So unspeakably awful. Can a prank call by a couple of commercial radio ”funsters” from Australia really have triggered a woman’s suicide in London? The randomness is shocking. A call that wasn’t supposed to get through gets through. A conversation that wasn’t supposed to happen happens. Radio ratings gold and high-fives all round. Everyone so caught up in the caper that no one imagines what could possibly go wrong. It’s all just a lark, and stunningly effective; global notoriety in five ½ seconds.
Everyone stoked. The British media, deep in the trauma of its post-Leveson funk, suddenly able to sneer at the audacity of the uncouth colonials in the hope it might convince their reading and listening and viewing public there is someone more obnoxious and atrocious than they are.
The uncouth colonials, for their part, had stolen a march on the competition, which is always an objective if not the objective. The Sydney radio scene jumps the shark again, which is its stock-in-trade. Look at me. I’m being outrageous. Isn’t that cool?
Those inclined to fluff feathers in consternation did. Facebook popped with alternating sneers and cheers.
And in London, a nurse meant to be a tiny cameo in the whole episode went off-script and became the story when she didn’t come home. A presumed suicide by a mother and a wife a few weeks shy of Christmas.
Now no one is laughing. And then, when it seemed impossible for the event to become even more abject, the obscenity continued.
A crowd gathered to pronounce upon Jacintha Saldanha’s death, not letting the lack of available facts deter them from their roiling, punishing conjecture. The culture rose collectively to a shriek of assumption. Blame was promptly apportioned. The two presenters were trussed for the bonfire. Media outlets covered it all blow by blow; experts delivered pronouncements; advertisers quivered their discomfiture; media critics went into excoriation mode: a multidimensional circus seemingly untethered from an event solemn and shocking.
The radio station brought in the lawyers and the spinners. A terrible, tight-throated news conference ensued where a 2DayFM manager tried too evidently to straddle the riding instructions of both sets of advisers: concede nothing, project sorrow – and don’t sweat the segue.
Formulation one: ”Nobody could have reasonably foreseen this event.” (Presumably that’s a defence against negligence.) Formulation two: ”We are incredibly saddened for the family.” (Public relations 101, made good with authenticity. Of course they are. How could anyone be otherwise?)
I feel ambivalent about writing this column: sideline remarks on a tragedy. At one level it’s mawkish and obscene – a final violation. I don’t know why this lady ended her life, assuming she did. Did it relate to the shock and humiliation of being swept up unexpectedly into a made-for-promo parlour game concocted by people she’d never met?
It’s terrible, whatever the reason. A woman who cared for sick and vulnerable people taken to despair by such vapidity. The contrast between what mattered and what didn’t in this episode is searing.
This is the great irony of our connected world – it seems to be disconnecting us in stealthy increments from essential nourishment: from kindness and civility and comfort. We feel hurled into a vituperative wasteland of shame and blame, of cavalier brutality – a place where despair can be annihilating. It’s connection without communion, engagement without empathy.
I don’t want this column to be a media seminar. I just want to say this. No one meant for this to happen. There was no malice. There was a palpable absence of malice.
This is a tragedy, plain and simple. I wish I could hug Jacintha Saldanha’s children. I wish I could have told their mother that it was all crap and none of it mattered and it would be gone just as suddenly as it arrived; that nothing adheres any more – we are so addled and over-stimulated we will have forgotten by this time next week.
I also feel very sorry for two Sydney radio employees who won’t be able to forget; who are going to have to live with this for the rest of their lives. I don’t blame them; what reasonable person could? They are components of a system, and we’ve all done something without sufficient regard for the consequences.
But this is a column worth writing for this reason. The media needs to look unflinchingly into the heart of our most difficult year in living memory. We need to wake up. We need to start making connections again. We need to start acting like we are accountable, even if no one actually enforces the accountability. We need to engage, and to prioritise substance over notoriety.
We can stand removed from our community and howl on about our lost world, make excuses, blame our victims, blather among ourselves, indulge our existential nightmares with wanton stunts, and lash out at our critics, because they just don’t ”get” us.
But we will be standing alone, in the make-believe world we’ve constructed. And it will crumble around us.
National affairs correspondent Katharine Murphy will replace Phillip Coorey as a regular columnist.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge leave the King Edward VII hospital where Catherine was treated for extreme morning sickness. Photo by Fred Duval/Getty Images