It is a bizarre world we live in where Julian Assange can be hailed as a hero for exposing military secrets and putting Western soldiers in danger, but a couple of dim-bulb radio presenters are all but run out of town on a rail for calling up a hospital and finding out the last time a pregnant woman puked. Yet here we are.

Without fear of hyperbole it can pretty safely be said that Mel Greig and Michael Christian, the two radio DJs who infamously rang King Edward VII Hospital pretending to be the Queen, Prince Charles and a pack of corgis, are never going to win a Walkley for investigative journalism. The same goes for all the other hosts, DJs and shock jocks who fill the commercial FM airwaves with gossip about B-list ‘celebrities’, goofy phone calls and thumping ‘music’ to simulate sex at house parties by.

But it must be said that the two have also been blamed, completely unfairly and wholly prematurely, for the death of a nurse in England who had the misfortune to transfer their telephone call when the pair rang up pretending to be the royals. The fact is we may never know why Jacintha Saldanha took her own life; suicide is intensely personal, she only put the call through and did not ‘fall’ for the gag, and any number of other things may have been going on in her life.

No, Greig, Christian and the rest of the Austereo crew — some of whom have done some truly shocking and legitimately inexcusable things in the past — are being utterly and unfairly pilloried by a mob whose outrage has been whipped up by scolds with outsized megaphones who would make life as drab and colourless as one of those new cigarette packets they have lately foisted on society.

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The hysteria mounted against Greig and Christian this week is only a small stage of a bigger trip down the road to dreary humourlessness where everyone makes for the exit at the first sign of a gag lest they be accused of tacitly supporting something that gave someone, somewhere cause to take offence. And with the constant reminders that the two presenters are only ‘entertainers’ and not ‘journalists’ we see the spectre of licensing for members of the press come one step closer: nice free speech you have there, be a shame if anything happened to it. One can be fairly sure parliamentarians are busily workshopping ‘Jacintha’s Law’ with this sort of regulation in mind. Perhaps it will come with its own oversight agency: Fair Joke Australia has something of a ring to it.

It must also be said that Greig and Christian’s prank, so far as it went, was actually pretty funny. I laughed when I first heard it, and you may have too. What made it work was the fact that it was completely over the top, from the stage British accents to the corgi barks to ‘I’m the Queen and I need a lift down there.’ (And once again note that the woman who killed herself was not, repeat not, the one who had the long exchange with the station.) Greig and Christian were not ferreting out nuclear launch codes or the intimate treatment details of someone fighting cancer. They were pranking the hospital where a woman whose pregnancy their listeners for reasons known only to themselves care deeply about had gone in with a bout of morning sickness. Even the real Prince Charles got the joke. Perspective, please.

Yet the language being used to criticise the joke — irresponsible, cruel, sadistic, bullying, a fraud — is so over the top as to defy reality. Have the commentators who fling these words around actually heard the sketch? Or have the Macquarie Dictionary people redefined these terms too, the better to have the necessary vocabulary to support this week’s two-minute hate?

Naturally, of course, the British press have got in on the act. Thus it has been posited, not unreasonably, that Saldanha’s tragic over-reaction was not due to what the Australian pranksters did, but to her fear of torment at the hands of the British press who, in feeding this particular story, are lighting their petard while giving regulators exactly the sort of ammunition they need to make their lives that much
more difficult.

Meanwhile administrators at King Edward VII are smartly keeping schtum, letting 2Day FM and regulators fight it out when in all likelihood it was their failure to train staff dealing with VIP patients and maintain proper clinical pathways as they are known in the business that created the conditions for the whole sorry affair. Even less edifying is the spectacle of corporate advertisers who are happy to support the antics of a 2Day FM — what, they didn’t know that prank phone calls, cretinous doof-doof music and ‘celebrity’ gossip were the station’s stock in trade when they signed the contract? — but who turn tail and run as soon as the online mob starts sharpening their pitchforks.

There is of course a larger story here. Barack Obama’s infamous svengali, Rahm Emanuel, famously said that one should never let a good crisis go to waste. For enemies of free speech, a tragic suicide is just the fulcrum they need to leverage further controls over the press. Because, hey, we’re just putting the brakes on some bogan kids, and they need some supervision, right? Students of Gramsci will likewise identify what is happening as the second phase of a much longer project: first, kick the knees out from under traditional morality and restraint and then, with civil society on the ropes, build up a brand new set of supports run by the state and a technocratic elite.

James Morrow blogs about food, politics, and culture at prickwithafork.wordpress.com.