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2day FM phone prank and the right to assign blame

A new article about the 2day FM prank call/suicide incident from last December appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald today. The incident has resurfaced on account of a British paper, the London Times, reporting that nurse’s suicide note explicitly blaming the two Sydney DJs and requesting that they assume responsibility for her mortgage.

This was already an issue where blame and causation were highly confused, and unfortunately, this latest turn is unlikely to provide any clarity. So let’s take the time to examine the issue in a way that others haven’t.

Firstly, it’s unfair to blame the DJs for their part in the death. (This isn’t directed at the victim so much as other commentators either passing their own judgement or repeating that of the victim to imply culpability).

Why is it unfair to blame them? Well, I don’t have exact figures, but I imagine that thousands of prank calls are placed daily around the world. Given the attention that this case has received, I also imagine that none of them result in suicide on a regular basis.

That this one ended in suicide is not a reflection of any additional malice on the part of the hosts, but of the unfortunate personal situation of the victim into which the prank call entered. A personal situation or a stranger that was unknown and, potentially, unknowable. A prank call does not, on its own, drive one to suicide. We know this because they happen every day without this outcome. There are clearly other factors at play that need to be considered.

Executive Director of the St James Ethic Centre, Simon Longstaff, wrote a post for us in December that said:

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.

Longstaff is correct in that this was an opportunistic ploy for scarce audience attention. But the implication is that if such a prank has the power to draw such an audience, then that audience – the general public –are also, by extension, at fault for demanding such modes of entertainment.

We relish in the modest embarrassment of others, and we do so without guilt because the embarrassment is usually moderate and the outcome usually harmless. Usually.

Unfortunately, as this incident shows, it is not always so.

And what of the media who covered the prank? If this prank is unequal to others then it’s not so much due to the content as it due to the media response. The moderate embarrassment administered by the DJs was given near crippling amplitude only after it was turned into such a big deal.

Given this, perhaps it’s the case that any prank call, given this attention, has the potential to end up in such tragedy?

This is not to excuse the DJs. As Longstaff notes, they were acting in self-interest, not out of the interest of the answerer. They should have considered this. Just as any prank caller should consider this.

We have now seen the tragedy that can arise when reportedly “harmless” entertainment is unknowingly mixed with complex and unknowable person circumstances of strangers.

In the rare case, that combination will be tragic. And if we continue this practice then the law of large numbers suggests that it will happen again.

Those undertaking pranks need to do so with awareness of the miniscule but nonetheless present chance that their actions might result in tragedy that is not exclusively or even primarily their fault, but in which they will nonetheless have played a starring part.

Blaming these DJs is pointless and wrong. Distilling such a tragic outcome down to a single cause is ludicrously simplistic. The nurse’s blame of the DJs proves that it did, as many suspected, play a part in her suicide. But a subjective claim like this should be considered

When we partake in the ritualistic embarrassment of strangers, we risk reactions such as this. It could have been anyone who placed the call that led to a suicide. That is was these two doesn’t make them any more guilty than everyone else who played a part in it – from the media to the audiences who demand such entertainment. It makes them unlucky. And focussing on them – in essence, absolving all other actors – robs us of an important opportunity for self-reflection.