Pranking and hoaxing have been around for a long time, but many people feel they are quintessentially Australian activities. We love cutting down tall poppies, a tendency born of our convict past and energised by each successive intake of refugees fleeing authoritarian regimes.
When the Chaser team breached tight security at the 2007 APEC Leaders Summit and finally outed themselves as a fake Canadian motorcade containing a fake Osama Bin Laden, many people were embarrassed. To anyone who even took a cursory look at the fake security passes the Chasers were wearing and the ridiculous looking Chas Licciardello posing as Bin Laden, it was obvious that this was a prank. They didn’t break any laws, although an outraged establishment tried its best to make a crime fit the prank. Who knows, someone might even have lost their job over it. But nobody suicided.
Not so obvious was the first (and arguably our greatest) literary hoax, back in the early 1940s. The Ern Malley affair, as it came to be known, featured a cast of amazing characters and made headlines in the daily press. Two lowly soldiers who shared a love of poetry, one a jazz pianist (James McAuley) and one a Buddhist art lover (Harold Stewart), decided to prank the editor of the journal of the emerging surrealist poetry movement of the day, Angry Penguins. Its editor, Max Harris, was deadly serious about his role in bringing the new poetry to the awareness of Australians all over the country.
When the two pranksters created a fictional but deceased character called Ern Malley and a portfolio of his nonsense poems, they said they created the works by cutting and pasting unrelated ideas in their head, along with lines and phrases from books and magazines, in an effort to expose the silliness of the new verse. They sent them off to Harris and waited for him to take the bait — and he duly did.
When Harris published them, he hailed Malley as a classless genius and declared that poetry had changed forever. When the hoax was revealed by its creators, Harris was at first stunned and mortified — but he never mentioned taking his own life over it. In fact, he was later exonerated and even lauded as the hoaxers were said to have hoaxed themselves by creating great art despite their intentions. Interestingly, Harris was later prosecuted for publishing some of the poems which were said to be obscene.
Pranking has a long history in most mediums including television, starting in the late 1940s with Candid Camera. In its 60 year history this program would have embarrassed, humiliated, belittled and ridiculed thousands of innocent people. Of course, the joke was always exposed for the international audience watching at the end of the prank with the line, "Smile, you’re on Candid Camera". This completely took the sting out of the prank for those pranked although there were obviously cases where people didn’t quite get the joke and these never went to air.
As the editor of Matilda Magazine in the 1980s and before that, editor of the alternative magazine, Simply Living, I pranked politicians, cigarette companies and institutions in ways that made them reach for the defamation writ rather than the razor blade. Legal remedies exist under British common law for many forms of verbal and media trespass and often these are quite profitable for plaintiffs both in terms of monetary damages and for redeeming a reputation.
The current hoax by 2DAY FM announcers, Mel Grieg and Michael Christian, which has precipitated the suicide of the nurse being pranked, is an undeniable tragedy. However it is a complete nonsense to blame the pranksters for her death. There are plenty of other culprits ahead of these two in terms of culpability — if indeed anyone needs to be blamed for something that would have been completely unforeseen.
In the first instance, why was someone who was so obviously fragile and inexperienced allowed to answer a phone where the world media could call for updates on a Royal patient? Given the obsessive relationship that existed between Lady Di and the media, and the interest in Kate Middletion’s condition, a hoax call, abusive calls or even bomb threats should have been expected.
The editors of the British tabloids have a bloody hide rounding on two Aussie pranksters when they have just come through one of the most appalling media scandals of their own. Indeed, with that still hanging in the air, the hospital and the Royal security machine should have been expecting a Murdoch phone tap or something equally underhanded from their own side. They clearly did not.
What sort of counselling or assistance did the hospital give to the nurse in question when the hoax was first made public? Was she told that she may have legal redress to any harms done to her by the pranksters and indeed by the hospital admin for putting her in that position? The only comment from the hospital we’ve heard is one condemning the 2DAY FM announcers, assuaging their own guilt by pointing the finger elsewhere. The Catholic Church have been doing it for decades in an attempt to shift guilt in their current crisis. It must be the gays, or the porn industry, or sex educators creating all this child abuse…
In the end, I blame the British class system and the over-inflated importance of the Royal family for this tragedy. If the pranksters had claimed to be the mother and father of a celebrity in the hospital like Kylie Minogue or Posh Spice, the end result could have been entirely different. The British establishment tacitly accused the innocent nurse of embarrassing the Royalty, which is like embarrassing God. Unforgiving. Unredeemable.
The last edition of Matilda Magazine in 1986 led with a cover showing a young Lady Di with an early Photoshop-type collage of a sheep sniffing up her dress. We received more hate mail and threatening letters over this cover, than all other covers combined. Many of these were also deeply satirical and mocking, sent in by the likes of Patrick Cook and Bill Leak, who made Prime Ministers and celebs look like Elmer Fudd and Elmer Gantry. It was a salutary lesson in how far British Royalty had penetrated society.
We all need to understand that the Royal Family is like any other. As if we haven’t had enough reminders of their ordinariness over the past few decades. They are not so far above the rest of society that causing them some momentary discomfort is worth extinguishing one human life and causing terrible grief to others.
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