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Royal prank builds a big glass house

Mel Grieg and Michael Christian don't make the kind of radio I like listening to. In this regard they are not unique to commercial airwaves. In fact, they make the kind of radio that I'd prefer wasn't around, let alone wildly popular. But it is around and it is popular. Hugely so. The content of commercial radio, perhaps more than any other medium, reflects the tastes of the broadest possible audience. This is all by way of saying that if we as a nation want to get our hackles up about this incident – we’d better not pretend it isn’t the kind of thing we’ve been tuning into for years and in droves.

And even if, like me, you’re not a fan of the tone and content of this kind of broadcasting, you should probably can your piety, too. There are plenty of reasons to dislike the kind of staggering obnoxiousness and vapidity in which commercial radio trucks, but it’s ridiculous to imagine that manslaughter is one of them. Not even those most vehemently opposed to shows like the Top 30 ever ventured that they could be dangerous until the death of Jacintha Saldanha. 

So, just because no one said it at the time, does it necessarily follow that the prank wasn't dangerous? Of course it doesn't, but it does put commentators in a difficult position when they go for the jugular. If it was so obviously reckless and dangerous and a threat to this woman's mental health, then it's a reasonably embarrassing angle to miss - instead of opting for the comparatively weak accusation that it was an invasion of the Duchess of Cambridge's privacy.

And yet someone is dead, and it’s impossible to claim that she would not be so had the royal prank not gone to air.  

It has calmed down here in Australia as the week’s worn on, but when the story broke, the anger was palpable, with some unlikely voices joining the chorus. News Ltd's Miranda Devine was tweeting furiously on Saturday morning - at one point even invoking the wisdom of the Talmud – ‘Whoever shames another in public is like one who sheds blood’.

It’s an interesting idea and one worth exploring, not least of all because this piousness on the part of Devine strikes me as more than a little hypocritical – given that shame and humiliation has been her M.O since she rose to prominence. The overwhelming majority of articles Devine writes and opinions she espouses would be considered hugely demeaning and hurtful to vast swathes of the population. These articles written and opinions espoused are done so forcefully and brazenly, and this is kind of her thing – ruffling the feathers of the pearl-clutching political correctness brigade.

And this is the larger problem we face in the wake of this tragedy. You don’t have to be a professional contrarian like Devine to find yourself in a position where your words are hurting people - whether out of thoughtlessness, recklessness or malice. As someone who writes an awful lot of caustic snark for money, I’m not exempt from this. And the death of Saldanha was a brutal reminder that for a great many people this world is an unsustainably dark place to live – and you never know who those people are going to be. This is a frightening thought for anyone who communicates with a large number of people for a living, and it’s one that anybody in that position has to deal with in their own way. 

Because nastiness, cruelty and humiliation are essentially staples of the modern media landscape. If you want to chastise the giggling idiots on commercial radio for their thoughtlessness, that’s fine, but you’re also going to have to do the same to that columnist who ‘isn’t afraid to tell it like it is’ and that nasty man on the music program who tells contestants how bad/fat they were. What about that positively devilish commentator who you just love to hate, or that ‘outlandishly un-PC’ comedian who so expertly puts down his audience? Do they get a look-in for your righteous ire?

Please do not mistake the above for a fawning defence of unbridled free speech or a slippery slope argument. I’m just saying that if we want to take seriously the idea that words can push someone over the edge, we need to look at it properly. We also need to acknowledge that media isn’t made in spite of an audience, and if you survey the landscape after something like this and see something you don’t like, at least acknowledge that none of this was foisted on us – it can’t flourish without our complicity. 

The paradox is, I do think that deep down most people hold the reasonably uncontroversial view that the world would be a generally more pleasant place to live if people stopped actively being fuckwits to one and other for the sake of amusement, but it’s also true that people’s capacity to be entertained by the suffering of others remains more or less unchecked. 

It seems to me that part of the reason the reaction to this story has been so extreme, so confused and so vitriolic is because we see something of the tendency for thoughtlessness or callousness in ourselves – or at the very least, the predilection to be entertained by it.  

It’s possible to absolve Grieg and Christian of meaningful responsibility in this tragedy while still acknowledging that it certainly wouldn't hurt anyone if we were all a bit kinder to one and other. Just know that it extends beyond the obnoxious bounds of commercial radio – way beyond.

Ben Jenkins is a Sydney-based writer. He blogs at abafflingordeal.com and tweets at @bencjenkins

Lead image via Channel Nine. 

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