In this post-Savile, post-Leveson Britain, prank calls can still raise the stink of McCarthyism

In my younger days I gained a certain notoriety for prank calls, so I can speak with some authority on the Australian call to the royal hospital

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The Independent Online

Most Decembers, this annual Baby Jesus Fest simply toughens my already atheistic outlook to a diamond-like hardness; but this year I’ve been unashamedly down on my knees, praising Our Lord for His kindness in having made me so uncompromisingly physiognomically ugly. Let me explain. Back in the early 1970s, during my acne-ravaged adolescence, I presented a show for kids on local radio (well, I had the perfect face for radio), and periodically visited the Top of the Pops studio at BBC TV Centre to interview the pop luminaries of the day.

Never mind about John Peel hanging out with The Beatles, I was at TV Centre when Mud recorded “Tiger Feet”, when Peters bumped into Lee (again), when The Sweet performed “Blockbuster”, and Marie Osmond sang “Paper Roses”. I interviewed all of them, along with Kenny Everett, Jonathan King, Jimmy Savile, and Gary Glitter (in the days when people still wanted to be in his gang); yet, apparently unlike almost every other teenager who went there, nothing untoward ever happened to me backstage. Diddly squat. Zilch. No wandering hands, no furtive gropes, no forced mid-air refuelling with tongues, nothing.

Indeed, I can still recall the look of sheer disappointment on one star’s face when his dressing-room door burst open and he first set eyes not on the flawless skin of the graceful young Adonis that he had imagined when he’d had the call from BBC local radio, but on the grinning, zit-covered, baked-bean face of the egregious 14-year-old boy who had come to record an interview. And when I left 20 minutes later, it was with nothing more memorable than a five-inch tape full of uninteresting and underwhelming pop chatter.

During those “difficult” years, I was often reduced to begging members of my own family to molest me (but even my relatives wouldn’t touch me with a bargepole). So perhaps it’s no surprise that none of the glamorous people in this wonderful business we call the show ever tried to have their wicked way with my adolescent self at the BBC.

There is no doubt that some despicable crimes were committed in the TOTP studio during the 1970s (and not merely crimes against music), but there’s the self-righteous stink of a McCarthyite witch-hunt in the air of post-Savile, post-Leveson Britain at present, and it reveals neither the press nor the public in a particularly good light. Indeed, the ghastly eagerness with which the shabby details of each new arrest by the Operation Yewtree squad are pored over – including the identities of people who may never be charged with any offence at all, but whose reputations are nevertheless being shredded for our amusement – smacks to me of public prurience, fuelled by a (very British) dark and repressed sexuality, camouflaged as national shock and outrage.

This same vindictive mentality now seems to be fanning the flames over the appalling death of Jacintha Saldanha, following a hoax call from an Australian radio station. No tears of remorse or expressions of regret from the hapless presenters (who are both clearly a bit thick, but equally clearly had no malevolent intent when they made their call) are sufficient to sate the vindictive appetites of the Twitterati and the self-appointed moral guardians of the British press as they relentlessly bully their prey, while hypocritically claiming to be outraged by the supposedly bullying nature of a prank call that went wrong. What if the Aussie pair are themselves driven to despair and suicide? Will that satisfy these self-righteous arbiters of morality?

Frankly, I think the Australian pair should be sent to prison for a long stretch, not because of the unforeseeable consequences of their spoof, but because it was one of the least funny hoax calls in history, and therefore a crime against the profession.

Some readers may be aware that, in my younger days, I too gained a certain notoriety for making prank calls. Indeed, Kayvan Novak (Fonejacker) once wrote to me (when he was a kid) to ask for advice on how to do it, and Sacha Baron Cohen (whom I once met in a TV post-production house we were both using) happily admitted that he’d purloined my hoax-call techniques, so I can speak with some authority on this subject.

What was wrong about the Australian call was that a hoax is justified only when it’s funny, and when it exposes the hypocrisy of the powerful. Talking of hypocrisy, I have to confess that I’ve missed the target on a few occasions myself, but the Australian pair didn’t even have a satirical target in mind when they made their call, and that makes their case impossible to defend.

If I were to make a hoax call this week, I’d pick a powerful target, such as – to take a random example – the press office at Buckingham Palace, which has been uncharacteristically quiet in recent days, following its uncharacteristically hasty denial that it had ever uttered even a single word of admonishment to either nurse. Indeed, I haven’t yet heard a single convincing word from it about what its own response (as opposed to the hospital’s response) was to the accidental release of medical details by nurses at the hospital.

Perhaps my call could establish whether someone from the Palace press office had, in fact, complained furiously about the nurse allowing the hoax callers to get through, and whether that royal fury might have further increased the pressure that Jacintha Saldanha was already feeling. Because, at the moment, there’s something about this deeply sad story that just doesn’t ring true.

A collection of Victor Lewis-Smith’s TV reviews is published this week by Badastral Books, and is available on Amazon and Kindle.