Friday, July 31, 2009

Breakfast Radio Show: Cruel Entertainment

Kyle Sandilands and Jackie O are being criticised at the moment for something that happened on their breakfast show. They hooked a 14 year old girl up to a lie detector and got her mother to ask her questions. When the mother asked about the girl’s sexual history, the girl broke down and said she was raped.

The police is now involved with investigating the rape, which was never reported. And although most people seem to agree that Sandilands and Jackie O would not have known about the rape, questions have been asked about why they would get a 14 year old to answer questions from their mother while hooked up to a lie detector in the first place.

The focus has been very much on Sandilands and Jackie O and this specific incident, but questions also need to be asked about breakfast shows in general. Much as they deserve our criticism, they were working in the type of environment where ratings and publicity is important. They didn’t decide to pull this stunt in isolation of all other factors. They did it because they understand the types of stunts that the media talk about and that pull in the listeners.

It’s easy to see that a 14 year old girl breaking down and admitting to a rape is not a good thing. But are we so easily upset when radio shows constantly do things that place a high value on entertainment, and not much value on people. I don’t listen to Sandilands and Jackie O. But I have listened to some breakfast radio shows. And many of them seem to always be pulling the kind of pranks where others can get hurt. It doesn’t seem to matter, so long as people are listening.

And that’s where perhaps society is at least a bit in fault in the Sandilands and Jackie O incident. Because we listen. And we laugh. When someone rings someone up, pretending to be someone else, and gets a pretty annoyed person on the other line, we think it’s funny. When a competition is held that involves people doing things they really should not be doing, we either enter or we at least tune in to see who wins.

We’re like the audience at a Roman gladiator contest. It’s easy to tell ourselves we’re not to blame because we’re not the ones actually organising the event. But if it wasn’t for our attendance and our desire to ‘see blood’, the events would not be held in the first place.

Who really is to blame? Sandilands and Jackie O for organising this. Or the many listeners who would have tuned in, even though at least some of them would have suspected that it wasn’t quite right. If the girl had not broken down and confessed to rape, would it have just been another radio prank that is talked about in offices and laughed about with friends. Would we have been so ready to say it was a wrong thing to do? Or would we have kept silent, and listened in the next time they did something similar. Because hey, it might be wrong. But it was entertaining.

We live in a world where we are constantly entertained. We have TVs, radios, DVD players, Playstations, iPods, the internet. It takes a lot to catch our attention. And this need to entertain is not just relegated to the media. Even churches, shopping centres and schools feel this pressure to be entertaining.

And unfortunately, what often entertains us is the misfortune of others. We are entertained when people are hurt, angry, annoyed or fighting. If it’s controversial, so much the better. In the blogging community I used to write for, the posts that got the highest ratings and the most comments were not the ones that were particularly well written or had something valuable to say. They were the ones where people were arguing or saying mean things.

When I first started writing this post, I was feeling quite virtuous. Other people might be at fault in the Sandilands and Jackie O incident, but not me. I don’t listen to them. The only breakfast radio show I listen to is Radio National, and they’re definitely prank free. But you know what? In that old blogging community, I used to check out the posts where people were arguing just as much as anyone else. It seems I too am entertained by arguments, fights and squabbles. And it’s this desire to ‘see blood’ that allows those kind of things to continue.

Now I don’t want to let Sandilands and Jackie O off the hook. What they did was wrong. And I don’t want to lump all breakfast shows in together. I am sure that some of them do realise the importance of people and know when to draw the line. And I also know that many of them do good things for people, through their fundraising efforts and giving people a voice that they otherwise would not have.

But I think the question still needs to be asked, not just by breakfast show hosts, not just by people in the media, but by everyone who has ever entertained others or ever sought to be entertained. When does entertainment become cruelty?

(Image details - Pollice Verso by Jean-Leon Gerome)

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