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Australian disc jockey Michael Christian told an interviewer that "Prank calls are made every day on every radio station in every country around the world, and they have been for a long time, and no one could have imagined this to happen."
He was talking about the suicide of Jacintha Saldanha, a nurse who was on the receiving end of a prank call he made with co-host Mel Greig. They pretended to be Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth II phoning King Edward VII Hospital in London to find out the condition of the Duchess of Cambridge, who had been admitted for a severe case of morning sickness. Saldanha apparently felt so humiliated by falling for the ruse that she took her own life.
I'm not an expert in mental health, so I'm not in a position to evaluate the extent to which the radio station's gag played a role in Saldanha's death. But I do have proof that it's possible for disc jockeys to play a practical joke on someone without anyone getting hurt.
In 1993, morning radio personality Brent Douglas from KMOD-FM in Tulsa, Oklahoma, began posing as a rustic, angry fellow named Roy D. Mercer. He'd call unsuspecting folks in the community and tell them they'd committed some injustice against him, such as selling him a burrito that created stomach trouble at the christening of his grandniece.
Mercer's outrageous demands for retribution quickly led to threats of an "a**-whuppin'," but just as the person on the receiving end was about to blow his stack, Douglas and co-host Phil Stone let the patsy in on the joke. Everyone has a good laugh, and no one was worse for wear.
The Mercer character has developed a huge following across the country through CDs sold at truck stops, but I'd never heard of him until a music subscription service recommended him after I listened to an album by Larry the Cable Guy. From the moment I heard the first track, I was hooked, and I ended up playing every album more times than I can count -- as my beleaguered wife will attest.
Whatever the supposed injustice that Mercer encountered, the result was always the same: a request for an outrageous sum of money to right the wrong, followed by the threat of violence, and ending with the recipient of the call being informed that the whole thing was a ruse set up by a friend.
The Australian DJs' mistake was not the making of the call, which done artfully might indeed have been funny. Rather, they erred in not letting the person who took the call know that the whole thing was a joke.
Whether this would have prevented Saldhana's suicide is hard to say. Perhaps she was so troubled that the slightest upset would have brought about her tragic choice. But this sad story should be a wake-up call for radio hosts around the world to follow the Roy D. Mercer model of prank calls: Let the person in on the joke before things spiral out of control.
The ethical principle at the heart of this policy is simple: Do No Harm. We associate this principle with health care professionals, and rightly so: We'd like our physicians to make us better. But at the very least, we can expect that they won't make us worse. The Do No Harm principle is a bedrock of ethics courses every would-be medical, nursing, dental and pharmacy student must take to graduate.
Yet Do No Harm applies not just to health care providers but to radio personalities, their producers and everyone else. What would the world be like if we couldn't be confident that people we encounter will not harm us, and that they will be punished if they willfully do so? No one would want to leave home, and as we learn from CNN daily, too many folks around the world live in such fear.
Of course, terrorists, dictators and other despots violate the Do No Harm principle regularly, which is why it makes sense to speak of just wars. Even one of our most notable advocates of peace, Sir Paul McCartney, responded to 9/11 with a song whose chorus goes, "We will fight for the right to live in freedom."
Still, the fact that some or even a lot of people intentionally cause harm every day does not mean that Do No Harm is an unrealistic guideline for living responsibly. Even if many people do X, if doesn't follow that X is right or good.
Disc jockey Michael Christian may be correct that prank calls are part and parcel of radio programs around the world. But the public still has a right to demand that media professionals avoid doing or saying things that would reasonably cause others to feel humiliated or degraded. I call upon radio hosts, producers and station owners in every country to formally adopt the Do No Harm principle in their employment policies, so that incidents like the royal hoax can be avoided.
On a sad note, Phil Stone, who helped to write much of Roy D. Mercer's material, died a few weeks ago. His death was not related to the pranks he pulled, but it did galvanize people across the country to mourn the loss of a good-natured fellow whose practical jokes were both funny and respectful. His final CD, "Red, White and Bruised," will be released next month by Capitol Nashville/EMI.
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