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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Supervisor

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a well establis...

Recruitment Genius: IT Technical Support Engineer / Helpdesk Engineer

£16500 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to continued growth an exce...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A full-service agency based in ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £21,000

£16000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to company expansion a fant...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Budget 2015: George Osborne should earn his reputation for courage by abolishing free TV licences for the over 75s

Christopher Bland
The possibility of Corbyn winning has excited some Conservatives  

Labour leadership: The choice at the heart of the leadership campaign

Jeremy Corbyn
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy