Wednesday 12 December 2012

How  far  should  a  telephone  prank  go?

The white backgound behind the text is merely an anomaly in the printing. 
A prank call (also known as a crank call) is a telephone practicable joke  Prank calls where someone phones a friend or colleague by pretending to be their boss or an important person are almost as old as the telephone itself. Prank phone calls began to gain followings over a period of many years as they became a staple in radio and television shows.
Comedian Jerry Lewis  was an incorrigible phone prankster and there are recordings of his hijinks, dating from the 1960s  and possibly earlier, still circulate even to this day.
Two writers on the Howard Stern show, have made various prank calls to public access shows, talk radio, radio stations, and ordinary people at home. They also have a fictional radio show called the Jack and Rod Show where they call a major celebrity for an interview and prank them with sound effects or fake guests such as cousin Brucie (where Howard Stern imitates a disabled person with a severe speech impediment) and many other pranks.

Often, very prominent people have fallen victim to prank callers. Elizabeth II, was fooled by Canadian DJ Pierre Brassard who posed as Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, asking her to record a speech in support of Canadian unity ahead of the 1995 Quebec referendum. When she later learned that she was the victim of a prankster, she was not amused.

Prank calls range from annoying hang-ups to false calls to emergency services or threats. Prank calls that waste the time of emergency services are a criminal offense in most countries and are considered a form of telephone harassment in many of them.

One such hoax call occurred in Perth, Australia, on New Year's Eve 2002, when a drunken teenager called the new anti-terrorist hot line to report a bomb threat against the New Year's Eve fireworks celebrations. The threat was taken seriously, and the celebrations were about to be cancelled when police discovered that no such threat existed. The teenager was then arrested for the false report. It is no different than making a false bomb threat at an airport.
Tension was also caused in December 2005, when a commercially operated radio station in Spain (COPE which is owned by a series of institutions affiliated with the Catholic Church) played a prank on Bolivian president-elect Evo Morales. The hoaxer pretended to be Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and as such, he began congratulating Morales on his election and saying things like, “I imagine the only one not to have called you was George Bush. I've been here two years and he still hasn't called me.” The Bolivian government protested to Spain, and the real Zapatero called Morales and apologized. The Spanish government in turn summoned the papal nuncio in protest.

If someone in the United States makes a phone call as a prank with the intent to annoy, amuse, titillate, arouse, abuse, threaten, or harass, such a call will be against the law, specifically the Telecommunications Act, 47 U.S.C. § 223(a)(1) and subjected to punishment. In Canada, section 372(3) makes in an offence to make repeated harassing phone calls even if no words are spoken. Section 372(1) makes in an offence to give a false message over the phone or any other means and section 181 makes in an offence to spread false news.

Unforeseen problems could surface if the prank is pulled on a person who is a dictator. For example, Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela is a bit of a kook and at the time of the writing of this article, he is ill with cancer. Suppose someone called him while impersonation President Obama and said, “Since you are too ill to govern, I have sent my spies into your country to help bring down your government.” Chavez would go nuts at hearing such a threat and would probably seize all Americans visiting Venezuela and subject them to imprisonment or worse. Cuban leader Fidel Castro unleashed a volley of abuse after being hoaxed in 2004 by a Miami radio station DJ pretending to be Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Well something just as horrific has recently happened when two Australian pranksters who were until recently two radio DJs, phoned the King Edward VII Hospital in London in an ill-advised that took a tragic turn for the nurse they tricked in order to get confidential update on the condition of Middleton, wife of Prince William by claiming to be Queen Elizabeth II and her son, Prince Charles. The nurse (Jacintha Saldanha) who took the initial call and then later learned that she had been the butt of a practical joke and was being humiliated in the press for being so naïve, committed suicide three days later with her scarf.

Now I realize that those two twits in Australia had no foreseeable knowledge whatsoever that the woman (a mother of three) would commit suicide after suffering from intense humiliation but that is the risk that they were prepared to take. Those two twits couldn't think that far ahead because they didn’t expect that the nurse who was first to take their call was so fragile at her humiliation that she would take her own life. They don’t deserve our sympathy now that they have been fired.

Another person who was also fragile was the late Princess Diana. She sometimes had crying spells when something went wrong in her life. Suppose she was alive when two similar Australian twits phoned her while she was in the hospital giving birth to one of her sons and said something to upset her and later she later learned that their conversation was being broadcasted all over the world, I shudder to think what she would have done to herself.  

When I was the producer and the host of a television show (1976-1981) I took great pains to never insult someone on my show or phone anyone as a prank. The reason for this is that I believed then as I do now that those of us who are given the privilege to go on the air, (be it radio or TV) are in fact sharing the airwaves with others and as such, we have a responsibility not to abuse the privilege given to us. As broadcasters, we are answerable to the owners of the station and the government agency that governs the industry.

Now I like a good practical joke and if it is done with fineness and isn't intended to harm anyone, then we should feel free do it. On one of my TV shows, I pulled a practical joke on my listeners in which I am convinced that many of them fell for it. We pre-programmed the show. The title of the show was, How to grow spaghetti on trees. Now I am sure that most people are aware that spaghetti don't grow on trees. For example, to make one pound of spaghetti, you need 2 cups of unbleached flour, 3 large eggs, and a 1/2 teaspoon of salt. But most people don`t make their own spaghetti because they generally buy it at a store and later put in a pot to boil. However, I am aware that if you present a fiction as a fact, a great many people will believe you. We showed beautiful girls picking spaghetti (that had already been cooked) off of the branches of apple trees that hadn't yet grown their apples. The music sounded Italian and the young girls` dresses were Italian. Even the announcer who was describing the procedure of growing spaghetti on trees had an Italian accent. We started getting phone calls on the show where the callers were asking us where they could get the seeds for spaghetti trees.  I never told my viewers the truth about how spaghetti is really made because I am sure that they learned the truth after they told their friends that they were going to buy spaghetti trees. As I was answering the phone calls from my callers, I kept a straight face. And keeping a straight face during that show was just as difficult as not peeing when you bladder is about to burst.

Those two Australian DJs of the radio station may be charged criminally because attempting to obtain confidential information by impersonating someone else may be a crime in Australia. I certainly don`t think these two twits should ever be given the privilege of being hosts of a television or radio show ever again. They should be used as an example so that others will think twice before pulling that kind of caper on the air. I realize that firing them is severe but I don’t see any alternative that would satisfy anyone familiar with what they had done.

Several centuries ago, a judge in England sentenced a man to death because he stole a sheep. When he complained to the judge that the crime was only stealing a sheep, the judge replied, “I did not sentence you to death because you only stole a sheep. I sentenced to you death in order to deter others who think they can steal a sheep and get away with it.”

I remember an event back in the 1950s when I was living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I was working on the four to midnight shift of the city desk on the Winnipeg Tribune and was listening to the radio near the end of my shift. Now this radio station`s programs ended at midnight every day and just as it was about to end, the announcer would say with a very respectful tone of voice. “And now, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the queen.” Immediately after that announcement, he would play the record, God Save the Queen. Only one time (and only once) when he said, “..,.the queen,” he tried to impersonate her and with a falsetto type voice, he said, “Hello Canada. It is so nice to be here visiting you wonderful people.” Many people then thought she was actually visiting Canada at that time. The announcer was fired the next day and rightly so.                                                                    
I believe that some form of standard should be created in the radio and television industry that will protect ordinary citizens from any form of practical joke on air that is likely to harm them. It is one thing to pull a prank on notables such as prime ministers, kings and queens and movie and television stars because if they are so naïve at not making sure that the calls are legitimate, then that is their problem. But if DJs want to pull such a prank on them, they should make sure that ordinary people who are the recipients of such pranks are not victimized in the name of humour

What makes this Australian fiasco even more serious is that before the DJs played the recorded conversations between themselves and the nurses, the decision to play the recorded conversations over the air was approved by their superiors. Their superiors are just as ignorant as the DJs and they should also be fired.

And the worst of them all is Rhys Holleran who is the CEO of the DJs radio station Southern Cross Austereo who said when he learned that nurse Salhanhan had killed herself, that her death was a tragedy but he defended the prank as part of radio culture. Using a ruse to get a patient`s confidential medical information from hospital staff is not part of radio culture especially when it is done as a practical joke.

This man is also a liar as far as I am concerned. He claims that he tried to contact the hospital five times to discuss their prank before it aired. That is ridiculous. Surely even someone as stupid as that man must realize that no hospital would ever consent to having such a conversation between the DJs and the hospital nurses discussing the confidential medical condition of a patient be aired. Further, the management of the hospital denies that they had been contacted by Holleran’s radio station. The CEO of that station should also be fired.

The owner of the station should be doubly concerned because some of his sponsors have cancelled their sponsorship as a result of this fiasco.

There was world-wide condemnation of this event in radio history and I find that the teary-eyed apologies of the two DJs offensive especially considering the fact that they actually had the temerity to claim that they really didn’t expect to be connected to the ward that the wife of Prince William was recuperating in.

My message to all in that radio station that were involved in that horrendous fiasco is, “Be gone, you knaves, one and all.” 

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