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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Radio Moron calling: Who's laughing now?

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On the phone, on the air and in cyberspace, the consequences of jibes and pranks can be deadly

It's probably too much to hope that the desperately sad prank-call affair is the beginning of the end for the sub-sub-culture that should answer to the name Radio Moron.

For the simple reason that so many people seem to like it, wherever you are on the airwaves, you're only a tweak of the dial away from having your ears and intelligence assaulted by loud-mouthed exhibitionists convinced of their own hilariousness and hell-bent on reducing everything to a lowest common denominator of raucous inanity.

A woman is dead, and at the time of writing there was no reason to think she wouldn't still be alive if she hadn't answered the prank call.

It could be argued that this tragedy is a predictable side effect of a broadcasting approach which regards the public as saps eager to collaborate in their own humiliation, like the audience at a Dame Edna Everage show hoping to catch the star's gleaming, predatory eye even though it will surely lead to public ridicule.

But as we have seen many times, death's terrible finality can trigger an emotional outpouring which takes on a life of its own. We judge the act by its consequences, rather than considering what the intention was and whether the consequences were foreseeable.

Presumably not even the most implacable critics of Sydney DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian would suggest that their intention was to drive Jacintha Saldanha - or whoever answered the phone at the King Edward VII Hospital - to suicide.

So was that outcome foreseeable? One way of approaching this question is to think back to your initial, unvarnished reaction to the news that a pair of Aussie radio larrikins had talked hospital staff into dishing on the Duchess of Cambridge's condition by impersonating (badly) the Queen and Prince Charles.

Did you think it was a hoot, a bit of harmless fun, childish nonsense or a disrespectful intrusion? Or did you think it was unconscionable and bound to end in tears?

If Saldanha killed herself because she couldn't bear the thought of being an international laughing stock, it's pertinent to ask, who was laughing at her? Apparently lots of people in lots of places. Courtesy of journalistic licence that becomes "the world".

Yet three days later the headlines were claiming there was "world rage" against the pranksters. It therefore seems quite likely that many of those who initially laughed along with the DJs heaped condemnation on them when news of the suicide broke. This re-think isn't significantly different from Grieg and Christian's: they also thought it was funny until it wasn't.

In contrast, Russell Brand's 2008 prank call was condemned from the get-go. While two million people listened in, Brand suggested to veteran actor Andrew Sachs, via his answer-phone, that he might feel compelled to kill himself because he (Brand) had slept with his (Sachs') granddaughter.

Forced to resign, Brand slunk off to Hollywood where he became a movie star and married Katy Perry.

Cyber-bullying is an undesirable by-product of the communications revolution. Scanning message boards on legitimate news websites, you can't help but notice how ready, willing and able some people are to resort to abuse. Perhaps not much should be read into what people say from the safety of anonymity, but on the face of it the violence and hysteria of their language suggests derangement or extreme nastiness. One can only wonder what the discourse is like in the unlit back streets of cyber-space.

As we know, cyber-bullying has driven a number of victims to self-harm, up to and including suicide.

In October television personality and professional celebrity Charlotte Dawson was pushed to the brink after being targeted by Twitter trolls over her involvement in an anti-cyber bullying campaign.

It should go without saying that self-harm is an entirely foreseeable consequence of bullying, but I don't remember there being quite the same level of condemnation of the trolls who caused such trouble for Dawson, even though their intention was clearly to hurt her feelings and make her life miserable. That's what bullies do.

One difference is that Saldanha was an ordinary person, and perhaps a vulnerable one, while Dawson is a public figure with attributes we are supposed to envy and aspire to - glamour, fame, a constant presence on TV and in the social pages.

Another was that Dawson hadn't given the impression of being particularly fragile or sensitive. The opposite in fact - as a judge on Australia's Next Top Model, she was apparently quick with a wounding put-down; in August she effectively disowned her native Aotearoa, calling us "small, nasty and vindictive".

But the major difference between these two depressing episodes is that Dawson didn't die. For that her persecutors should be exceedingly grateful.

- NZ Herald

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