Pranks and privacy: Reflecting on Jacinth Saldanha's suicide

By JD Sparks on January 2nd, 2013

Making people feel stupid is as old as dirt. One cave man turns to the clan and grunts “watch this” as he holds out his club and trips a passerby. The dupe, mud on his face, pounds his chest and howls while the others laugh and point.

From that hilarious moment in the Pleistocene period to my first day in middle school to the recent prank call by Australian DJs that led to a nurse’s suicide in London, I can say with relative certainty that not much has changed. Sure, the stage has gotten larger, the audience wider, the tools of communication more sophisticated – but our appetite for public humiliation remains firmly rooted in knuckle-dragging.

And yours truly is no exception. As a kitten, I sharpened my little claws listening to the Jerky Boys. I’ve loosened more than one salt shaker at the dinner table, pushed a date into the pool, short sheeted beds and doused a sleeping camper with icy river water (who, in the interest of full disclosure, broke his ankle and ended our high school trip). In my lean years, I relished Ali G’s interviews with media celebrities and wore fake buck teeth to a reception. And as a cougar, I admit to having watched Tosh 2.0 more than once (albeit through spread fingers – you know, the same way I look at roadside attractions –er, accidents). In sum, I’ve not only been lucky to have married someone who is not the subject of a Jeff Foxworthy monologue, but I’ve been a willing participant in schadenfreude. 

So why is someone as evolved as I am upset about the recent Royal Hoax?

Of Fan Fingers and Noise-Makers
When news of nurse Jacinth Saldanha’s suicide broke, all of social media’s giant football fingers came out to assign blame. Spectators and critics were quick to point to the DJs who placed the prank call that the nurse happened to pick up and transfer. They told the unhappy duo that they had blood on their hands. And we watched YouTube videos of trembling lips and tear-stained cheeks. They lost their jobs. Worse still, they lost their Facebook and Twitter accounts. The shock jock duo is now no longer a local phenom but reviled the world over. Not bad for a day’s work.

In the other court, weighing in as a 400-pound baby-eating Scot played by Mike Meyers, are those who point the finger at the nurse. They hold the opinion that anyone so ridiculous as to hang herself over wagging tongues from Idaho to India, a managerial WWF lockdown, and public trial in such esteemed publications as The Sun and The Daily Mirror must certainly be out of her ever-loving mind and have another secret that needs to be revealed.

Just the Facts, Ma’am
Despite the differences of opinion, here are the facts as they relate to broadcast journalism, public relations and public health information disclosure:

  1. The DJs clearly violated the code of conduct for Australian radio broadcasts outlined in section 6 of the Commercial Radio Codes of Practice that prevents the unauthorized broadcast of statements by identifiable people.
  2. The pranksters also violated statutes dealing with pretexting, the act of obtaining personal, confidential, private information from a variety of institutions, including hospitals, entrusted with privileged and confidential information.
  3. The nurse clearly violated the release of medical information as outlined by England’s General Medical Council as well as the Data Protection Act and Section 251 of the National Health Service Act of 2006.

Passage to Culpability, or the Mirror-like Caves
So where do I stand? With Professor Godbole.

In E.M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India, the Hindu educator Prof. Godbole proclaims that it is not one person but all of us, in our own way, who are responsible for the evil that happens – whether in the strange mirror-like caves of Marabar, or a room in King Edward VII hospital or a nurse’s quarters.

To bring it ‘round to the case before us, our personal viewing and browsing habits fuel a competition for ratings and advertising dollars and social engagement that  those entities in the business of delivering more of what we click on are only too happy to oblige and exploit. That may explain why news of the “prank” was retweeted some 15,000 times on Twitter and had more than 5,000 links created and shared between the Tuesday and Thursday, the day before the woman’s death. Once her death was announced, of course, the tide turned.  

And when clarity of values fails us, we can thankfully turn to rules of conduct regarding protected health information disclosure outlined by professional organizations and state and local governments to remind us what is permissible and what is not.

To my way of thinking, being treated with respect is very much connected to our right to privacy. Our ability to choose when and to whom we disclose our or anyone else’s personal conditions is no laughing matter. And certainly not fodder for social entertainment.