Crime, Suicide, United Kingdom / Great Britain

Dear World: Prank Calls Do Not ‘Cause’ Suicides

Oh look, somebody executed a prank, the victim of the prank killed herself, and now the world is outraged. Where have I seen this before?

Last week, the world was shocked when nurse Jacintha Saldanha killed herself after being prank called by Australian DJs, Mel Greig and Michael Christian. Saldanha was not the nurse who dished private details about Kate Middleton’s pregnancy to the duo, she’s just the nurse who put the call through. But since she killed herself, the world needs somebody to blame, and “Mel and MC” are it.

For those playing along at home, I think the world reaction has gone something like this:

  • OMG. Duchess Kate is having a baby! Let’s find out EVERYTHING about this private, beautiful moment.
  • Hahaha, these radio hosts prank called the hospital. What stupid freaking nurses to fall for it.
  • Was it criminal for these idiot nurses to divulge this information? What kind of low rate hospital are they running over there?
  • OMG. The nurse killed herself. DEATH TO THE DJs!

The DJs have been taken off the air, and the radio station is trying to cover its ass. Needless to say, I’m unimpressed by: the outrage, the excitement, the baby, the prank, the royals, the U.K., Australia, and blaming people when others commit suicide.

Let’s focus on that last point. Because trying to find somebody to blame when a person commits suicide has really got to stop. The Terminator may not be able to self-terminate, but us humans are fully capable of self-harm….

As we saw with the Tyler Clementi/Dharun Ravi situation, we can’t actually charge somebody with homicide when somebody commits suicide. Oh, there are lots of people who want to, but the very nature of the act prevents the law from directly punishing so-called instigators of somebody else’s suicide.

And so we play a little game of trying to find some other crime that we can send people to jail for in our misguided desire for justice. Dharun Ravi went to jail for invasion of privacy. Here, people want to punish Mel and MC for criminal phone harassment.

Australian telecommunications laws are similar to the ones here in America. It’s clearly illegal to prank call emergency services. For ordinary prank calls, there can be a violation if the call is intended to “annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass,” but it’s not a violation if the intent is to amuse or confuse. Essentially, I see the law as trying to distinguish Bart Simpson calling Moe from Moe stalking Marge.

Of course, if Moe hanged himself after one of Bart’s calls (which I’m almost sure has happened on the Simpsons), Judge Constance Harm would lose her mind until Judge Roy Snyder came back to issue a ruling of “boys will be boys.”

In Australia, we’re at the point in the episode where the radio station starts furiously covering its ass. From the Daily Mail:

In a televised interview with Clare Brady, the DJs were asked, ‘Did you have legal advice or senior producers nursing you through this?’ – but did not answer the question.

They were also asked if they had ‘sat down in a legal class’ for training on how far their prank calls were allowed to go, and Christian replied: ‘There are people that make those decisions for us.’…

In another interview with Tracy Grimshaw, the DJs again attempted to pass the buck as they referred to ‘other departments’ responsible for approving the material they broadcast.

‘There’s a process in place for those calls or anything that makes it to air,’ Christian said. ‘And you know, that’s out of our hands, this was put through the filter that everything was put through before it makes it to air.’

Yeah, I can imagine the process:

DJs: We’re gonna make a prank call.
LEGAL: To police or firefighters?
DJs: No.
LEGAL: Then that’s not a knife, this is a knife.
[everybody chugs a Foster’s]

I’m mean, let’s not forget that the nurse who killed herself wasn’t even the real “victim” of the prank call. A different nurse actually talked to these guys. Saldanha, the one who committed suicide, simply put the call through. She wasn’t reprimanded by the hospital or the Royal Family. As Michael Russnow points out in the Huffington Post, there was probably a lot more going on with Saldanha than just being caught up in a prank:

So, why did this woman end her life? There is no rational explanation, as there could be none reasonably connecting this very sad happenstance to the Australian radio personalities, except as a possible proverbial straw on the camel’s back, which in itself might suggest the woman was going through many stresses in her life. One that would cause her to leave her husband and two children behind.

I’m not a psychiatrist or a mental health professional and won’t begin to presume what might or might not set someone off. However, I do know the joke — and it was a joke — would not by itself precipitate such an action on a person endowed with normal mental health. This is not meant to fault the woman, but rather to deflect the tremendous unwarranted anger away from the two entertainers on the other side of the world, who have been unfairly marked and perhaps damaged for life.

Look, we can’t be in the business of criminalizing ordinary behavior only when people commit suicides. It’s not an eggshell plaintiff situation; it’s not reasonable to say that somebody causes an injury that results in suicide… because the act of killing yourself breaks the causal chain.

Let’s try to remember that, let’s try to be logical, and let reason rule the day.

So who signed off the hoax call that ended in tragedy? Australian radio station refuses to identify executive who approved broadcast [Daily Mail]
British Nurse’s Apparent Suicide Is Tragic, But Media and Public Response Has Been Over the Top [Huffington Post]

Earlier: Invasion of Privacy or College Prank Gone Wrong (or Both)? What to Do With Tyler Clementi’s Roommate

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