Penk pulls prank show following Middleton nurse tragedy

By | Published on Monday 10 December 2012

Steve Penk

British radio DJ Steve Penk announced this weekend that he was pulling the ‘wind-up’ show from his Manchester radio station The Revolution as a mark of respect following the death last week of one of the nurses involved in a prank call on Australian radio station 2DayFM.

Jacintha Saldanha was a nurse at London’s King Edward VII Hospital, which last week treated Kate Middleton for hyperemesis gravidarum, an extreme form of morning sickness. It was Saldanha who answered the phone to Aussie DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian when they called, at 5.30am London time, pretending to be the Queen and Prince Charles. She put them through to another nurse who discussed Middleton’s condition. The conversation was then aired on 2Day FM and soon became a global news story.

Saldanha died on Friday, in an apparent suicide. The circumstances around her death will not be known, of course, until the conclusion of an inquest which is due to begin this week, while experts stress that suicide is never the result of a single incident. However, most assume the prank call was a key element, leading to widespread condemnation of Greig and Christian, 2Day FM and its owners Southern Cross Austereo.

The DJs and radio station had already apologised to an extent after initial criticism of the call, insisting it was just a joke, that the presenters had never expected to be put through to Middleton’s ward given their unconvincing British accents, and that lawyers had cleared the pre-recorded piece before it was aired. Nevertheless, Greig and Christian continued to brag about their involvement in what was now a worldwide story, while the station was heavily promoting the prank on air and on its website.

All that changed once Australia woke up on Saturday morning to the news of Saldanha’s death. The boss of Southern Cross Austereo issued a sombre apologetic statement (though continued to insist his company had done nothing illegal), confirmed that Greig and Christian would be taken off air until further notice, and that 2Day FM would not run any adverts in the short term (at least two major advertisers having already requested that their spots be removed). The station has subsequently claimed it tried to contact the two nurses to gain permission to broadcast the call before originally airing it.

The two DJs themselves withdrew from the social networks on Friday night our time to avoid angry and at times threatening criticism of their actions, and are said to be, understandably, devastated by the turn of events. A TV interview with the duo will air later today, clips of which are already online.

Nevertheless, and despite the tragedy, some have pointed out that prank calls are a regular feature on radio stations across the world. In the UK, Penk is perhaps the best known prank caller, such calls being a key component of his former shows for both Key 103 in Manchester and Capital FM in London. The wind-ups show on The Revolution, the Manchester station Penk now owns, includes ‘greatest hits’ from his prank calling past.

In the main such prank calls pass without incident, and there have been very few controversies in the genre here the UK. Though, whereas the original practical joke shows on TV usually began with a viewer nominating a friend or family member to be the victim of the joke, thus taking responsibility for them ‘seeing the funny side’, in more recent years prank formats have often picked their victims at random. In the vast majority of cases that’s not an issue, though such random selection does remove any such buffer after this sudden, unexpected and potentially unwanted attention.

Some producers ensure all victims give their approval before any footage is aired (sometimes because regulations say they must, other times on ethical grounds), even if doing so delays broadcast and, in some cases, prevents content from being made public at all. Though in radio, where budgets are usually much smaller than in TV, such approval chasing may be less thorough.

Southern Cross Austereo, while maintaining it has broken no laws, says it will review its policies regarding such content. Meanwhile, from a UK point of view, Penk reckons prank calls could be phased out on British radio too. Speaking to Sky News he said: “I think there will be huge fallout. I think it will be, for want of a better phrase, the death of the wind-up phone call. [Media regulator] OfCom will wrap it in so much red tape that it will make it almost impossible to get these things on the air, which I think is a shame because they can be entertaining”.