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.