Royal phone scandal highlights new media risks

CANBERRA Mon Dec 10, 2012 1:48pm IST

Britain's Prince William leaves the King Edward VII hospital with his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, London December 6, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Winning/Files

Britain's Prince William leaves the King Edward VII hospital with his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, London December 6, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Andrew Winning/Files

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CANBERRA (Reuters) - Back in 2007, as investigations were gathering strength into the UK phone hacking scandal involving journalists working under the umbrella of the Murdoch media empire, a comedy show based around prank telephone calls made a low-key debut in Britain.

'Fonejacker' proved such a hit with the British public that the next year the programme, in which a masked caller bamboozles hapless victims, won a coveted BAFTA award for best comedy, underscoring the attraction of the prank call amid a blurring of a ceaseless news cycle with social media and entertainment.

But just such a prank telephone call, to a London hospital where Prince William's pregnant wife Kate was being treated, has sparked a firestorm in traditional and social media after the apparent suicide by the nurse who put the call through.

Much of the fury has been directed at laying blame for the nurse's death on the Australian DJs who made the prank call, or the media in general, with the most vitriolic comments appearing on the public domains of Facebook and Twitter.

The social media outrage has become a story of its own, outlasting the original news value of a prank call, and has seen advertising pulled from the programme which broadcast the hoax call and the suspension of the two radio announcers.

Shares in radio station 2DayFM's owner, Southern Cross Austero (SXL.AX) fell 5 percent on Monday as the public backlash gathered strength.

Media commentators and analysts warn the rapidly changing traditional and social media worlds may have given people greater freedom of expression, but can unleash a genie which can have destructive or negative repercussions, without responsible behaviour by both mainstream and social media operators.

"It's all changing so fast that societal norms have retreated in confusion," said veteran newspaper columnist Jennifer Hewett in the Australian Financial Review.

"What is clear is that we will soon look back to count the mounting costs and destructive force, as well as the great benefits, of the explosion of communication in an all-media, all-in, all-the-time world," Hewett said.

Jacintha Saldanha, 46, was found dead in staff accommodation near London's King Edward VII hospital on Friday after putting the hoax call through to a colleague who unwittingly disclosed details of Kate's morning sickness to 2DayFM's presenters.

Her death, still being investigated, followed still simmering outrage in Britain over phone hacking, as well as Australian anger over the power of radio announcers to plump ratings with a diet of shock, including a 2Day announcer who sparked fury by calling a woman journalist rival a "fat slag".

And while in Britain the popular press were quick to seize the moral high ground and point the finger "Down Under", Australian commentators pointed blame the other way, or at confusion over the changing role of media and voracious public demand for not only information, but increasingly titillation.

Australian newspaper columnist Mike Carlton said while 2Day FM and its parent company made good money by "entertaining simple minds", for tabloid British papers to point "Down Under" over a 'gotcha' news genre they created was "towering hypocrisy".

CHANGING MEDIA ETHICS

The social media condemnation of Saldanha's death should prompt a re-think of ethics in the era of celebrity news, said Jim Macnamara, a media analyst from Australia's University of Technology, Sydney.

"There is a lesson in this for media organisations everywhere, and for journalists and media personalities, and that is that they need to look at community standards and better self regulate," said Macnamara.

The tragic fallout from the radio stunt has rekindled memories of the death of William's mother Diana in a Paris car crash in 1997 and threatens to cast a pall over the birth of his and Kate's first child.

Public amusement at the prank started turning when British media reported the call as a major security breach of the royal family's privacy, despite the call never reaching Kate's room and the information revealed by a nurse was already public.

But news of Saldanha's death is what sparked the Internet firestorm, that once unleashed could not be controlled.

Hypocritically, some of the harshest criticism was on Twitter and Facebook, where people unleashed fury on Australian and British media, after having themselves publish news of Saldanha's error under a Twitter topic #royalprank, which was repeated more than 15,000 times.

"When the twitterverse goes into meltdown, we all react with a chain reaction any nuclear plant would be proud of. I hope, in time, the world will learn to splash cold water on itself when these stories break and cool down, before we all get dragged into the mud of our own making," Tristan Stewart-Robertson, a Glasgow-based journalist wrote in a blog on www.firstpost.com

(Editing by Michael Perry)

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