A few days before the tragic juxtaposition of a prank call from two Australian radio DJs and the sad apparent suicide of the nurse on the other end of the line, I was thinking a lot about the impact on people of pranks designed to be broadcast. I was watching a video from Brazil where people in a fake elevator are terrified by what seems to be a ghost child that appears and disappears. It has now reached almost 50 million views on YouTube. It's a prank, of course, and the video shows how it's done. But the victims are on the verge of panic.
Even worse, there's another prank in the same vein where a woman in a car park is terrified to the point of hysteria by a series of apparent apparitions. Despite, or perhaps because of, her obvious distress, the cameras keep rolling and the scares keep coming. Even when the reveal happens, the woman is still in extreme distress, which turns to anger at the film crew. It may be a cultural difference, but I find this sort of thing way beyond humour, and not remotely funny.
So should media pranks be banned? Hang on a minute. Ever since the days of Allen Funt's "Candid Camera" in the 1950s, through Jeremy Beadle's "Beadle's About" in the 1980s, to radio pranksters around the world, these types of stunts have been broadcast without protest. Of course, there should be, and indeed are, guidelines. Such stunts are rarely broadcast live, and if they are, they should be done with the permission of friends and family of the recipient, who vouch for the fact that they can "take it". Otherwise, a recording of the prank is played only with permission of the person who has been fooled.
I don't know the details of the current case stemming from Australia. I know that such guidelines exist there, and if they haven't been followed, that's a matter to be dealt with. As for poor Jacintha Saldana's family, nothing will compensate for her loss. My deepest sympathies are with them.
One should always be aware of the possible outcomes of one's actions. That applies to radio DJs as well as everyone else. We don't yet know, and may never know, what role the call from Australia played in this tragic case.
Should all media pranks be banned? Should we avoid poking fun at people and institutions? Of course not. However, it is important to be as sure as possible that the butt of the joke is comfortable with a broadcast of their embarrassment. That seems to me to be the real issue here.