As fallout continues over a prank phone call gone royally wrong, the Australian radio station and two DJs at the center of the scandal could face multiple charges, according to reports by the international media.
Last week, radio DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian called London’s King Edward VII Hospital, where the pregnant Kate Middleton was being treated for severe morning sickness. The DJs pretended to be Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles. Much to their surprise, the nurse on duty, Jacintha Saldanha, put them through to a nurse who provided details about Middleton's condition. The prank turned tragic, however, when Saldanha turned up dead three days later of an apparent suicide. Her family said she was humiliated by the incident.
Rhys Holleran, the chief executive of the Sydney-based station, 2Day FM, told reporters during a press conference that the DJs were “deeply shattered” by the tragedy, but he maintained that no laws were broken.
“[Prank calls are] not just part of one radio station or one network or one country -- they’re done worldwide,” he said. “This is a tragic event that could not have been reasonably foreseen and we’re deeply saddened by it.”
But not everyone agrees. The Guardian reported on Monday that a leading British barrister believes the DJs could have violated the U.K.’s Data Protection Act, which prohibits anyone from obtaining or disclosing personal records. Hugh Tomlinson QC, one of the barristers working on the phone-hacking case against Rupert Murdoch’s News International, told the Guardian, “There is no difference between obtaining private information as a ‘prank’ and obtaining it to sell or publish.”
The Data Protection Act does provide exclusions for journalists who obtain personal information for the good of the public, but Tomlinson told the Guardian that the DJs in question would unlikely be able to use that defense. “It cannot, credibly, be argued that obtaining private medical information about a pregnant woman by deception is ‘in the public interest,’” he added.
If prosecuted in the U.K., the DJs could face fines of $6,464 each.
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail reports that the radio station could face charges on its home turf as well, noting that “under Australian law it is illegal to record someone or publish a taped conversation without the person’s permission.” Moreover, the DJs did not obtain Saldanha’s permission to air the segment, nor did they reveal the call to be a prank. Daily Mail also reports that Scotland Yard has been in touch with Australian police and may question the DJs about the incident.
Ultimately, the court of public opinion may wield the strongest influence, however. The station and two DJs are facing a huge international public backlash in the wake of Saldanha’s death, with critics saying the station now has blood on its hands. As advertisers began to pull their commercials, the station over the weekend announced that it would suspend advertising out of respect for Saldanha’s family.
Greig and Christian have been suspended indefinitely. The DJs have said repeatedly that they never believed they would get through to the Duchess of Cambridge. The joke, they said, was on their poor attempts at English accents. Both hosts broke down in tears Monday when asked about Saldanha’s death during separate interviews on Australian morning shows, the Associated Press reported.
Prank calls have long been a familiar facet of so-called shock-jock radio, and 2Day FM, according to published reports, has a bit of a reputation among Australian media professionals for pushing the limits of good taste. In an interview with the Radio National morning show “Breakfast,” Wendy Harmer, a former 2Day FM DJ, said the station has been “skating so close to the rules and flouting the rules that [media professionals] think the entire industry is going to be dragged into a new era of self-regulation.” She added that Saldanha's death could signal the beginning of the end for radio prank calls.
According to News 7, Australia’s Communications and Media Authority has not yet commented publicly on the tragedy but is expected to question the station soon about the facts surrounding the prank.
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