I'm just as guilty as the Aussie prank-callers

Steve Penk says blaming 2DAY FM presenters is unfair

By Steve Penk
Posted 4 March 2015, 10.27am est

They really are hounding the Australian DJ's and their radio station (Sydney's Hit 104.1 2DAY FM) for their pound of flesh aren't they? This has been going on for two years!

For over 20 years I have been making Wind Up prank phone calls to people across the world. There are many different types of Wind Ups you can do.

First, you can call someone who has been nominated by a close friend or family member, someone who knows them very well and knows a subject that will press all the right buttons to get the Wind Up reaction you need, and as a result some great entertainment value for the audience listening at home. This also serves to defuse the situation afterwards when you explain they were nominated for a wind up by their husband, wife, brother, sister or best friend, resulting in a nice warm friendly conclusion.

The other type of Wind Up is the cold call, nobody knows you're about to call, you don't know the person you are calling, and you are literally flying by the seat of your pants.

This was the type of call made by Australian DJ's Mel Greig and Mike Christian when they called King Edward VII's hospital in London, with a terrible impression of The Queen in an attempt to speak to Kate Middleton.

What everyone needs to remember, at the time of this call, that this was a big news story: plus Kate was in for nothing major, she was in hospital suffering from 'morning sickness' something millions of pregnant women suffer with everyday and I'm not belittling it, I'm simply pointing out it was a trivial matter she was in hospital for, nothing life threatening for her or the baby. My wife simply ate extra strong mints to deal with her heartburn and morning sickness when pregnant with our children, but I suppose when you're royalty, you simply check into a private hospital for a few days, because you don't really live in the real world.

On the morning the call was made to the hospital by the DJ's, Jacintha Saldanha answered the phone, she spoke 4 words, when asked by Mel (who was pretending to be The Queen) could she speak to Kate her granddaughter, Jacintha simply replied "Oh yes, hold on".

The call was then transferred to the Duchess's nurse who then spent a further two minutes talking to the DJ's, who were pretending to be The Queen and Prince Charles. Both impressions were terrible, but that was part of the fun and the charm of the Wind Up. Not for one minute when they placed the call did Mel and Mike think anyone in London would believe them, but astonishingly, and comically they did. At this point no real harm had been done.

Nobody could ever have predicted what happened next when two days after the call was broadcast in Australia, Jacintha was found dead in her nurses quarters at the hospital.

Everyone was very quick to push ALL the blame of this tragedy solely onto the radio station and the DJ's. But I have a problem with this. There was no malice involved in this Wind Up, it was harmless fun. Even the impressions of The Queen and Prince Charles were like something out of a Carry On film: they were ridiculous, caricature, jokey impressions.

I found it odd and uncomfortable how quickly the hospital came out and were keen to push all the blame onto the Australian radio station.

Of course this made it all rather convenient: it immediately helped minimise the extreme embarrassment the hospital must have felt at the time. As the Royal hospital, they had failed the most basic levels of security by putting this call through in the first place. We live in a world of blame culture, and if someone can pass all the blame to somebody else and take it away from themselves, people do it.

I find it rather strange that nobody has ever questioned how the hospital bosses dealt with Jacintha on that particular day when she put that call through. The hospital were a little to quick for my liking to come out and say that neither Saldanha nor the other nurse was disciplined by the hospital. Well, of course. If that's what they said happened, then I suppose we have no choice but to believe them, do we? However, it was reported at the time that Jacintha had left three handwritten notes, one of which was directed at her employer, criticizing their handling of events that preceded the prank call. You can draw your own conclusion.

When I made my Wind Up call to Tony Blair, when he was Prime Minister, I didn't sit there before I made that call thinking to myself... I wonder if the person who answers the call at 10 Downing Street switchboard has issues? Will the person who answered the 10 Downing Street switchboard feel so ashamed and embarrassed after putting my call through to Tony Blair, that she will kill herself in a few days time? Of course that thought never crossed my mind, and neither did a similar thought cross the minds of the Australian DJ's either. The call was made as an item within an entertainment based radio show, no malice, no nasty undertones, no hidden agenda, just a bit of lighthearted fun.

If we over analyse everything we do in life we would never do anything.

Someone lost a wife, a daughter, a mother, and that is terribly sad. What happened with Jacintha was a tragedy nobody could ever have predicted, but to keep on pushing all the blame onto the Australian radio station and DJ's is ridiculous and ludicrous.

If the Australian radio station and its DJ's broke the law, then I am also guilty as charged for calling Tony Blair.

I expect to be arrested and thrown in the Tower immediately.

  • Mel Grieg is speaking at Radiodays Europe in two weeks giving her own side of the story.
  • Steve has just launched a YouTube channel featuring some of his new and classic Wind Up phone calls.
Steve Penk — Manchester-born Steve Penk has worked for national and local radio stations, and is renowned for his wind-up calls. He started his career in Manchester in 1978.


7 years, 2 months ago

I am not in the least bit surprised that someone that seems to be as talentless as you, Steve Penk, makes such comments. I admit that I am using this strong comment purely to grab your attention - but I am using it because I find it utterly disappointing that any radio presenter considers the "art" of making wind-up calls as pivotal moments of their career. It suggests to me that you have no other worthy ideas that you consider to be better to entertain your listeners with. Instead you put a great amount of emphasis on something that YOU (and maybe a few like-minded listeners) think of as being "harmless fun."

I have heard quite a few wind-up calls, by other presenters for which, even for a few moments, the person being called has been put through a moment of stress and anxiety, which causes emotions ranging from anger to being deeply upset. So, it's wrong to suggest that it's harmless fun, even if the final outcome is the admission that they had their leg pulled by a radio deejay who is trying to sustain his or her career because they don't have other better ideas that they think are worth using instead (it's called Jumping The Shark - named after those notorious Happy Days episodes that contributed to the TV program being pulled).

Fortunately, most of the time, the people who have endured those few moments of strong emotions recover quite quickly, calm down and laugh it all off. Other people are not quite so capable of that and the consequences can be quite bad. Whether those people may or may not have mental health issues still does not and should not detract from the fact that a shallow-minded radio deejay is going through a weaker moment in their career and is trying to make a cheap joke because they are getting paid to do so and they can't think of anything better to entertain their audience with. That is morally wrong and anyone with any kind of moral compass would recognise that. Do you have one, Steve?

Putting aside the question about morals in relation to wind-up calls to one side, the thing that really ought to make most people realise that this rather stupid stunt (that ended in tragedy) was wrong is also down to the matter of privacy.

Two quite talentless radio presenters in a foreign country who were on air and seemingly had absolutely nothing else to talk about, no better ideas to come up with, no abilities to create something else that could have been compelling enough for their listeners to listen into and stayed tune, both decided (possibly in collaboration with other members of staff at the station) to make a phone call to a hospital in another country, where someone was in a hospital bed being attended to for an illness. That person may have been a public figure but it absolutely did not give those "presenters" any kind of right to invade Kate's privacy.

I am not a royalist. I'm Scottish - I don't care very much about the royal family but I certainly do care enough to recognise that even if this was intended as an attrociously cheap joke, without malice as you say, it was still a total downright invasion of privacy by insignificant, worthless, radio people who shouldn't have had a job on radio if that was the supposed peak of their talents and abilities. It was utterly pathetic!!!!

Now, as part of Australia's laws on privacy, their High Court has ruled that 2Day FM did not get consent from the people featured in the phone call to air it and therefore should not have broadcast it.

OfCom has similar regulations over here. I made Robin Galloway realise that soon after he started his gig on Scot FM in the mid 1990's. I did that after hearing one of his wind-up calls for which I felt concern for the person receiving it. I was a much younger person then but I considered, even back then, that the whole act of wind-up calls could ultimately cause someone (and it would only take one person) great harm. As it turned out, Robin and Scot FM did not seek permission from the victim to have the call aired and my complaint was upheld, even though the Radio Authority's own broadcasting guidelines said they had to - so that showed a disregard for broadcasting laws, for a bit of "harmless fun."

No-one has suggested that those two idiots had blood on their hands over Jacintha's death, no-one can be blamed outright for that - but both of them and the radio station have been rightfully found guilty of a breach of privacy.

Again Steve, whilst I may have called you talentless at the beginning of this post, I would find it quite hard to believe that you are not capable of distancing yourself from such a cheap form of "entertainment" as wind-up calls and being able to create better program and entertainment concepts instead. I find it truly sad that you continue to take the stance that you do and still go outside of moral decency and even a High Court ruling and defend this ..... thing ........ that you find so worthwhile flogging, even though the public have since moved on and failed to find it funny or listenable any more, save for a few like-minded shallow people that may be listening to your podcasts. Even one of your industry fellows, Robin Galloway, has moved on from it - and I really respect him for that.

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