December 07, 2012

A Radio Prank, a Dead Nurse, and "The Right to be Forgotten"

I will not here attempt to assign blame for the death of 46-year-old Jacintha Saldanha, a married nurse and mother of two children, who apparently committed suicide after being "pranked" by Australian shock jocks Mel Greig and Michael Christian, in connection with the Duchess of Cambridge's hospitalization in London.

Obviously this pair did not intend to seriously injure or kill anyone. On the scale of pranks, there are far more dangerous stunts -- a series of "terrify the passengers" fake "elevator" hoaxes currently making the video rounds seem far more malicious and potentially harmful.

Then again, nobody was actually physically hurt, much less killed, in the elevator videos. A woman did die in the name of ratings for Greig, Christian, and Sydney station 2Day FM.

I will make no apologies for my distaste of radio shows and personalities that use the humiliation of innocents as the currency of their supposed entertainment value.

Yet we cannot know with any certainty the complex of personal circumstances that led to this likely suicide. We can, however, perhaps make some pretty good guesses.

While the hospital involved and the royal family assert that they did not heap scorn or punishment on the victim, the level of humiliation in any case must have been extraordinarily high.

In the age before the Internet, even a story with such drama would not likely have had a very long shelf life, a fact that might have limited the sense of humiliation felt by the victim, and also limited, as we shall discuss in a moment, the long-term impacts on the perpetrators of the prank.

But this is indeed the age of the Internet. Such events not only will be broadcast and published globally to an extent unimaginable just decades ago, but will also be -- for all practical purposes -- permanently archived.

When anyone searches for the names of those shock jocks in the future, the odds are very high that at or near the top of the results will be their roles in the tragedy of this death. There will be no escape for them, just as there is no way to resurrect the victim.

This is, in fact, as it should be. The death and their involvement are events that are inexorably associated, real and irrevocable, they are very much the stuff of reality.

Reality. It's a critical concept. It's a concept through which these events may also be viewed as an extraordinarily tragic -- but extremely important -- "teachable moment" related to the ill-conceived and dangerous censorship regime of the so-called "Right to be Forgotten" being pushed onward by the EU, despite their own study group calling it technically impossible to effectively implement.

It may seem harsh to some observers that in the future, searches for information about any of the parties impacted by this death will very likely prominently feature links to the associated sites and pages describing these days in detail. It also seems likely that if they could, many of these same parties -- the living ones, that is -- might like to "erase" or somehow de-emphasize these events from Web sites and search engine results.

However, just like attempting to change reality on the Web in any other cases through what amounts to a "right to censor what actually did occur" concept, this would be both wrong and incredibly damaging to our own "right to remember what has actually happened."

For it takes little imagination to visualize the vast numbers of players -- inside and outside governments -- who would joyously grasp the ability to slice pieces of reality off from public discovery or view, very much like Winston Smith's daily task in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Actions have consequences. And the Internet has a very long memory. Those are the realities of the world in which we live. They cannot be wished away. Nor should we desire to treat actual events as if they were merely mutable phantasms or fantasies.

For reality is always important. All too often, and of course not just in the tragic case today, it truly is a matter of life and death.


Posted by Lauren at December 7, 2012 07:52 PM | Permalink
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