target demographic. So for the team on that evening show (and let's not forget there IS a team surrounding the presenters, this is a massive station) they were looking for a way to cover the story that would appeal to their audience. The idea of a call in which the presenters posed as The Queen, Prince Charles and some corgis ticked a lot of boxes: it includes the most recognisable characters to their audience, it is different to what everyone else is doing, they can pre-record it in case it doesn't go to plan and MOST IMPORTANTLY the central figures of the call will NOT be whoever is on the other end, but the self-deprecation of the presenters themselves, given their obviously poor accents and lack of knowledge. THAT is where the 'entertainment' in the piece will be. Self-deprecating personality radio is massively listenable - look at shows like Hirsty's Daily Dose and how the self-deprecation has been one of the main constants that have contribuited to its growth. So they make the call.

    The call doesn't go as planned. Despite the self-deprecation of the presenters, mocking each other's accents during the call, they are taken seriously and end up somewhere they never thought they would be: discussing Kate's condition with a nurse. This was now 'new news' that no-one else in the world had been given. They ended the call. I've now heard the piece in its entirity several times. At no point do they 'ridicule' or 'victimise' either of the people they speak to nor do they ridicule or victimise the patient.

  3. (...)
    What they SHOULD have done next was ring back the hospital, explain they were radio presenters on an Australian show, thank the nurses for being the stars of the call, get their permission for the call to be aired, and carry on with the show. They could have edited out the information that breached patient confidentiality and aired the call with all participants fully aware. But they didn't. One can only assume (we haven't heard from the show's producers) that the exhilerating buzz they got from accidentally stumbling across a worldwide exclusive momentarily caused them to forget procedure and protocol. The call was made in the evening when the station's management (and newsteam) had long gone home, so producers took the decision to air the call and maximise publicity and exposure for the station on having got this exclusive information.

    It is worth noting at this point the nurse who tragically took her own life was NOT the one who gave out confidential details, rather the one who simply put through the call. She was on the radio for a matter of seconds.

    There was an error. An error that contravenes our own OFCOM code, the rules by which radio in the UK is governed. Given how our radio landscape has changed in recent years no UK producer or presenter would have played that call without permission. The regulator has existing rules in place that are sufficiently strong. We have seen in the past how those who break those very guidelines (Ross/Brand) face very tough consequences.

    The central argument to your blog post, though, seems to simply be the fact that you dislike pranks; they don't sit well with you. That's fine, you're entitled to that opinion, but that's no basis on which to claim they should be outlawed from our industry. When I was younger I asked the local breakfast show DJ to prank call my mother, which he did. After recording the call, he rang back to explain who he was and that my mum had played her part perfectly, thanked her for being part of the show, let her know which day they would be airing the call and even offered to send a recording on tape as a memento. She was chuffed and told everyone she knew that they had to be listening. That is fairly standard procedure for what happens to the 'victims' of radio prank calls. They are not victimised or mocked, and if they don't wish the call to be aired they can deny permission.

    Let's contrast that with a journalist on Sky News recently who, live on-air, confronted relatives of a missing child to let them know live on camera that police were not expecting to find the child alive. She then linked to VT footage and left the distraught members of the public alone, but not after we'd seen them visably upset live on television. Is this the bridge-building that you referred to? Who seems the more victimised, these relatives or my mother?


  4. (...)

    Now let's think about those journalists, the world's media camped outside a hospital in London, and how they reacted when they heard that a prank call had yielded such information. Did any of those journalists confront staff entering the hospital to ask if they had been the one who had been duped? "Do you feel stupid that you fell for the call?" "Has the security of the Royal Family been compromised?" If these or similar questions had been asked then those would be far more victimising to the person in question than the initial call ever could have been. We don't know what the behaviour of those journalists was because the people who would ask the questions are those very journalists themselves.

    As for your suggestion that this will damage relations between journalists and the NHS and hinder newsteams in future ringing for patient updates - this seems incredibly far-fetched. This is an isolated incident between an Australian radio show and a private hospital and there's absolutely no suggestion that it could impact the workings of systems we have in place in this country between our radio stations and the NHS.

    Similarly with regards to Ofcom's 'likely' renewal of guidelines, hopefully any review will find that the rules we already have in place are stringent enough and, moreover, our regulator is strong enough that it has imposed (and will continue to impose) sanctions on stations who break the rules without stiffling our industry further.

    We should learn from what happened, and I believe the central lesson is that procedures are in place for a reason. In this country we learnt that lessson a couple of years ago thanks to Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. Australian radio will learn the lesson too and hopefully we can all be stronger broadcasters in the future, together.

  5. Alex - thanks for your comprehensive comments which probably amount to a blog post in themselves. Very interesting to see an alternative, articulate defence of the broadcasters involved.

    To address your main points; I have personally had to intervene when presenters lacking your perception (and legal knowledge) were about to cross the line into Libel and Contempt. The excuse they gave was invariably 'what we do is fun .. no-one takes it seriously, it's not like news'.

    I don't categorise all presenters as airheads, many take their craft very seriously, but others (including, it would seem, the perpetrators of this hoax) consider their creative genius, or what you term the 'exhilarating buzz [..] from accidentally stumbling across a worldwide exclusive' allows them to bypass 'procedure and protocol'. They're the airheads.

    You comment that I don't like pranks. Quite right, I don't like bullying. Not all wind ups are hurtful, but a proportion are.

    Even if those that cause offence are not aired because the victim refuses consent the individual concerned has still been harmed. As to whether I want pranks 'outlawed' altogether; that matter is now out of all broadcasters' hands, OFCOM will no doubt be reviewing the position.

    I accept that journalists may well have increased pressure on staff members by approaching them for comment on the situation at the hospital; but without the hoax call there would have been no story, so who started the fire?

    Far from being 'far fetched' the one aspect of the fallout from this story I am certain about is that relations between the news media and the NHS in all its guises will be damaged.

    Those Trusts, managers and clinical staff who already dislike scrutiny of the health service for varied reasons will slam the drawbridge shut and insist on all communication being spoon-fed from press officers. Listeners lose out.

    Once again, thank you for taking the time and trouble to post an alternative view, it is appreciated.

  6. Alex and Richard. Fascinating discussion and by far the most insightful comments I've read on the subject in the past few days, both of you.

    At the risk of taking a slightly tangential position on the specifics of this particular call and its tragic aftermath...

    The mistake was as much that of the UK (and elsewhere, though I imagine it was the coverage in the UK that was the problem here) reporting on the call made a couple of assumptions that were both wrong and a breach of guidelines.

    For many broadcasters, the 2DayFM prank provided them with a convenient angle and legitimacy around the story of a new royal (but that otherwise lacked many details worthy of reporting with much prominence) deserving of a prominent position in their bulletin. But the personal medical details present editors with their dilemma: play the call and breach privacy -- or don't play the call and undermine their own justification for running the story with such prominence.

    Answer: deal with 'the privacy issue' by removing the section of the call in which personal details are mentioned. Fine.

    Except it obviously wasn't. Because we were so keenly attuned to 'the' issue of privacy, we overlooked the second: that of Jacintha Saldanha's privacy. If we didn't overlook it, we didn't properly judge whether its inclusion was 'in the public interest'. Anonymity here is irrelevant. If her professional peers and friends could establish it was her through jigsaw identification (how many non-native English speaking nurses were in the hospital that night?) then she was sufficiently identifiable to consider her privacy breached.

    Hindsight's a wonderful thing, but broadcasters could have easily preserved the privacy of Mrs Saldanha: transcribed the call and used graphics, used the voice of an 'actor' [or however else we want to describe the producer most easily available at the time :)] or simply scripted around what was said. Inevitably some newspapers would have found ways of breaching Mrs Saldanha’s privacy*: but the impact of a photograph appearing in the press several days later, would, I contend been far less harmful to her mental health than hearing her voice rebroadcast and rebroadcast alongside comment and commentary.

    Of course when UK broadcasters use material obtained by third-parties, it is incumbent upon them that they are satisfied that the excerpts (or totality) of the material is obtained under the same rules and guidelines that would apply in this country. Surreptitious recording is banned without prime facie evidence of wrongdoing. And the Brand/Ross fiasco tightened up guidelines at the BBC around 'fairness' to contributors who may not know they were being recorded.

    In itching to report the outrage around the prank, UK broadcasters have a few of their own questions to answer. I fear it was their prominent reporting had that more of a direct effect on the tragic outcome.

    For the next generation of journalists, broadcasters, content-producers, call them what you will, privacy will be as important as contempt and defamation were to the last. It’s amazing that so many are so slow to recognise it!

    *On which point, congratulations to the Mail on Sunday who today disregarded the privacy of her children and unlike every other newspaper today, showed a still without them blurred or cropped out of the shot.

  7. Thanks for that insight, Rob. I agree with the points you make.

  8. Readers might also like to see the comments posted over on the Media UK website, which republished an edited version of the blogpost above and which has been attracting national and international comment.