Are advertisers the key to regulation?

BY MAYA RANGANATHAN| IN Media Practice | 11/12/2012
In earlier episodes too when media had crossed the line, public outrage was considerable. But it was the pulling out of advertising support that seemed to have a sobering effect on the stations and their presenters.
writes MAYA RANGANATHAN. Pix: Jacintha Saldanha,
The episode of the prank call by the Sydney-based 2 Day FM radio presenters Mel Greig and Michael Christian to the King Edward VII’s Hospital, to learn of Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton’s physical condition, is emerging as the latest lesson in media ethics, or more precisely the lack of it, in media the world-over. But it also highlights some aspects that seem to govern the media of today, the most significant being the extent to which advertisers are successful in regulating media.
Even as there is speculation on whether the presenters’ call that nurse Jacintha Saldanha forwarded could alone have led to the tragic decision to end her life, there seems to be an equal lack of clarity on where media must draw the line in its attempts to cater to what it believes are its niche audiences. This is not the first time that 2 Day FM or for that matter a media outlet, played a prank. It is taken to be part of the USP of talk-back radio in Australia where responses are ‘spontaneous’ and more ‘entertaining’ given the lack of moderation. Neither has consistent criticism impacted upon the format of talk-back radio, which plumps for a mix of ‘shock’ that necessarily involves ‘black humour’.  In September last, another popular radio station 2GB faced the threat of a boycott when Sydney broadcaster Alan Jones told a gathering of Liberal Party members that the Prime Minister’s father, John Gillard, had “died of shame.”
In both these cases, as also in earlier episodes when media had crossed the line, the public outrage was considerable. But it was the pulling out of advertising support that seemed to have a sobering effect on the stations and its presenters. In the case of Alan Jones, the immediate fall out was that sponsors decided to withdraw support leading Jones to apologise for his comments. (That Alan Jones has emerged a ‘ratings winner’ and remains a key figure in the media notwithstanding the calls for his removal following the scandal is a matter of discussion, perhaps in another context.)In the case of the 2 Day FM, advertising has been suspended fearing an advertising backlash, and the ‘Hot 30 show’ in which the hospital call  episode was aired has been taken off the air. What emerges then is that in the age of commercialisation of media, it is the advertisers who seem to hold the key to regulating media and not so much independent media monitoring agencies or even governments, particularly in democracies that live with a fear of what state control could mean to the media. A scary thought indeed that control will now rest with sponsors, but the heartening aspect is that the sponsors state that they react to people’s outrage expressed in social media like twitter and Facebook.
The episode also throws light on the extent of institutionalisation of such practices in media. A visibly distraught Greig and Christian appearing on television on Monday night said, “It’s not up to us to make that decision. We just record it and then it goes to the other departments to work out. I don’t know what they then do with it. We just do what we do, which is make those calls.” The decision to make the call seems to have been taken at a brainstorming session the previous evening. In Greig’s words, “We thought a hundred people before us would’ve tried it. We thought it was such a silly idea and the accents were terrible and not for a second did we expect to speak to Kate, let alone have a conversation with anyone at the hospital. We wanted to be hung up on.”
 Almost any journalist anywhere in the world can relate to the Greig and Christian’s predicament of being “at a certain point in the food chain” and being swept away by a greater power. As one columnist said, “There is little sympathy for them, it seems, and it perhaps overstates things to consider that they are somehow victims, but in the broader context, the machinery of breakfast radio is bigger than either of them, and the scars from this tragic episode will take a long time to heal.” So accepted have such practices become that individual journalists seem to have little to do or even think about on these matters. After all just a few days ago the story of the call was termed a ‘media coup’. It is anybody’s guess how many would have taken note of such practices if the outcome had not been as tragic.
A related issue is the emerging importance of inter-cultural communication in the age of globalisation. The Australian radio jockeys’ self-professed ‘terrible accents’ and ‘jokes that were part of the Australian culture’ struck no discordant note for Saldanha, who took the call at face value. While the presenters expected their bluff to be called, Saldanha seems to have least suspected that anyone would choose a hospital for a prank. Reporting the tragedy on December 9, the Sydney Morning Herald said, “The accent was comical at best but Mrs Saldanha could be excused for falling for the hoax perpetrated by a pair of Australian radio presenters. For she was born 5,000 miles from the London hospital, in Mangalore, a port city in the Konkan region of south-west India. Her upbringing was a world away from the lives of the wealthy patients for which she was caring; and from the tomfoolery and mockery of the Australian media.”In the age of fluid ‘scapes’, cultural understanding and sensitivity are becoming more important than ever. The episode would have soon been forgotten if only Saldanha did not have to contend with the reach and power of new technologies that spread the news to across continents in a jiffy.
It is the best of times and sadly, the worst of times too. The episode of the ‘prank call’ reveals the enormous complexity of the role media plays in the era of globalisation and availability of a multitude of communication platforms, and underlines the need to consider issues relating to media, including processes, procedures and ethics in different contexts.

(Maya Ranganathan teaches in the disciplines of ‘international communication’ and ‘media’ and researches on media and identities in Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW, Australia).

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