Between guilt and innocence: 2Day FM and the moral blame game

There is a difference between legal responsibility and moral responsibility, argues philosophy lecturer Patrick Stokes in a post first published on The Conversation.

This past weekend, we saw the media – old, new, and social – trying to digest the indigestible. The death of Jacintha Saldanha, the British nurse who apparently took her own life after being caught up in a prank phone call from 2DayFM DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian, is one of those stories that is so sad, so utterly pointless and bewildering, as to leave us gasping for something, anything, coherent to say about it.

There’s also something frighteningly random in how things seem to have played out: a simple, farcical prank call from the other side of the planet, and suddenly a 46 year old woman – a mother of two and from all accounts a dedicated and well-regarded professional – is dead. That she is appears to be, from what we know at this stage, the result of decisions that had nothing to do with her. No one set out to cause this, no one could have seen it coming, but the feeling remains that someone – Greig and Christian, Austereo management, the hospital, the media, the cult of celebrity itself – must be to blame.

Blaming, as it happens, is something the internet is very good at. Within hours, the 2DayFM Facebook page was inundated with angry messages. Twitter lit up with outrage. Some of the response has been decidedly sinister.

But among the calls for retribution there were others defending the presenters and expressing concern for their welfare. The DJs clearly didn’t intend for anything like this to happen. As Peter FitzSimons, writing for Fairfax points out, such pranks are an everyday part of the FM radio repertoire.

FitzSimons doesn’t stop to ask whether it’s ever OK to misrepresent yourself in order to make someone the unwitting object of fun, let alone whether calling a hospital to gain private information on a patient’s condition is ever acceptable.

But FitzSimons’ article is revealing in another way. He draws on his “garden-variety legal studies” to remind us that the test of negligence is “whether or not a ‘reasonable man’ might have had any expectation that their actions would have resulted in the kind of tragedy we have seen.”

Surely, we can’t accuse Greig and Christian of negligence given there’s no way they could have predicted this outcome?

But legal responsibility isn’t the same thing as moral responsibility. Courts have to make clear decisions, a practical purpose for which they need artificial rules and procedures. The “reasonable man” test provides a rough but workable way to delimit responsibility: if the consequences of our action are so remote that a reasonable person could not have predicted them, then we’re not answerable for those consequences.

That might be good enough for a courtroom, where we need final decisions about who is responsible for what. But without this artificial context, the boundaries of moral responsibility seem to be far more ambiguous.

Indeed, there is an uneasy grey area between moral guilt and complete innocence. Philosophers have been troubled by this ever since Bernard Williams coined the term “moral luck” more than 30 years ago. Strictly speaking, “luck” shouldn’t have anything to do with morality: since Kant, the standard view has been that you’re only responsible for what you do, or could have done but failed to.

Yet in fact, it’s alarming just how much of what we praise and blame people for depends upon factors beyond their control. We condemn the coward, but no-one willingly chooses cowardice. We regard the drunk driver who kills a pedestrian as more culpable than one who doesn’t, even though it’s only random chance that separates the two cases. We tolerate, and indeed reward, an uneven and unearned distribution of talents. The idea that we’re only responsible for what we can control seems to be strained at every turn by our moral intuitions and practices.

And as Williams notes, there is a phenomenon of “agent-regret,” a sense that it would have been better if we had acted differently. Such agent-regret remains even when we know what has happened is not, strictly, our fault. There is, according to Susan Wolf, a “nameless virtue that urges us, as a matter of both moral character and of psychic health, to recognise and accept (to an appropriate degree) the effects of our actions as significant for who we are and for what we should do.”

Journalist Jane Hansen’s revealingly honest piece in the Australian illustrates the grey zone of agent-regret perfectly. It’s a sobering reminder of how unclear the boundaries between guilt and innocence, between culpable agent and victim of circumstance, often are.

That’s not what we want, of course. We want to affix blame and move on. We want to carve the world up into the innocent and the guilty and hand out their just deserts.

But we can’t. Think about it for more than a tweet-length and suddenly even our most basic ideas about the limits of responsibility fail us. Who is to blame? Are Greig and Christian to be pilloried or pitied? Can it be both? Neither? It’s simply indigestible.

The Conversation


  1. BJD
    11 Dec 12
    1:58 pm

  2. Wow! One of the most sensible pieces I have read on this saga since it began.
    It could just go on and on – it needs to stop somewhere.

  3. Branko Miletic
    11 Dec 12
    2:19 pm

  4. Perhaps the problem here is that some Australians, with the local media as a particular bad example, think the whole world is some sort of silly, giggly joke-fest that they need to be part of. This is not the first time we have had issues with ‘media’ types- and I use the term very, very loosely – getting themselves into strife over their big mouths and their seemingly juvenile sense of humour. Think The Chaser, Alan Jones, Kyle Sandilands and now these pre-school jokers. I have news for all budding journos / media types out there- the rest of the world- and if you don’t know where that is try Google Maps- does not live in some pre-pubescent toddler time joke fest where everything under the sun is apparently funny or open to your ridicule, where we all make lame jokes about even the most sensitive and personal things and where pulling schoolboy pranks is seen as a road to fame and fortune. That is called, in most parts of this planet as being immature and dumb. No really, I know it sounds too crazy to be true, but acting like a stupid little child means that you are- well- a stupid little child really. And then getting your PR hacks to put you in front of a bank of cameras so you can cry like a little baby to show us all how really, really, really sorry you claim to be is just too much. Here is some timely advice – try acting your age and not your shoe size and this kind of thing wont happen again.

  5. Wendles
    11 Dec 12
    6:00 pm

  6. Brando, I quite enjoy a little fun in the world… It would not have happened if the hospital had a proper protocol for fielding calls. The kind of world you describe sounds very serious – depressing even!

  7. Branko Miletic
    11 Dec 12
    8:37 pm

  8. Yes Wendles, its the hospitals fault- how stupid of me not to realise that. I assume then, by that logic, its also the the fault of the pedestrian for dying on us and not the fault of the drink driver who runs him/her down? As a journo, I am sad to admit that world I describe exists every day in the press. I dont mind a good joke or five- toilet humour included and I certainly do not think those two radio presenters meant to harm anyone, however when you act like a tosser, rarely will any good come out of that. But perhaps I was too hard on them. This city is also full of self-styled and over-paid ‘ show programmers’ whose only ‘talent’ is to come up with vomit-laden brainless crap (Channel 10 anyone?) that they have copied from elsewhere and as such they too should share some of the blame and pain. Its almost 2013 and our radio stations are paying some inner-city 29 year old wannabe serious coin to come up with mindless schoolboy pranks on a radio show. And we have the hide to poke fun at the Americans? Yes they have heaps of garbage on their mass media channels, but then again we have nothing like The Daily Show/Colbert Report for example. Why? Because that takes not huge amounts of money but intelligence, wit and a true understanding of comedic timing- something that is in short supply in our tosser-infested and highly incestuous mediascape.

  9. SydneyNudism
    12 Dec 12
    1:12 pm

  10. Just watch how quickly this issue will fade away when the next big news drama unfolds.

  11. Wendles
    13 Dec 12
    3:16 am

  12. @ Branko, you do have a little bee in your bonnet… I get what you are saying but if there was no demand for this kind of crap it wouldn’t exist. People are listening to these young broadcasters making their silly little pranks… That’s why they do it. It’s a matter of commerce. If you’re not happy with the broadcasting you switch it off, no? And yes, if the hospital had a proper protocol in place to field calls then none of this would have happened… The call wouldn’t have gone through. I’m not really sure how you ‘logically’ related this to pedestrians being killed by drunk divers? Anyway, with regards to there being little demand for intelligence and wit – again, it’s a matter of commerce & personal taste. I hope you find something you like out there!