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“Those silly accents” and other thoughts on the DJ prank and Jacintha Saldanha

Shocked by the consequences of what they considered to be a joke, the Australian DJs Mel Grieg and Michael Christian seem distraught.

Many people are discussing their actions. Writing in the Independent, Dom Joly discusses the concept of using consent forms before broadcasting a practical joke, in order to avoid pranks escalating into tense or tragic situations.

Mark Lawson tackles a similar question in the Guardian, asking where we should draw the line on pranks, arguing:

The crucial judgment, though, must surely be whether the report or broadcast is, in the case of serious journalism, in the public interest or, with entertainment programmes, if the stunt is funny or clever enough to justify the discomfort caused.

I did not find the prank funny at all, but someone else might have initially found it funny. I don’t think we can judge these issues on their entertainment value alone, because humour is often subjective (at least this is what I tell myself when people don’t laugh at my jokes).

There were a few things which caused me concern when I read about the prank. The DJs involved were crowing about their accents being so awful, they did not even countenance the idea of people falling for them. But Jacintha Saldanha was from Mangalore, and would not have noticed the subtleties of different accents.

I can speak Spanish reasonably well. But ask me to tell the difference between a Madrid accent and an Argentine trying desperately hard to sound like someone from Madrid, and I will fail. Accents are never going to be easy for second-language English speakers, even for those with a near mastery of the language.¬†I would not feel there is a particular challenge in tricking someone who has learned the language, into believing a fake accent. So I thought there was something very menacing about this “prank” from the off.

I would imagine it is also unlikely that nurses are trained in what to do if someone important is taken into your hospital, how to tell if people phoning in concerned are real or pranksters. Surely nurses prefer to spend their time training, to improve their practice. If nurses have to be aware of these dangers too, it puts yet further unnecessary pressure upon hospital staff.

Here was a hard-working mother who had the skills to work in a high pressured job, in which she had to take important and potentially life-changing decisions many times a day, working at difficult hours, and maintain a family. To do her job properly, she would require patience, organisational skills, diligence, sensitivity, discretion and speed of thought.

By contrast, the ‘prankster’ DJs simply had to play 15 songs in an hour, and keep their conversation light and interesting enough for people with less stressful jobs than nursing, not to turn off the radio.

At some level there must have been a realisation that, even if the prank should have failed, the DJs would have wasted valuable seconds of the nurse’s time – seconds for which she was being paid to do her job. Seconds in which she could have been helping other people. Seconds in which she could have been speaking to loved ones genuinely concerned for the welfare of patients. I am sure that if she had not been on the phone, she would have been engaged in a useful task. This makes such a prank selfish on any level, even if it had been spotted immediately.

This is not shouting into an oversized mobile phone to vex a librarian, or ordering a pizza with 100 toppings and charging it to the Abominable Snowman. This is intentionally distracting someone from a high-pressured and vital job – something which will happen in our world, but at least should not be promoted or glorified on public broadcasting networks.

The Guardian reports:

“We had the idea for a simple harmless call. A call that would go for 30 seconds that we thought we would be hung up on,” said Christian. Neither expected their call to be put through to the Duchess of Cambridge’s room.

Christian and Greig said they thought the joke was on them and their poor accents rather than on the nurses.

“Every other media outlet wanted to touch on it. Our angle was having those silly accents,” said Grieg.

So in a subtle way, I cannot help but feeling that responsibility for the jokes is being explained away by the failure of an Indian woman from Mangalore to tell the difference between an English accent and a Australian impersonating an English accent.

I find it very unlikely that Grieg and Christian will return to their jobs, and their distress indicates that they have been punished sufficiently. But I would still be concerned about the defensive excuse they appear to be using about silly accents.