Media watchdog to hold talks with Today Network over prank call linked to nurse’s apparent suicide

today network logoMedia regulator the Australian Communications and Media Authority is to hold talks with the Today Network over the prank call which appears to have later led to the suicide of a nurse in the UK.

However, ACMA appears to be so far resisting opening a formal investigation into the stunt – which saw presenters Michael “MC” Christian and Mel Greig impersonate Prince Charles and The Queen in a telephone call to the London hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge was being treated for morning sickness.

It was reported this morning that the nurse Jacintha Saldanha, who put the call though, appeared to have killed herself.

This morning ACMA chairman Chris Chapman issued a statement saying:

“These events are a tragedy for all involved and I pass on my heartfelt condolences to the family of the deceased nurse in London.

“The ACMA does not propose to make any comments at this stage, but will be engaging with the licensee, Today FM Sydney, around the facts and issues surrounding the prank call.”

The usual system of media regulation is for complaints to first be directed to the radio station, and for them to go to ACMA only if the person who complained is unhappy with the outcome. However, in extraordinary circumstances, ACMA can initiate its own investigation.

Two rules of the commercial radio code of practice are likely to come under particular scrutiny.

The first is item 2.1 (d) of the code of practice. It states programs must: “not use material relating to a person’s personal or private affairs, or which invades an individual’s privacy, unless there is a public interest in broadcasting such information.”

But this rule only refers to news and current affairs programs, so the Southern Cross Austereo-owned network may well be able to argue that the show was not covered by this rule. However, content from the prank call was later used in the network’s own news bulletins.

The incident is likely to put the radio industry and ACMA under pressure to widen the scope of the rules around privacy.

A second part of the code of practice, item 6.1 states:

“A licensee must not broadcast the words of an identifiable person unless:

“(a) that person has been informed in advance or a reasonable person would be aware that the words may be broadcast; or
“(b) in the case of words which have been recorded without the  knowledge of the person, that person has subsequently, but prior  to the broadcast, expressed consent to the broadcast of the  words.”

The recording of the call was vetted by SCA’s lawyers before broadcast and the nurse’s name was edited out. However, debate may focus n the definition of whether the nurse was an “identifiable person” anyway, particularly as her name has now been brought into the public domain.

If ACMA does become involved, the scrutiny is potentially likely to effect a string of licenses because the Summer 30 show was aired nationally across the Today Network including on 2Day FM in Sydney, Fox FM in Melbourne, B105 in Brisbane, 92.9 in Perth and SAFM in Adelaide.

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