Wendy Harmer : Radio Prank Calls - there are rules

Ex-2Day FM Morning Crew announcer Wendy Harmer has spoken to Angela Catterns on ABC 702 about the recent tragic events following the Royal Prank call...

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or hear it here

Wendy has also published a piece on The Hoopla. Read it in full below....

It’s inevitable – the antics of 2DayFM and the tragic death of British nurse Jacintha Saldhana will drag the commercial Australian radio industry into a new era of tighter regulation.

And is the industry happy about that? It should be.

What we have in place now is a set of agreed guidelines called Commercial Radio Codes of Practice. These codes were developed by the industry and contain guidelines, not laws, administered by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

The debate on whether 2Day FM breached the ACMA code centre around a few parts of it , which, I believe is due for some overhaul, strengthening and tightening for everyone’s benefit.

We all have our views – many expressed with the benefit of 20/20 rear vision – and it seems there’s little point arguing about it endlessly. Except that, in this most unfortunate turn of events, a nurse, a valued worker, wife, and mother, has died and we must all have confidence that this never happens again.

That confidence will only come with adherence to the ACMA codes of practice.

It’s not as difficult as one would imagine. There is one part of the code I can see that covers such calls. It’s right there in “Code of Practice 6: Interviews and Talkback Programs.”

It states “… A licensee must not broadcast the words of an unidentifiable person unless:

a) that person has been informed in advance or a reasonable person would be aware that the words would be broadcast;

b) In the case of words which have been recorded without the knowledge of that person, that person has subsequently, but prior to the broadcast, expressed consent to the broadcast of their words.

Nothing in the codes, as far as I can see, covers the etiquette, morality, hilarity, stupidity or otherwise of “prank calls” – the term is not expicitly mentioned – and this is why I have always believed the Code of Practice 6 applies ( see below in original story)

The management of 2DayFM say they have not broken the law. But have they flouted the ACMA codes of practice? Perhaps they have found that they do not apply in this instance. We shall see.

However, you won’t be surprised to know that in this code there are many loopholes, including acting in “good faith,” making a “reasonable mistake” or being on “reasonable grounds” they have not offended community standards. Then there is the question of “public interest.”

No-one wants to shut down humour and satire but I do believe that with compliance to and respect for this one rule – that you should not have your voice aired on radio without your explicit permission – a lot of heartache, humiliation, and worse, can be avoided.

Did 2Day FM “believe on reasonable grounds” or make a “reasonable mistake” that the call put to air complied with Code of Practice 6 ?

Did 2DayFM act in “good faith”?

With all this in mind… read on...

The death of a nurse in the 2DayFM prank call to Kate Middleton’s hospital is a tragic outcome for what should have been harmless fun…if the rules had been followed.

Nurse Jacintha Saldanha, 46, from the King Edward VII Hospital who fell for the ruse from DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian, has died.

“Police are not treating Ms Saldanha’s death as suspicious and numerous British media outlets have labelled it a suicide,” is how it has been reported.

 Everyone who has read the news today is shocked – the loss of this wife, mother and professional must be a terrible blow to all who know her.

People are outraged and appalled. They are looking for someone to blame, but they should also remember that Prince Charles himself laughed off the incident.

“How do you know I’m not a radio station?” the heir to the throne quipped as he spoke to reporters.

I was one who thought the prank was a classic of the genre that began way back in the 1960’s with comedian Jerry Lewis and has been a staple of radio programs world-wide since then.

The Queen has been a victim of a prank call, fooled by a Canadian DJ posing as Canadian  Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

People are calling for more regulation of such calls, and, I admit, I hadn’t heard this particular call in its entirety. I should have before I commented. Lesson learned.

Now that I have, it’s clear that the call breaks the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) Commercial Radio Code of Practice (September 2011) which states:

“A licensee must not broadcast the words of an identifiable person unless:

a)   That person has been informed in advance or a reasonable person would be aware that the words may be broadcast

b)   In the case of words which have been recorded without the knowledge of that person, that person has subsequently, but prior to the broadcast, expressed consent to the broadcast of their words.”

It’s clear that the two DJs involved have broken the rules.

This is the problem with live prank calls, and should be well understood by all radio stations and all broadcasters – you can’t put the call to air unless you have permission from the person being pranked.

To follow the rules, all prank calls should be pre-recorded. The callers reveal themselves and permission is granted to run it by the person who’s been pranked.

Only then may it be put to air.

That would mean at the end of the call that went to air you’d hear something like this:

DJ: “Erm. Hello…sorry, sorry, we’re not really the Queen and Prince Charles, we’re from a radio station in Australia.”

Nurse: “Really? Ha hah hah.”

No harm done, play on.

In more than 11 years on breakfast radio, as a member of the 2DayFM Morning Crew, I was party to prank calls.

(They were never a favourite segment of mine because I just felt embarrassed and would inevitably blurt out prematurely who we really were, but we did make them.)

I cannot guarantee that every single call we made in those years followed ACMA guidelines as written today, but we certainly knew and understood accepted protocol, so we pre-recorded prank calls and junked a good many because we couldn’t get permission to air them.

Sometimes prank calls were live, but made with the assistance of partners, families and friends who would assure us that the person being pranked would take it in good spirit.

That’s part of the ACMA rule: “a reasonable person would be aware that the words may be broadcast.” (Perhaps there’s now a good case for closing that vague and arguable loophole, among others.)

I recall one instance of it going badly, and a girlfriend being dumped live on air. But tears or upset or humiliation were never broadcast and prank calls are (hopefully) not made with that intent. It’s not something anyone wants to hear.

And, if you have a radio show that cares about people and takes that responsibility seriously, then people will want to be on it.

We also made calls to hotels attempting to get access to rock stars like Robbie Williams or Jennifer Lopez – it’s a game that’s been played for years – and I can’t recall ever being successful. We were always rumbled by zealous staff on the front desk, managers, agents or personal assistants who usually took our futile attempts in good part.

Which makes you wonder how on earth Greig and Christian got so close to the bedside of the future Queen of England?

Just what protocols were lacking at King Edward VII hospital?

(It reminds one of the 1982 incident when Queen Elizabeth II woke to find a strange man sitting at the end of her bed. The man was cradling a broken ashtray and dripping blood from a lacerated hand.)

People are saying that this call that was intended to humiliate. However, listening to it, I can’t hear that intent from either Greig or Christian.

I can only hear incredulity that they got as far as they did with their improbable accents and corgi impersonations.

The hospital made no complaint and insisted that the nurses had not been reprimanded, but the storm of outrage that followed in the English press must have been very humiliating – and none of us know the personal circumstances of Ms.Saldanha.

This is a reminder to all broadcasters that the ACMA rules are in place for a very good reason.

And, that, as a member of the public, your voice cannot be put to air without your consent. 

Sadly, it’s all too late in this instance.


Thanks to Wendy for allowing us to re-publish this article. See more at The Hoopla here.

For support and information about suicide prevention call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or www.beyondblue.org.au

Published on Monday, 10 December 2012 12:16

Anonymous(13:01pm 10 Dec 2012)
Unfortunately for SCA the suggestion that they ' tried ' many times to make contact with the nurse in the UK is quite irrelevant. Quote "We rang them up to discuss what we had recorded. Absolutely (before it went to air). We attempted to contact them on five occasions… because we wanted to speak to them about it," he said." It is absolutely true to say that we did attempt to contact those people."
Under Australian law permission must be granted in writing or recorded before allowing a call to be aired. Even though they ' tried '
hard ultimately they didnt get that permission. If Australian law covers
people overseas then SCA are in serious breach. The onus is on the company to train and teach its employees about the codes and laws.
All will be revealed in the courts no doubt.
Johnny Lonely(16:40pm 10 Dec 2012)
Hypocrisy has a new name. That name is Harmer.
Nezumi(12:21pm 11 Dec 2012)
Actually Wendy, the code explicitly states that it is an *identifiable* person, not an *unidentifiable* person, as you can see here: http://www.acma.gov.au/webwr/aba/contentreg/codes/radio/documents/commercial_radio-codes_and_guidelines_5sept2011.pdf

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