Nobody phoned up and wound me up about double glazing I hadn’t ordered or threatened to crush my Porsche for an unpaid parking ticket… yeah, sure I drive a Porsche. Instead, I called them up. I was at work and we were looking for relatives of a Camden man who had gone to Iraq to act as a human shield, an attempt to deter the bombing from the allied forces. Somebody had said his cousin or some other relation was working at a commercial radio station in London, so in the absence of any other contact point I called its main switchboard.
I was told the person we were looking for was working on a show but could speak to me during the news break on the hour. This actually meant waiting until the news had finished and them putting me straight through on air. Listeners then had – in between the Phats and Small records and awful house remixes of Anastacia songs – me asking about human shields in Iraq and suffering in Basra with an archetypal jokeaday radio presenter.
“Sorry mate, I don’t do human shields… you can book me for birthdays, weddings, bar mitzvahs but can’t do that,” he told me.
There was then a kind of awkward silence between us. I may sound defensive, the hapless goon from the local paper caught out by a radio zinger, but I thought the whole thing was a bit of a toe-curler for me, him, and probably anybody listening and wondering what the fudge was actually going on. This wasn’t the kind of station which spent too much time worrying about shock and awe in its most fearsome sense. That should have been a clue for me in the beginning. But there I was, the ‘victim’ of a radio station prank.
I’d forgotten all about it until last week. There’s been the tragedy, the backlash, the backlash to the backlash and then the backlash to the backlash to the backlash – a constant switching of blame. All this conjecture before we’ve had a coroner’s inquest or any other deeper information on what preceded Jacintha Saldanha’s death last week.
I’ve lost track of what we are supposed to think of the Australian DJs who prank-called her while she worked at the Duchess of Cambridge’s hospital in Marylebone. Clearly, some people were not going to rest until they were on a screen and available for us to gauge their remorse by the trusty measurement of tears and streaming make-up. It didn’t feel there was great malice in their prank, a bit of cockiness maybe but no intent to scar. What happened next wouldn’t have crossed their minds when they picked up the phone to London.
But the joke was pretty unfunny from the starting grid and the presenters were unthinking, a bit like the guy on the phone to me, who acted like he believed a human shield to be a Marvel superhero rather than a desperate last stand to save life. It was hard to work the laughs when Basra was being bombed out.
The best prank calls on radio or hidden camera stunts are often the ones where, if a member of the public is involved, everybody has a laugh together afterwards (a bit like when my colleague and friend Peter Gruner was snared on Game For A Laugh).
Or they expose something genuinely worthy of ridicule, a hypocritical politician maybe or an overly vain celebrity. Chris Morris did this with Brass Eye, showing how those searching for airtime would back campaigns they had not bothered to research. In the case of the Australian DJs, it might have been better if they had used the royal baby story to prank an officious Royal jobsworth revelling in the power of being able to be obstructively stingy with information and access amid a global news storm. If there is such a person…
Instead, we were left with a nurse sounding, I thought, just a little bit terrified. Whether the moneyed hospital should have had better guards in place to avoid such an ambush or not, the staff sounded overwhelmed by the gravity of the phone conversation they thought they were having. There didn’t seem to be much laughing together afterwards. There was more of a ‘how can people be so dumb’ reaction.
And maybe the answer to that was because they were people not primed for these situations, easily caught off-guard while working on, what the media had reminded them repeatedly, was the biggest assignment of their careers. The target seemed a little misplaced.
Yet when the subject is right and the target is right, pranks can be used to entertain and expose. They should remain in the DJ tool-kit. There have been some classics. Maybe they just have to be a bit more carefully judged and monitored by producers, researchers and the presenters themselves before risking, intentionally or not, sounding like taunting. And there you are again, back to trusting the media to judge for ourselves before going live or pressing publish… a whole bigger debate about self-regulation.
One for another day…