Ethics is not about being nice – The phone prank

By Dr Simon Longstaff [Executive Director St James Ethics Centre & co-curator Festival of Dangerous Ideas]

I suspect that most people have an affection for the well-orchestrated prank. The essential elements are: a gullible ‘subject’, an audience that is ‘in on the joke’, and a set of circumstances so outlandish that even the credulity of the audience is stretched. The key to the success of the genre is that, having been enmeshed in a web of harmless fun, the subject of the prank joins in – celebrating their part in the joke by authorising its telling. It is this crucial factor, the element of consent, that elevates the well-orchestrated prank above being a tawdry act of exploitation.

As we now know, 2Day FM’s fatal call to King Edward VII’s Hospital was broadcast without the consent of Jacintha Saldanha (and the other nurse caught in the moment). Many people now believe that the prank played a role in the tragic circumstances surrounding the suicide of Ms Saldanha. Consequently, there has been a storm of criticism breaking over the management of 2Day FM – who oversaw the process of approval that led to the broadcast – and the naive and hapless DJs who lacked either the experience or good sense to recognise the perilous ground on which they were standing. The response of 2Day FM’s management has been to deny that any code or law has been broken while simultaneously expressing sorrow at the tragic turn of events. But the profession of sorrow seems hollow when coupled with a denial of any wrongdoing. The problem is that 2Day FM’s management is appealing to the letter of the law while everyone else is attending to its spirit and, beyond that, to a sense of ethical obligation that seems to entirely absent from the calculations of the radio station. Ethics is not about being ‘nice’. It is not about being ineffective or lacking in commercial nous. Rather, it requires attention to the nuances of life and ability to see┬áthe world for what it is. That was one of Aristotle’s great insights – that vices like greed distort our perception of the world. How else to explain the fact that 2Day FM did not seem to see that there is something peculiarly inappropriate about making a prank call to a hospital? Hospitals are places of sanctuary for those who suffer. They deal with some of the heaviest burdens to be borne by people in their lives. What hospitals do matters in a way that the activities of other organisations do not. That is, they are places that should not be considered an appropriate venue for pursuing the commercial interests of radio stations like 2Day FM. Which brings me to a final point.

2Day FM did not call King Edward VII’s Hospital with any serious purpose in mind. They did so merely in order to draw in an audience, in order to boost their ratings, in order to strengthen their case with advertisers, in order to make a profit. That is, in pursuit of an entirely private interest, the public good that resides in hospital care was recklessly set aside – probably without a thought. So it is that the blind pursuit of self interest can lead otherwise good people to do bad things. Let’s hope that the management of 2Day FM eventually see what they have done.