Columns


How prank calls can be used for good and evil



Not The Nine O'Clock News once announced on air that the TV picture of anyone without a TV licence would go black. It did so, then a phone number appeared and a voice-over invited culprits to call "the Director-General" and explain themselves.

From the moment the nation's screens went dark, the phone in our production office started ringing. Stifling our laughter, each of us in turn fielded calls from frantic viewers promising to pay up immediately. That phone rang continuously for three months.

After 40 years in entertainment, I believe that making people laugh is, by and large, "a Good Thing", especially if it's in a good cause. But – like power, intelligence, money, science and religion – comedy is a powerful tool that can be used for good or ill. And, on rare occasions, as we saw last week, it can be a lethal weapon.

In 1975, I was the 23-year-old radio producer of a late-night topical comedy show on Radio 4 called Weekending. We often ran sketches mocking the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, then seen as a buffoon rather than a mass murderer. On one occasion, having heard the programme go out, I lingered for the midnight news. The lead item was a statement from Amin saying that, if the media made any more jokes about him, he would shoot Denis Hills, the British teacher arrested in Uganda for sedition.

You can imagine how little sleep I had that night. But I was lucky. The Queen intervened and Hills was released unharmed. We never did sketches on the subject again and, overnight, I grew up to become a more thoughtful broadcaster.

The Queen, unfortunately, was unable to save Jacintha Saldanha, the poor nurse who took the prank call last week from those two hapless Australian DJs. Her death is a desperately sad and appalling tragedy. Leaving aside the fact that the joke was so feeble to start with, why did the radio station allow the hoax to take place at all? The Duchess of Cambridge was seriously unwell; what possible good could have come from pestering her or the hospital staff?

There's a long tradition in Britain – from Hogarth to Chris Morris by way of Spitting Image – of setting out to make people look foolish, as long as they are public figures who can reasonably be said to have done something to deserve it. But this wasn't true of Andrew Sachs when Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross called him and it certainly wasn't true of Mrs Saldanha. Prank calls are the new lowest form of wit.

Meanwhile, as a father of three myself, to Mrs Saldanha's husband I offer my heartfelt sympathy on behalf of all of us who have been young and foolish and hopefully learned a lifelong lesson: that not everything is a laughing matter.


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