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Prank calls, the media and the politics of class humiliation

A family picture of Jacintha Saldanha

Of course, as Austereo CEO Rhys Holleran told reporters, nobody could have ‘reasonably foreseen’ that a prank telephone call made by two Australian radio presenters would set off a chain of events that included the apparent suicide of a nurse – Jacintha Saldanha, a mother of two teenaged children – on the other side of the world. If there is one thing you learn early in psychiatric training, it’s that we have few (if any) good predictors of an individual’s risk of killing themselves. But the furore that has erupted over whether the DJs’ actions ‘led’ to a suicide is in many ways a distraction from a more insidious process: the way that the capitalist media creates entertainment from a culture of humiliation in which ordinary people are invited to laugh at the misfortune of the weak and vulnerable.

It is telling that Jeff Kennett, whose political MO was to bully the working class with a series of vicious neoliberal attacks 20 years ago, and who last year faced allegations of bullying in his current prominent job, rushed to defend the prank as ‘harmless’ and call for support for the presenters. Coming from the chairman of Australia’s most famous mental health promotion body, beyondblue, such an action sent a clearer message of solidarity to media corporations that use humiliation as a way to sell their product, than to the family of a woman who Kennett’s organisation is (in theory) supposed to help. Given that the chairman of the Austereo board is Max Moore-Wilton, the same ‘Max the Axe’ who slashed public service jobs as John Howard’s headkicker-in-chief, perhaps such solidarity is less surprising than it may have at first appeared.

Various pundits have tried to whitewash the fundamentally reactionary way that prominent sections of the media use shaming and degradation of ordinary people to make their profits. For example, some have suggested that this prank was really intended as a blow against the privilege of the royal family. But as Preston Towers has pointed out in an incisive look at modern commercial radio tropes, pranks targeting common people are a routine part of these shows and that ‘they use it as a cornerstone of their advertising’.

The political problem is that an audience mainly composed of wage workers with little individual power over their jobs and lives is being tempted to laugh at people even more powerless than they are, as they are subjected to embarrassment at the hands of highly paid, elite media personalities. As Towers argues:

This is the problem with phone pranks such as these – if you think about them and their implications, they aren’t funny. The person at the end of the line is often in a low paying job where they have to appear professional and courteous, no matter what is being said to them. They are usually monitored for their performance. The person calling, however, is in a much more secure, powerful position – he/she is in a well paid, comfortable job where they are encouraged to make fools of the lower paid through the phone call.

Further, while Britain’s most powerful family may have been part of the set-up, the butt of the joke was always going to be staff at the hospital:

Predictably, the blogosphere ridiculed Saldanha, and Greig and Christian boasted shamelessly about their ruse. ‘Easiest prank call ever made,’ the pair giggled on its show. ‘They were the worst accents ever and when we made that phone call, we were sure 100 people at least before us would have tried the same thing,’ Greig marveled, calling it a ‘career highlight.’

So perhaps this was just a simple ‘prank’, harmless in principle? Anyone who has seen radical filmmaker Michael Moore in action knows that there are pranks and there are pranks. By using the prank as a mechanism to skewer the rich and powerful, he not only delivers an entirely different message about the nature of power relations in society, but also holds the prank itself up as an unavoidably political act.

The issue, of course, is that while Moore’s politics are no secret to anyone, the politics embodied in ‘gotcha’ tricks like last week’s are tied up in cultural codes that obscure what is really going on. The power relations that drive the production of certain forms of humour, as well as those that shape the consequences of such hoaxes get shrouded in classless myths like, for example, the apparently ‘anti-colonial’ Australian practice of ‘taking the piss’ (given that Jacintha Saldanha was Indian-born, this must have been a case of anti-colonialism with very colonial-like collateral damage).

Beyond this is a hardening of popular culture and media discourse to reflect the worst, most individualistic and class-ridden aspects of neoliberalism. It is ironic that Peter FitzSimons suggests that there is an ‘English culture of such overblown hyperbole when it comes to anything to do with the royals that a young nurse could really think her life was no longer worth living because she had put a call through to a royal war’ given that the Australian popular media is dominated by the same kind of worship of celebrity and privilege, and sympathy for famous victims of public scorn.

Then there is reality television, with its cruel cycle of knockout competition and judges pouring derision on contestants. Or travesties like The Biggest Loser that feed off and exacerbate elite moral panic about obesity, where social causes of health problems are conveniently replaced by themes of personal responsibility and the need for people to punish their bodies in the most dangerous ways as part of the nightly bread and circuses. Or the commercial TV current affairs shows that mercilessly pursue ‘welfare cheats’. Or the harassment of foreigners on Border Security: Australia’s Front Line. Or the use by comedians of class-based epithets like ‘bogan’ to describe those seen as undesirable.

Of course, there is a trickier issue here, and that is why the mainly working-class consumers of this kind of ‘humour’ not only seek it out, they often positively enjoy it. Here the breakdown of collective solidarities that characterise the neoliberal era have created the ground for people to see the humiliation of people more vulnerable than them as some kind of reassurance that at least someone else is in a worse place than them. The late British Palestinian Marxist Tony Cliff used to have a line about how when workers feel powerless they look to someone above them to admire and someone below them to kick. A transient, illusory psychological feeling of privilege can come from this kind of reactionary satire, even when the reality is that the real victors are capitalist social relations (with their complex melange of exploitation and oppression).

That is why claims that attacks on this kind of humour are an elitist attempt to deny working-class people the right to have a laugh, to tell them what they should and shouldn’t enjoy, are actually a defence of already existing power relations. This is the kind of line pursued, for example, by the ex-Marxist libertarians of Spiked! in their endless polemics for ‘free speech’ (these are the same people who argue that anti-fascist campaigning is a thinly veiled attack on ‘the white working class’ by middle-class Leftists). What Brendan O’Neill and co skip over is how the capitalist media constantly produces content that reinforces existing social relations at the level of ideas, with all of the attendant prejudices one would expect. It is not a case of the Left ‘telling’ workers what to like, but of clarifying and opposing the reactionary politics encapsulated in mass entertainment. The mass media is a key part of how workers are already taught how to be governed day after day – how the elites actively construct and reconstruct hegemony in order to break down resistance to their rule.

As I argued in my critique of Robert Manne’s attack on The Australian, such views thoroughly permeate even the liberal Fairfax papers and the ABC, even if they are coded differently for different target audiences. After a period of prolonged retreat by social movements, unions and the various hues of the political Left, and when the imperatives of the capitalist market came to subsume ever-greater parts of people’s lives, this should not be a surprise. Nor should it lead us to clamour for greater state regulation of the media as a substitute for rebuilding strong and independent movements and political currents.

I end, then, with two images from a different place and time, when the corporate media was just as rotten as it is today, but when the strength of organised, politicised workers was enough to challenge (even if fleetingly) the power of those who own the mental means of production. The time: the British miners’ strike of 1984–5. The scenario: unionised Murdoch employees find out that The Sun intends to print a picture of union leader Arthur Scargill implying he is like Hitler. The outcome: the intended front page is on the top and the final version after workers acted is on the bottom. That’s the kind of ‘media regulation’ we should be fighting for.

Comments

  1. Interesting post. I found myself watching a British show called ‘Customs’ last night, which was explicitly about viewers taking pleasure in the petty harassment of sundry unfortunates at an airport. Quite a strange experience.

  2. Another concern I have with mainstream, commercial media’s reporting on this sad story, is the reduction of the incident to the problem/fault/responsibility of a few individuals. e.g. mention of the nurse Saldhana’s possible previous psychological issues, or the irresponsibility of (only) the two radio dj’s. I have seen little discussion on broader topics such as those covered in the post above.

  3. Here is what I wrote about this at 8am on Saturday morning, just after the story of the death broke:

    I don’t know anything at all about Mel Greig and her sidekick, but I’d be surprised if, in their wildest nightmares, they imagined this would be the result of their prank. It seems they thought they’d be rumbled from the start. It did have a rather artless Colonel-Hogan-plays-German-officer quality about it. By the time they got through, it was clear Mel had run out of material and was winging it. It was cringeworthy.

    Reading Twitter, there’s a twitter storm around them, with some even calling for them to be charged with murder or manslaughter, which to my mind is grossly OTT.

    Outside perhaps of those who are terminally ill and in irremediable pain or really have no prospects of dignified existence and have made a considered decision to do die on their own terms, anyone taking their own life is a dreadful thing. I don’t know how these two announcers will respond to this, but I don’t accept that they are guilty of anything but being banal and crass — like the environment that produced them.

    If nobody at the hospital or who knew this nurse well ought to have suspected she was at risk of self-harm when she went to work that day then one can scarcely blame these two announcers for the tragic events.

    When bad things happen, there’s often a search for blame. That’s understandable. Human beings mostly prefer an orderly and predictable world. Some things really are unpredictable however, and if we start holding people accountable for things that even reasonable, experienced well-educated people – still less radio announcers – could not foresee, then we are going to have a much less pleasant world to live in.

    One may say that the whole mad celebrity culture thing is a predisposing or distal cause and I’d agree. At one end, this story was interesting because it concerned members of the elite and the fascination of the press with even the most banal and trivial facts attending Kate Middleton’s pregnancy. At the other end, there are people needing to trade on this for some mindless fodder for discussion at the coffee machine in offices in Sydney.

    We should be concerned not with celebrity but with the needs of humanity as a whole. We should live in a world in which the media is focused on social justice and progress and in which privilege is modest if it exists at all and earned by service to equity.

    Chance would be a fine thing.

  4. Just for once Fran I disagree with you, I think those idiots deserve every bit of the vilification they are getting and I think this article does a pretty good job of analysing what is really going on here. The MSM seems to have a number of agendas designed to undermine civil society in general. Their oldest running one has been the ongoing attack on government and all forms of public goods and service. The more recent one has been the abuse of experts and expertise while glorifying the opinion of the uneducated as somehow equally valid and marshalling that ignorance and prejudice in support of climate change denialism for instance. Prank humour has been the final bit, divide and conquer by humiliating the lowly paid who are trapped in the expectations of their bosses. It simply isn’t good enough to let these bastards off the hook because they didn’t foresee that their victim was more vulnerable than they assumed.

  5. i wonder about the whole issue as its been presented. Where were management of the hospital in the nurse’s suicide? What was management’s role? did they reprimand her afterwards, did they carry out due diligence with regard to providing counseling after the event?

  6. Just for once Fran I disagree with you. I think those idiots deserve every bit of the vilification they are getting.

    I’m not a believer in ‘just desert’ (in the comeuppance sense), but that aside I don’t think that was what Dr Tad was saying either. AIUI, he was focusing on the context that produces banality and bullying of generally powerless people for the amusement/diversion of the galleries of disempowered people. If this inference is correct, then I agree with him that this is the matter we ought to reflect upon.

    Prank humour has been the final bit, divide and conquer by humiliating the lowly paid who are trapped in the expectations of their bosses.

    I’m not sure this is recent. As a pre-pubescent I can recall watching Alan Funt do “Candid Camera” which was almost entirely based around pranking ordinary members of the public.

    The problem here though is that the prank was not directed at ordinary people, but was directed at the dynasty, with the consequence of course that the full weight of the media machine wass blown back first upon the nurses (“security breach, palace furious” screamed the Daily Mail) and when the death was reported, without batting an eyelid, then at the hapless pranksters.

    • I agree totally with Fran. It’s one thing to be appalled by the kick-down humour of commercial radio but the glee with which people are piling on to these DJs, especially on social media, is not about opposing bullying so much as it is reveling in a different form of it. Symptomatically, there’s much less anger at the station management and its shareholders than at the two doofuses who hosted the show, which suggests that the response doesn’t indicate a political rejection of radio’s nasty pranks but a pleasure in joining in collective punishment. IMO, there’s a broader argument as to how and why social media encourages this kind of thing: sometimes it seems ninety per cent of the traffic on twitter consists of people joining in whatever the latest five minute outrage might be.

  7. The power relations that drive the production of certain forms of humour, as well as those that shape the consequences of such hoaxes get shrouded in classless myths like, for example, the apparently ‘anti-colonial’ Australian practice of ‘taking the piss’ (given that Jacintha Saldanha was Indian-born, this must have been a case of anti-colonialism with very colonial-like collateral damage).

    This is a long bow. It’s doubtful that the announcers knew of her heritage and what I heard on the radio didn’t suggest it. Unless they did, and the audience did, it can’t have been part of the rationale in theory or execution.

    It is ironic that Peter FitzSimons suggests that there is an ‘English culture of such overblown hyperbole when it comes to anything to do with the royals that a young nurse could really think her life was no longer worth living because she had put a call through to a royal war’ given that the Australian popular media is dominated by the same kind of worship of celebrity and privilege, and sympathy for famous victims of public scorn.

    The etiology of her death remains unclear but it’s at least one plausible theory. If so, the correct term above is not ‘ironic’ but understandable. If there is a serious villain here, it’s the radically inequitable class system.

    • What “long bow”? FitzSimons makes the “anti-colonial” (nationalist) argument, not me, knowing full well the background of Saldanha. I was merely pointing to the contradictions of his argument.

      The irony in his second claim is that his own newspaper (note the screen grab from the SMH’s celebrity section, it being the paper of the educated middle classes in Sydney, after all) is just as focused on worship and protection of celebrity and ruling class privilege. To argue it is an exclusively *British* problem is risible. I don’t know why Jacintha Saldanha died, but for FitzSimons to be throwing around these kinds of suggestions speaks more to his nationalism than any attempt to really explain the death.

      • What “long bow”? FitzSimons makes the “anti-colonial” (nationalist) argument, not me, knowing full well the background of Saldanha. I was merely pointing to the contradictions of his argument.

        I don’t know what he knew. When I heard her name, I supposed (incorrectly as it goes) that she was of Hispanic or Latin descent. Even assuming he did know where her family came from I’m still not seeing the salience here.

        To argue it is an exclusively *British* problem is risible. I don’t know why Jacintha Saldanha died, but for FitzSimons to be throwing around these kinds of suggestions speaks more to his nationalism than any attempt to really explain the death.

        Having read the piece twice I’m don’t see that he does argue that’s an exclusively English problem. Ms Saldanha lived in England. There is obsessive focus on celebrity — especially royal celebrity there. There’s no shortage of it here either, but it’s doubtful that Ms Saldanha was very familiar with it. If anyone predisposed her course, these people would have been in England not here. The Mail Online declares today:

        Hoaxed nurse ‘died of shame. Gosh doesn’t that phrase have a resonance here?

  8. Interesting analysis Tad, pranking as a political act makes a lot of sense to me now. I was also particularly glad to see you comment on Kennett’s contribution which did come across in an odd way, not least because of his attitude to the press while premier.
    I’m all for compassion but when it comes to people who think pranking hospital nurses on duty at 5.30 am is entertaining it is not liberally portioned.

    As for Fran’s point about the subsequent events being utterly unforeseeable, sure, but if you’re haplessly pranking people on the otherside of the world, people operating in a different culture you don’t even recognise much less grasp, you probably can’t foresee enough of anything to actually carry through with your prank in the first place.

    • As for Fran’s point about the subsequent events being utterly unforeseeable, sure, but if you’re haplessly pranking people on the otherside of the world, people operating in a different culture you don’t even recognise much less grasp, you probably can’t foresee enough of anything to actually carry through with your prank in the first place.

      Not all pranks are the same. A phone call in which you misprepresent yourself so you can do a lame impression of the royals ought not to provoke su|cide. If it does turn out to be the proximal cause, and foreclosing even unforeseeable harm is essential, then it follows that almost any behaviour ought to be restrained. That would be oppressive.

      Before one can be held to account for tortious conduct, one must be capable of foreseeing damage to a legitimate interest arising from one’s conduct. If the damage is very remote no tort arises.

      People speak harshly to me on blogs on a regular basis, but my feelings about the words used really are separate and distinct from the publication of the words themselves. If I respond by swallowing three stiff drinks, drive angry and hurt myself or another, it’s not reasonable to attribute cause of damage to a person who spoke harshly to me on a blog, even if it turned out that I was suffering a mental illness at the time.

  9. Agreed. Subversive pranks that target the rich are labelled by the corporate media as being tactless and in poor taste, but when that same media target working class people for their humour they justify it with the old “it’s just a joke” type nonsense.

  10. Excellent post, Tad. I think on a much wider scale, it is symbolically interesting that calls by the Spanish working class especially have been based upon a demand for dignity – the opposite of humiliation – in the sense of not having to be the butt of the ruling class’s collective taking the piss.

    • Dignity is the issue and that’s why I am also angry about the accusation that the public reaction is itself an example of bullying and somehow out of proportion. I think those pushing that line are simply not recognising that a considerable proportion of the population has now had enough of the media’s decades of irresponsible behaviour. As I said before this is one part of an overall ideological war designed to enhance corporate power by destroying working class identification and solidarity.

      • I dunno. Commercial radio might be gross but it wasn’t FM pranksters who pushed the war against Iraq or helped legitimise torture or wrote earnest editorials explaining why refugees should be detained. What worries me about the the response is that much of it implicitly or explicitly contrasts this pair against the ‘respectable’ media: they are crass and vulgar, and thus not like the Very Serious Journalists who cover conventional politics. To me, there’s tinges of the debate around the media’s treatment of Gillard, where, instead of condemning the sexism, some people urged for more ‘respect’ in how politicians were treated. I agree with Tad that the particular kind of humour that finds sport in humiliating ordinary people is a loathsome product of neoliberalism but IMO the behaviour of the mainstream media is a bigger political issue than the conduct of shockjocks.

        • Of course it’s a bigger issue. That’s no excuse. It just means a lot of others as well as them should be criticised, it doesn’t mean they should not be criticised.

          • I’m not saying they shouldn’t be criticised. But it worries me that so much of the criticism contrasts them with the more genteel, respectable media. That’s all.

  11. Stand up comedian Barry Humphries in his Dame Edna guise has traded on the cringe put down of the lower ill dressed social orders for years.(From Dame Edna’s point of view) Once when asked why he allowed her to say what she says, he replied “Because she is an ignorant woman and as such comments on everything.” Thus looking down on his own creation. People on radio have become addicted to that situation and the psychology of advertising. In a radio studio it is horrendous. The Management are pushing all the time to light up the switchboard, be controversial and there is a culture of young broadcasters who have little or no social background nor sense of occasion protocal or indeed general knowledge. Saily they drivle about things they know nothing about. Until Managements stop looking downwards and anticipating the lowest common denominator this will continue.

  12. Strangely no one has called this bullying or the act of a misogynist. Not at least the politically correct well heeled “feminists” of our time in Austrlaia.

    Here was a woman from the working class ridiculed and turned into a prop for a crass culture from down under where they laugh at the weak and subject them to all forms of abuse in the name of good “Aussie fun”.

    Yet when Alan Jones said at a liberal party function that the PM’s father may have died of shame, the public broadcaster in that country aided and abetted by an army of rag tag gender baiters went on a rampage calling Jones a misogynist and every other possible 3 syllabul word they could find in the dictionary.

    Yet here was a woman of colour, a migrant at that being insulted to death by another woman albeit a white Australian yobbo much like her PM, with little or no response or reaction nor condemnation from the Australian feminist lobby otherwise ready to “toss Hillary Clinton’s salad” attacking the Taleban, Pakistan, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria on the mere whiff of suspicion of a gender offence (by western standards) in these places.

    Shame Australia Shame. This matter won’t go away by giving Wendy Hammer a new lease of media life over this woman’s dead body.

    • no one has called this bullying or the act of a misogynist.

      That’s because it wasn’t. Not everything involving a woman being placed in an unfavourable light entails misogyny or even bullying. To the best of my recollection none of those alleging bullying has bothered to explain how it amounted to bullying. They’ve figured that they could say it and nobody would call BS.

      Here was a woman from the working class ridiculed

      Nonsense. Someone arguably with even lower status than the nurse/receptionist — a vacuous announcer on radio for the empty-headed — persuaded her that she was one of the highest status people in the world. The target palyed a straight bat and passed on the call. If there was any ridicule,it was from the British media, who beat the whole thing up as a security breach. I don’t see you mentioning that. I wonder why? Actually, I don’t. Your actual sympathy is obvious in the next paragraph.

      Yet when Alan Jones said at a liberal party function …

      And out come the violins …

      an army of rag tag gender baiters

      Ah, so you are OK with bullying women after all … Your concern didn’t even endure for a whole post.

      Yet here was a woman of colour, a migrant at that being insulted to death …

      Ah … so following the Daily Mail claim, she did die of shame, in your view. But again, who was doing the insulting if not the British tabloid media? Whose copy would she have been reading? Unlike Mel Grieg and Michael Christian, they were in Britain and they new who it was they were assailing, and unlike those two, they are unrepentant. You want to give them an alibi and supply one to the employer of said migrant woman, based it seems, on nothing more than a desire to take a swing at left-of-centre people here. That’s as transparent as it is offensive.

      a white Australian yobbo much like her PM

      Again, your agenda is as obvious as the disingenuity of your concern for working class folk. You may not be Andy Semple’s sockpuppet, but if you claimed to be, I’d believe you.

      You are one sad troll.

    • And just for the record, for those inclined to give the time of day to claims that the announcers bullied Ms Saldanha, here is the transcript of the ostensible “bullying”:

      GREIG: Oh hello there, could I please speak to Kate please, my granddaughter?
      NURSE: Oh yes, just hold on ma’am.
      GREIG: Thank you.

  13. It’s easy to be wise after the event (maxim).

    I’m not sure about the sequence of events, but I had been listening to triple j’s Tom & Alex in the car, who were running an end of world prank, confirmed apparently by Doctor Karl Kruszelnicki, and they announced the palace / hospital prank to some amusement (my own too I must confess: this was before the prank exploded). The next day (I think) Julia Gillard joined in on Tom & Alex’s prank and, in a formal dignitary setting (flags, pulpit and all, as I saw later on TV), announced the end of the world was nigh. She wasn’t right (that time: one day someone will be right), as the apocalypse didn’t eventuate; but what if one, more, or many people had believed her message and arranged their own exit strategy? Shades of Jonestown?

    Seemingly funny at the time, practical jokes and pranks have a long history of turning sour and ruining lives in the process. It’s all too easy to be wise and pontificate after an event (like I’m doing here). Neoliberal attitudes and ethics don’t help much, but the term is by now far too overworked, and says nothing of practical or political benefit.

  14. Hardly ever comment on things like this on-line but.
    I tend to think that it centres more on responsibilities than much else.We all have respnsibility not to bring about harm to others,and that covers a lot of topics, from racial abuse, to actual physical abuse, and on and on. I think that the radio station showed very bad judgement in not considering what reaction the person on the recieving end of a “prank” may have. How many times after the event have we heard, “It was only a joke”. Maybe a bit more consideration for your fellow human being might help.

  15. I’ve read very little about the entire affair. Can someone tell me what the nurse felt ‘shamed’ about? Did she think she contributed to a breach of security? Did she feel humiliated by the prank? Or what?
    The art of pranksterism does play a part in social relations in neoliberalism, but to attribute it to noliberalism solely is way off the mark. Pranks have been around for hundred of years. It shows a lack of historical knowledge. What do you think the whole musicical hall style of entertainment consisted of?

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