Prank Calls – Taking Advantage of the Vulnerable

Anyone who reads roadside banners and watches TV will know that the Austereo network adores the prank call – they use it as a cornerstone of their advertising. Someone rings up somewhere important and makes silly enquiries, in order to receive (apparently hilarious) confusion, then an “angry” slamming of the phone. Or a good natured “haha, funny mate”. That’s the 2DayFM / Fox FM style. Then there’s the MMM style, where “mates” set up other “mates” by suggesting how a phone call could really “get” the mate by picking on a sensitivity or promise something, get their hopes up – but then laugh when all is revealed. Often these calls involve some kind of barely disguised racism in the form of a “funny” accent, usually “Indian” or “Asian”.

The men of my school staffroom love MMM. Hence, I was once a victim of a MMM style prank in my staffroom at work involving lottery tickets and winning an amount of money. Hilarious to those around, but to me, it wasn’t, due largely to the fact I was under enormous financial stress as the only salary earner in a household of 4, living in a pretty dodgy suburb. Having that money would have made my life a lot easier.

This is the problem with phone pranks such as these – if you think about them and their implications, they aren’t funny. The person at the end of the line is often in a low paying job where they have to appear professional and courteous, no matter what is being said to them. They are usually monitored for their performance. The person calling, however, is in a much more secure, powerful position – he / she is in a well paid, comfortable job where they are encouraged to make fools of the lower paid through the phone call.

This was certainly the case with the nurse* at the King Edward VII hospital who made the “mistake” of assuming that the phone call being made was sincere. I can’t imagine the “prank call” is as big a “funny bit” in the UK as it is here. I at least hope it isn’t. It’s lazy, arrogant and painful to listen to.

Now the story seems to have a much darker edge that could not be anticipated by Mel Greig and Michael Christian when they made the call. Both the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard have reported that the nurse involved has appeared to have taken her own life. As has been pointed out by the excellent deputy editor of the New Statesman and excellent Twitter news source, @helenlewis, it would inadvisable to jump to the conclusion that the prank led directly to the suicide. She also cited the Samaritans’ guidelines for reporting on suicide, as well as a resource on how Tweeps should be reporting on such an act. It will be interesting to see how many media organisations draw upon Ms Lewis’ sensible advice. Not many in Australia, I suspect.

If it is proven that there is a link, however, then it’s a tragedy of which I doubt either of the radio hosts will ever fully forgive themselves. They certainly would never have guessed that this would happen, nor would their bosses. They will be made to feel guilty over the next few days, even if the link isn’t explicitly made – which is probably the most likely occurrence. What we will see, though – and I can see it happening already – is a gathering storm of disgust, revulsion and shame that will take a few days of screaming banner headlines and furious discussion on radio and TV.

Amongst that storm, we will be reminded that it was all over a news story that wasn’t even that vital – how the Duchess of Cambridge was doing in hospital.

They shouldn’t be made to feel overly guilty, however. It really wasn’t their fault. It’s the culture fostered by Austereo that created the call. Truth is, the prank call needs to be really examined and reconsidered as a “humour” device. Especially those made to the poor people in call centres and working as receptionists who can’t really bite back against the arrogance of an “only a joke” phone call made to keep Australian radio listeners mildly amused for 3 minutes.

* I have since discovered that the person involved was a nurse covering for a receptionist. My point still holds that these calls do target those who have to be polite and respectful in phone calls.