‘Prank’ radio and TV shows are not funny - they are bullying

Tuesday, December 11, 2012
9.00 AM

I’ve never been a fan of TV and radio pranks.

The likes of Candid Camera, Game for a Laugh and Beadle’s About had me reaching for the off switch in the 1980s.

And the Hit Squad feature on the Late, Late Breakfast Show had me reaching for heavy weaponry - but that was more to do with the presence of Noel Edmonds than the subject matter.

I find it toe-curlingly uncomfortable to watch people being set up, laughed at - and then expected to be “good sports” by embracing their humiliation and laughing along with it.

The prank call by Australian radio presenters Mel Greig and Michael Christian was a classic example - with an unexpected and tragic denouement as the nurse Jacintha Saldanha took her own life.

They could not have known that their childish attempt to get a cheap laugh could end in such tragedy. But that is the risk that people run when they use bullying as a means of comedy.

And that is exactly what prank TV and radio is - bullying.

It brings to my mind some disturbing memories of practical jokes at school. Like when a child was “kegged” by his so-called friends. The practice, which means pulling down the victim’s trousers and pants, left psychological scars for years.

I know why all of these things happen - and why they are so popular. They enable people to hide behind someone else’s embarrassment, safe in the knowledge that while another person is being laughed at, they are being left alone.

The irony is that those who have rounded on Ms Greig and Mr Christian are doing to them exactly what they accuse them of doing to Ms Saldanha.

The radio presenters are being bullied, hounded and humiliated - and all for doing something which, though I despise it, is common practice on the airwaves.

As pranks go, it wasn’t exactly outrageous. It certainly wasn’t original, and I very much doubt that it was particularly amusing.

To my mind, this story is not about a pair of silly presenters who made an error of judgment, but about the broader issue of how it has become acceptable in society to get a laugh at someone else’s expense.

A basic taste rule of comedy should be that if a joke has a victim, then it is not funny.

The answer to this awful mess is not to launch a witch hunt against Ms Greig and Mr Christian, nor to press charges, which would set an uncomfortable and unsustainable precedent.

The answer is for broadcasters and individuals to think about the potential impact of their actions before going ahead. Will this prank hurt or humiliate someone? If the answer is “yes”, pull the plug.