Saturday 8 December 2012

In Praise of Iconoclasm

The BBC, the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, the Penn State Football Club. Heck maybe Sesame Street.

Pedophiles like institutions that are too-sacred-to-critique.* Whenever we set up institutions for veneration such that the optimal within-institution response is to cover up rather than to punish in response to individual failings, we're going to have problems. Sesame Street has been great on this front; the others, really not so much.

And so iconoclasts do us a service in making sure that nothing is sacred.

Today's edition: the British Royals. I'm a fan of the Queen. But I was still pretty disappointed to see half of Twitter piling onto the couple of radio hosts whose prank call to Kate Middleton's hospital led to the suicide of the switchboard operator who connected the call. Surely there have been hundreds of thousands of prank calls in the last few decades. There's one radio station in every major city that does this kind of thing at least weekly; start adding it up. How many prank calls did the Jerky Boys run? The accident rate seems awfully low, all things considered. If you're going to pile onto these particular radio hosts, what about all of the other ones who took risks no smaller than these guys did and whose calls led only to a bit of fun?

One response in particular disappointed me though - that this prank call was different because it involved the Royal family. I'm not embedding because of coarse language. But no institution is too sacred to prank. Radio hosts prank calling venerable institutions helps to keep those institutions from being too sacred for other forms of critique. Lew, on Twitter, replied with some topics he thought too shocking and offensive for comedy; Gilbert Gottfried's performance at the Friar's Club Roast for Hugh Hefner post 9/11 is the appropriate reply.

And for the Twitteratti baying for blood - what will you do if one of the family of one of the radio hosts commits suicide over your bullying? And when the rest of Twitter decides just which tweet was most to blame and piles onto that Twit, prompting another suicide, and another round of blame, rinse and repeat. I know it's all fun to feel morally righteous by demanding punishment, but who among us has never laughed at at least one prank call on the radio at some point in our lives? You know it's listener demand that drives what's played on the radio, right? 

* If you don't believe me on the quasi-sacred status of Penn State, you've not been to Pennsylvania.


  1. "who among us has never laughed at at least one prank call on the radio at some point in our lives"

    Me. Haven't listened to commercial radio in years, never did find humiliating people in public funny. And if this serves as a reminder of how degraded and antisocial the DJ shtik is, and how implicated the audience they serve is, good.

    Perhaps the Twitter split can be attributed to those who feel extroverted and thick-skinned and don't get why people can't just harden up, and those who are sensitive and introvert and don't get why it's funny to be mean to other people. Who you identify with and your reaction to this event will follow accordingly.

    Lew's point as I read it wasn't that the Royal Family shouldn't be mocked. It was that as significant cultural figures, the collateral damage to the patsies would be much more severe. These drongoes didn't do a lick of harm to the Royal Family, didn't dent their image, didn't unmasky any hypocrisy, didn't smash any idols -- they exploited the goodwill and trust of minions who were likely to be punished socially as a result.

    As a friend of mine used to say in a different context, it's ok to be a cowboy as long as you can shoot straight. This was a predictable ricochet.

  2. (This is @saniac from Twitter, if that wasn't obvious, grateful for the chance to take the discussion to a more nuanced longer form).

  3. Never, Stephen? I don't listen to that stuff now either. But 15-20 years ago?

    And remember that the victim of suicide here was the switchboard operator, not the one that was made the object of much fun on-air.

    I too would be interested to know if the hospital put too much blame on the switchboard operator here.

    I remember when a couple of Canadian DJs pretended to be Prime Minister Jean Chretien and got through to the Queen. Check the history here:

  4. I'll take strong issue with "predictable". Hundreds of thousands of prank calls, minimum, have been made. First time I've heard of this kind of outcome.

    Say you buy a joybuzzer for a prank. And the guy dies of a heart attack. You'll feel guilty as all hell, sure. But should you be blamed for it? Unless you knew the guy had a really bad heart, I'd really have to say no.

  5. For reals. Radio for me has been National Radio, the Concert programme, and bursts of student radio, my whole life. Never did listen to shows where this kind of thing might have happened because I am offended and repelled by that patronising yahoo we're all so stupid and you are too shit they do.

    But if I did as a teenager snicker at something like this, so what? The fact that a bad action is a typical human failing doesn't make it ok, it just makes it typical. And I'm not one of those, if they exist, who think these guys are guilty of homicide. I just think they're professional jerks who should face the social consequences of their choice of profession.

    I don't understand why being the switchboard operator changes things. Switchboard operators live and work in a social context with peers, employers and I should think she was as vulnerable to shame as the nurse -- perhaps, as the gatekeeper who failed, more so. Perhaps, this being in the UK, she was pursued by the Daily Mail trying to run a HOW I WAS FOOLED BY AUSSIE SHOCK JOCKS story.

  6. It means culpability is exceedingly broad. 10-20% of the radio listening population? If you're going to punish, hit the whole group.

  7. Not sure I agree with the statement that these organisations are too sacred-to-critique and that status leads to the response of covering up. Plenty of organisations, whether venerated or not, cover up (or more accurately fail to pass to the appropriate authorities) all sorts of illegal behaviour and it seems to be more to so with avoiding bad PR or some warped sense of moral responsibility to the criminals.

    Regards the Twitteratti, I guess I shouldn't be surprised by the bloodletting going on, even tho' we don't know all the facts around the circumstances of the suspected suicide. But it appears the Twitteratti don't let a lack of information or perspective get in the way of a good old fashioned lynching.

  8. Bloodletting, lynching, or as Eric said, crucifixion? Strongest I've personally seen on Twitter is someone calling them wankers. Which was me. I'm trying to feel your concern and failing.

  9. This one says "Good Riddance" if the DJs were to kill themselves.

  10. I have to say I agree with Eric on this one. No way could the pranksters have predicted a reaction such as this. I'd also be more than a little surprised if the switchboard operator in question hadn't been raked over the coals by her employer, and possibly by representatives from the govt and/or the royals, not to mention hounded by the british tabloids. Surely the finger of blame, if it HAS to be pointed, should better be pointed at them...

  11. I agree, although it wasn't a switchboard operator who picked it up, because of the time of day (early morning I think) it was actually just a nurse on duty who picked it up and passed it through to the ward. The Hospital said there were no repercussions for her - at the end of the day she simply passed the call over, someone else released the information.

  12. "radio hosts whose prank call to Kate Middleton's hospital led to the suicide of the switchboard operator"? I don't agree, though I'd go along with "... whose prank call was associated with the suicide."

    Suicide is most frequently the result of mental illness. I think it would be astonishingly rare for a prank to trigger suicide in an otherwise healthy person (and, indeed, you point to the large number of pranks that happen without incident). So I'm not convinced the pranksters really caused it. At least, not until the coroner's findings are released.

  13. I was thinking along the same lines, that the uncritical reaction of the nurses indicated something about the awesome (in the old sense) status of the monarchy. And that deserved much more attention than the silly Aussie radio people.

  14. Eric. I'm afraid I'm closer to Stephen on this one. I agree that the connection between the prank and the death is too tenuous to make that the basis if condemnation, but I was disgusted by the prank before hearing of the death.

    Clever satire is both funny and useful for holding institutions to account. But this stunt was just a pointless invasion of privacy by a couple of twats who substituted crassness for cleverness.

    Crap like this wont reduce the sanctity of the Royal family. It will just result in a whole bunch of irritating security being imposed on genuine family members wanting information about patients in the future.

  15. It is fair to have judged the prank distasteful both before and after the death. I generally flip the station when radio DJs start up with this stuff. And, I hadn't listened to the interview prior to the death (have since read the transcript); it doesn't float my boat.

    I wouldn't dismiss the security concerns so lightly though. There are plenty of cases where you really really wouldn't want the wrong person to get medical details by a stupid impersonation.