Kate Middleton and the law against radio hoaxes

December 10, 2012

Sometimes prank calls are funny.

But other times they are anything but laughable. That’s the case with the one by two Australian DJs involving the royal family and the staff at London’s King Edward VII hospital.  The prank call about the pregnancy of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, has resulted in a domino effect that possibly included the apparent suicide of 46-year-old Jacintha Saldanha.

Last week, DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian, called the hospital pretending to be the Queen and Prince Charles. They asked about the duchess’s condition, and Saldanha transferred the call to the duchess’s private nurse, who gave intimate details about Catherine’s condition. King Edward VII Hospital is hospital of choice for the royal family, and it was reported that the incident caused embarrassment to the institution.

A picture of nurse Jacintha Saldanha released by London police.

According to The Guardian, Rhys Holleran, chief executive of Australian radio station Southern Cross Austereo, said in a news conference that the DJs had not broken any laws and that Saldanha’s death was “tragic.” In turn, King Edward VII hospital wrote a letter to the Australian radio station urging that such a hoax never occur again.

The DJs are reportedly in hiding because of threats and receiving “intense psychological counseling.” They have, however, agreed to cooperate fully with all investigations.

On Monday, in Australia, the two DJs spoke for the first time to media. In a television interview, Greig and Christian said they were distressed upon hearing about Saldanha’s death. Christian said he was “shattered, gutted, heartbroken.” Greig said that it was never supposed to go as far as it did.

The series of events, however, have drawn attention to the legality of such calls in the United Kingdom, Australia and even the United States.

For decades, DJs have pulled radio pranks at stations around the world. In the United States, the FCC has a rule governing such hoaxes. David Oxenford on Broadcast Law Blog writes, “the [Kate] prank itself would be a violation of FCC rules if done by an American station, and would lead to an FCC fine.”

Oxenford adds, “As we’ve written many times before, the FCC rules prohibit broadcasters from putting a phone call on the air, or even recording a call for future broadcast, unless the caller is first told that he or she is going to be recorded, and consents to the call being broadcast.”

But that doesn’t always stop stations that crave ratings and don’t mind dishing out money for fines.

In the United Kingdom, the radio hoax comes amidst a debate about whether media should or shouldn’t be regulated by an independent body. Lord Justice Leveson recently published his 2,000-page report that suggests the industry-led Press Complaints Commission should be replaced with an independent board that would be able to levy tougher fines and handle other complaints. The inquiry began as a result of the News International phone hacking scandal.

But the DJs may have also violated Australia’s Telecommunications Act and Listening Devices Act. The Australian Communications and Media Authority have reported that it has received complaints from around the world about the royal family hoax. It may launch its own investigation.

According to The Australian, an investigation would focus on “sections six and nine of the Commercial Radio Code of Practice (2011) which deal with the ‘unauthorized broadcast of statements by identifiable persons’ and ‘competitions, stunts and pranks’ made on live entertainment programs.”

Plenty of fines have been levied against U.S. radio stations for pranks. Earlier this year, the FCC fined Spanish Broadcasting System Holding Company, Inc. $25,000 for “recording two telephone conservations for broadcast without providing prior notification to the called parties” and another $16,000 for the same violation at another one of its stations.

In Australia, 2Day FM, the show that aired the hoax, and its station is already facing punishment. Advertisers have dropped their advertising from the station amid the controversy. Coles, a leading Australian supermarket, addressed the hoax on its Facebook page.

“We understand Australians are clearly angry and upset by what appear to be tragic consequences of the 2Day FM UK hospital prank,” the post said. “We have wanted to let you know we have instructed 2Day FM to remove all Coles group advertising from the station as soon as possible.”

More than 4,000 people have “liked” the status.

Even Lord Justice Leveson is jumping into the fray. The judge was in Australia this weekend giving a speech in which he said “certain sections” of the press had “started to push against ethical boundaries and in some instances have pushed too far.”

The global furor over this hoax is very unlikely to end soon. An inquest will open this week into Saldanha’s death following a post-mortem examination. With so much focus on this hoax, could another Leveson-type inquiry be forthcoming?

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.” Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker

Continue reading
Comments
Show Comments
Next Story
Rahiel Tesfamariam · December 10, 2012