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.