Kate Middleton

With free speech comes responsibility

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2012, 2:09am

April Fools' day jokes aside, on-air pranks set Australian radio broadcasting apart from Hong Kong's. In cut-throat ratings wars, commercial stations try to be provocative and controversial to attract more listeners. Prank phone calls are common, often to vulnerable front-desk targets like receptionists and nurses in attempts to reach celebrities. It has become part of the culture - enterprising fun that may embarrass but ultimately not harm anyone. That is until the tragic case of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse at a London hospital who put a hoax call through to the ward treating the Duchess of Cambridge for severe morning sickness, believing it was from Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles. The mother of two's apparent suicide, which has been attributed to shame and humiliation, swiftly unleashed a ferocious backlash against the two presenters who made the call, and the management for airing the recording of their conversation with a ward nurse who revealed confidential details about her patient's condition.

It says something about the culture that, initially, many thought the unethical invasion of medical privacy was funny. Little is to be achieved now by punishing the presenters. They could not have foreseen the consequences. The authorities will decide whether the station has breached laws on surveillance devices and the radio code of practice. The latter invokes prevailing community standards - a fluid concept - and the right to "responsible freedom of speech", which means not to harm others irresponsibly.

The station's claim that it did not breach the code in airing the recording is debatable, given that it did not have the consent of the nurses or hospital. It says it tried to contact them five times before the broadcast. It is not clear why it went ahead without making contact. There is a lesson for everyone in this tragedy. In the age of social media anyone can air their views publicly. But the privilege still comes with a responsibility to consider the potential impact on vulnerable people of words and actions capable of humiliating, belittling or bullying.