The dreadful death of Jacintha Saldanha after she transferred a prank call from 2Day FM to a fellow nurse is a harrowing example of the hurt that can be caused when ordinary people get caught up in media culture.
A dedicated nurse is dead. The Duchess of Cambridge is burdened with this, adding to the discomfort of having to announce a pregnancy too soon. Radio hosts Mel Greig and Michael Christian face uncertain futures, personally and professionally. Fingers of blame are pointed in their direction, from the medical profession, advertisers and the public.
From the outside, it’s hard to see why no-one paused to think about a prank that could only work if someone could be duped into making a mistake which could clearly have consequences for their career. But perhaps the key is the lack of time that people have to consider the ethics of living in a world where anyone can be summoned to perform for global audiences.
Saldanha’s experience is not unprecedented. There has been a prodigious increase in media time and space that has to be filled. One result of this is that ordinary people actually have a pretty good chance of ending up on air, or, as in Saldanha’s case, being responsible for others doing so.
For many, that’s exactly where they want to be. According Professor Nick Couldry, most of us regard the media as somehow sacred. Couldry thinks audiences believe that television studios and the like are places where societies really come to life, with an intensity that can never be matched off-air. One example of this is the new phenomenon of media tourism. Fans travel thousands of miles to stand in awe in the places where shows such as The Sopranos and Sex And The City are made. Such devotion speaks to a general yearning to be a part of a magical media world, if only for a second.
According to Australia’s Graeme Turner, this enchantment reflects a more fundamental belief affecting public sensibilities in a media saturated society; the idea that appearing in the media is a form of social validation.
Perhaps this is why no one thought to question whether Jacintha Saldanha would object to being the butt of an international joke. UK DJ Steve Penk observed yesterday that the prank call has become a mainstay of contemporary radio. It’s a genre where the public regularly claims their place in the live media spectacle, and generally don’t seem to mind. The Saldanha tragedy could shake that practice to its core.
This is a story that reminds us of the many other ordinary people who are shoved into the media world against their wishes, in profoundly upsetting ways. Research on school shootings shows how victimised institutions quickly have to learn how to deal with the press for investigations and grieving can proceed. Like it or not, they must have a media strategy. Columbine survivor Andrew Robinson was so affected by his experiences with the media that he felt compelled to attend film school, just so he could set the record straight with his own movie on the massacre.
The constant injunction to produce content for unrelenting media industries is a problem for people within and without. There’s a lot of evidence that many don’t want to participate in a media saturated world. But opting out seems to be less and less of an option.
That’s one thing when you’re George Entwistle. The erstwhile Director General of the BBC was taken to task by one of his own journalists for not keeping up with Twitter trends during the Newsnight fiasco.
But it’s quite another when you’re Jacintha Saldanha; expected to combine nursing duties with the need to keep an eye out for media intrusion. Perhaps the problem is that in a media saturated world, no one has the time to wonder if people might not want to be in on the joke.
None of this is to say that Greig, Christian and 2DayFM should not be held accountable for their actions. But we should also ask how people end up in positions where such mistakes can happen.
The proliferation of ethics scandals in the media indicates Jacintha Saldana’s terrible death is part of a problem that goes much deeper than prank calls.