Prank call pitted 'the great' against the powerless

Flowers are left outside the nurses accommodation near the King Edward VII hospital in central London on December 8, 2012.

Story highlights

  • Sydney radio station at heart of tragedy has track record for "shock tactics"
  • In 2009 the station questioned a 14-year-old girl in the studio about her sex life
  • Ross Stevenson, a Australian radio presenter says rules govern prank calls
  • Stevenson: "In this whole sad and tragic affair Jacintha Saldanha was truly powerless"

The two hosts of the 2Day FM Sydney radio program will be feeling awful. In seeking to con their way into recording a telephone call with a patient receiving treatment in a hospital they were doing what they thought FM radio hosts do. Everyone else does prank calls so we'll do one too.

The position of the radio station is different though.

This Sydney radio station has a track record of attempting to garner large ratings through shock tactics. In 2009 on this very same radio station a 14-year-old girl was invited into the studio with her mother.

She was wired up to a lie detector and asked personal questions. This was considered a jape. To take that jape just that potential ratings point further, the young girl was asked about her sex life. A reminder: she was 14. Obviously intimidated by the occasion, the fame of the hosts and the setting, she revealed to the vast audience listening at home and in cars that she had been raped when she was 12.

The incident was investigated by the Australian Communications and Media Authority which imposed an additional condition on 2Day FM's licence that it increase the protection of children participating in its shows.

One of the hosts of that broadcast, who is still employed by the radio station, said that early in his career he was told by the program director to "do whatever you want, just win," according to the transcript of an interview he did with Radio Today.

Do whatever you want.

But you know what? Actually, you can't do whatever you want. It may come as a surprise to many but there is actually a code of conduct for Australian radio stations and their on air presenters. It is called the Commercial Radio Codes of Practice Code 6 which currently makes compelling reading:

"The purpose of this Code is to prevent the unauthorized broadcast of statements by identifiable persons.

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6.1 A licensee must not broadcast the words of an identifiable person unless:

(a) that person has been informed in advance or a reasonable person would be aware that the words may be broadcast; or

(b) in the case of words which have been recorded without the knowledge of the person, that person has subsequently, but prior to the broadcast, expressed consent to the broadcast of the words."

Jacintha Saldanha was not aware in advance that her words might be broadcast. Of course she wasn't, she thought she was talking to the Queen. And I'll confidently assert that she didn't subsequently consent to her words being broadcast, because if she did we would have heard all about it by now.

The CEO of the radio network says, "nobody could have reasonably foreseen" that a prank their station pulled on a nurse at the hospital, could have resulted in her suicide.

That's probably right. But could they have reasonably foreseen that she would be upset? Personally and professionally embarrassed? Hurt? But the lawyers ran their $750 an hour rulers over it and broadcast it was.

So what best describes the relationship between the radio station and Jacintha Saldanha?

In 1946 Terence Rattigan wrote a play called The Winslow Boy. An English family of modest means consigns itself to potential penury by securing legal representation for the young son of the family who stands falsely accused of petty theft at his naval academy.

The lawyer they retain to defend him, the best in the land, is Sir Robert Morton. In a speech addressing the boy's many doubters and accusers Sir Robert urges them, in considering this case involving a young boy on one side and the British Navy on the other, to remember a famous old dictum: "you shall not side with the great against the powerless."

In this whole sad and tragic affair Jacintha Saldanha was truly powerless.

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