Nobody is laughing any more


HARMLESS? There must be a line between a juvenile joke and a dangerous prank

THE two Australian deejays, who recently made a prank call to Duchess of Cambridge Catherine's hospital, had likely thought what they did was hilarious. They obviously don't think so now.

Australian 2Day FM radio presenters Michael Christian and Mel Greig offered tearful apologies on air, but continue to face global outrage and condemnation following the apparent suicide of nurse Jacintha Saldanha, who fielded their hoax call.

Pretending to be the Queen and Prince Charles, the two inquired about the condition of Catherine, who was battling a severe case of morning sickness. Fooled by the pair, Saldanha put the call through to the nurse's station on the duchess' ward. Subsequently, the social media was abuzz with laughter and incredulity over how anyone could be "dumb enough" to fall for the gag. Three days later, the laughing stopped when Saldanha's body was found in her home near the hospital.

Now, those on social media are singing another tune and crying out for justice. They want Christian and Greig severely punished and prosecuted. But there are those who question whether the deejays deserve all the vitriol. What they did was not something unheard of, after all.

Local deejays do it often enough in a variety of radio shows, pulling off their pranks with great finesse. And then, there are the television shows that are entirely about hoodwinking unsuspecting members of the public, such as the long-running Candid Camera (1948 to 2004), and Ashton Kutcher's popular Punk'd. Here, there's the aptly-named Wakenabeb.

Practical jokes are popular entertainment. Crank calls on radio, and indeed everywhere else, have been around for the longest time, since the Mesozoic era, around the same time Madonna broke into the music scene. But does this make all such shenanigans acceptable?

It is true that few of us escape life without having a prank pulled on us. We may sometimes brush them off as harmless but where is the line between a juvenile joke and dangerous prank? As the recent royal hoax proved, the line separating the two is wafer thin.

Pranks are popular because no one can ascertain the reaction of the "victims". It is that look of horror, disgust or fear that draws and captivates the audience. And therein lies the danger. Many such antics have ended badly because the pranksters go to great lengths to get such a response. A case in point is the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, which elicited more outrage than laughs.

On Oct 30, 1938, millions of Americans were shocked when radio news alerts announced the arrival of Martians. They panicked when they learned of the Martians' ferocious and seemingly unstoppable assault on Earth. A huge meteorite had apparently smashed into a New Jersey farm, and New York was under attack by aliens. Many ran out of their homes screaming.

Though what the radio listeners heard was a portion of Orson Welles' adaptation of the well-known book, War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, many of the listeners believed every single thing they heard on the radio.

Newspaper offices as well as radio and police stations were flooded with calls by the hysterical, asking how they could flee their city or how they should protect themselves from the alien "gas raids". Scores of adults reportedly required medical treatment.

With the Mayan prediction of Armageddon next week, a similar broadcast on Dec 21 might likely result in mass hysteria, too.

More recently was the case of a viral video on YouTube. Titled Extremely scary ghost elevator prank in Brazil, the video has secured 51,267,425 hits (at press time). It showed several people being spooked, on separate occasions, by a heavily made-up little "ghost" girl in the lifts. It's fortunate that none of them suffered heart failure when the pale girl suddenly materialised in a seemingly empty lift.

Another popular YouTube video showed a man having the carpet pulled out from under him. Usually, the "victim" would suffer nothing more than a sore bottom but this ill-fated man fell headfirst out of a first-floor window.

The mass and social media should think twice before running or uploading such antics for the entertainment of a public increasingly captivated by the ridiculous and ludicrous. It is never funny, and sometimes even fatal, to be on the wrong end of such tomfoolery.

Chok Suat Ling is New Sunday Times editor.

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