The Media Should Be Brought To Account For Its Part In The Kate Phone-In Scandal

Worldwide scandal followed the death of Jacintha Saldanha, and the Press's ire was directed at the two Australian DJs. If they are looking for culpability, they should take a look in the mirror...
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Worldwide scandal followed the death of Jacintha Saldanha, and the Press's ire was directed at the two Australian DJs. If they are looking for culpability, they should take a look in the mirror...

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Apparently, there were audible cheers in certain newsrooms, when it was announced that a blastocyst had successfully attached itself to the spongy lining of Kate Middleton’s uterus. But somewhere in amongst the chinking of hastily filled Champagne flutes, the jubilant news team must have paused to wonder how they might spin seven months of relentless coverage out of one woman carrying a baby to term.

It’s fair to say that the press got off to a great start, with page after mind-numbing page devoted to the ins and outs of the Duchess of Cambridge’s cervix. In the absence of any actual facts, they turned to speculation and hearsay to fill their pages. Articles debated where the miraculous zygote might have been conceived. Journalists recounted their own near-death experiences with morning sickness. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the Express had run a special offer involving the exchange of daily tokens for a fold-out poster of the Royal unmentionables.

After a banner year for Pro-British ephemera, news about the state of Kate’s womb couldn’t have come at a better time. The rest of the world was similarly entranced, as photo-journalists from London to Leningrad checked Amazon to see if there was such as thing as an endoscopic zoom lens. And two Australian DJ’s thought they’d try and get the inside scoop by calling Kate’s hospital direct. Apparently, they never expected to get through, presuming that someone would angrily hang-up on them. Instead, they were patched through to Kate’s nurse by an unsuspecting colleague who clearly had a tin ear for unconvincing accents.

Smelling a royal scandal, the papers leapt on this non-event of a story, making it seem as though the Windsor’s inner sanctum had been violently penetrated. The outcry was quite ridiculous, as the papers screamed that hospital security was a shambles, no nurse was to be trusted, and all Australians should be thrown back in shackles for their own good.

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And then something terrible happened. Suicide helplines advise against going in to detail when someone takes their own life, since it can often lead to copycat incidents, so I’m not going to dwell on the specifics. Besides which, it wouldn’t do anyone any good to indulge in further speculation, given that no-one really knows what took place on Friday morning.

By Friday lunchtime, it was the lead story on every news site, and splashed all over my Twitter and Facebook timelines. Without knowing what exactly had transpired, we all agreed that this was a very bad thing. Depressingly, it didn’t take the press long to fall back into its unpleasant old bad habits. All the usual suspects covered their front pages with variations on ‘Kate’s Agony Over Tragic Nurse’ – perplexingly recasting the Duchess as the real victim in all this. Back in the mid-eighties my uncle was doing freshwater studies in the grounds of Balmoral, and stumbled across an unexploded World War II bomb. The press soon got wind of his discovery and the following day, the tabloids had spun the story into a headline that yelled ‘Di in distress.’ It didn’t matter to them that the Princess of Wales wasn’t even in residence at the time, or that the explosive had already been safely removed.

While the papers scrabbled around to find more details about Jacintha Saldanha, the two Australian DJs behind the original hoax call deleted their Twitter accounts and effectively went into hiding. Every good story needs heroes and villains, and here the press had both. Message-boards went wild, as ill-informed commenters made ridiculous claims that Mel Greig and Michael Christian should be ‘extradited to the UK and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.’ But, for what, exactly? Doing a shit impersonation of the Queen? Christ, Jeanette Charles would have been shipped off to Gitmo years ago if that was a crime.

I don’t think there’s a person in the world who hasn’t, at some time in their life, been on the receiving end of a prank. Jeremy Beadle spent the best part of a decade giggling while he emptied a cement mixer through the sunroof of some poor stooge’s TR7. But no-one ever died because of it.

The difference, of course, is that this instance became headline news for days in the very papers that then got to wring their hands in despair over an entirely avoidable tragedy. They invented a major scandal out of a non-event, just so they could keep the Duchess on the page where she’d sell the most papers. And it backfired in spectacular fashion. But rather than accept their own culpability in this tragic case, they’re content to sit back and condemn the Australians for ‘causing’ an innocent woman’s death. In light of the Leveson inquiry, it’d be nice to think that the press had learned a valuable lesson about practices and ethics. But maybe I’m just as naïve as the DJs who assumed their phone prank was a bit of a giggle.
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