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HindustanTimes Wed,30 Jul 2014
A joke gone wrong
Karan Thapar , Hindustan Times
December 15, 2012
First Published: 22:12 IST(15/12/2012)
Last Updated: 23:03 IST(15/12/2012)

Sometimes the media don’t think before they ask questions. That was the case, last week when they debated: ‘Are the Australian radio jockeys to blame for the death of the Indian nurse Jacintha Saldanha?’ The answer is clearly no. In fact, very definitely not. And if the media had considered the question carefully, for even one nano second, they would have come to the same conclusion.

However, let me first state that this in no way denies that what happened was deeply tragic. It’s one of those bewilderingly sad stories that can never be explained. It was not intended to end this way. That’s what makes it heart-rending.

But, remember, it was a joke. It may have gone horribly wrong but it was still a prank. And it’s the sort of thing the media in the West often do. More importantly, it’s the sort of thing ordinary people often do. I certainly have.

April fool jokes may not excite the media in India but they are traditional fare for the western press. I recall The Guardian publishing an entire supplement on a non-existent island, with details of its history, culture, tourist attractions and even an in-depth analysis of its politics, which took in thousands of gullible readers.

Earlier this year, this very column played a similar joke on April 1 when I wrote about Frederick Charles Uhuru Lullumbuwesi, the Bagato of Burungundi, to welcome him on his first state visit to India. A few saw through it but many swallowed my story hook, line and sinker.

Now the whole point of April fool jokes is to mislead and deceive. The aim is to make a twit of you. That’s exactly what the radio jockeys were doing.
Think carefully about the call they made. With obvious Australian accents, which stick out a mile in London, they claimed to be The Queen and Prince Charles. An even bigger give-away was the time of the call: 5:30 am. Undoubtedly they expected to have the phone banged down. It could never have occurred to them that a
London Hospital would actually accept it was the Monarch and her son.

As a kid I’ve done similar things. In the 1970s, when ministers had special RAX phones, I can remember a lunch at Dr Karan Singh’s when a group of us slipped into his study, picked up the red phone and rang members of Mrs Gandhi’s Cabinet claiming it was a call from 1, Safdarjung Road informing them of an emergency Cabinet meeting. Then we dashed to the Gymkhana Club and stood at the gate as ministerial limousines approached No 1 for the Cabinet meeting we had concocted.
It was a stupid prank. But that’s all it was. It’s the sort of joke people play from time to time. You can call it infantile. Even thoughtless. And, of course, it infuriates the victim. Yet it’s still a joke and nothing more.

It’s all of this that the media — in England as much as in India — forgot when they sought to raise deeper issues of responsibility and blame and pin them on the Australian radio jockeys.

That Mel Greig and Michael Christian are devastated is not guilt. Their tears are totally understandable. Which of us would not behave similarly if one of our silly jokes had gone so horribly wrong? But does that mean they’re to blame for the nurse’s tragic death?
Only if you want to create a story and don’t care about the answer.

Views expressed by the author are personal


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