Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A brief note on the hospital call prank

by D.J. Webb

We have probably all listened to the hoax call to Edward VII Hospital in which an Australian radio show phoned the hospital pretending to be the Queen in the hope of obtaining information about Kate Mountbatten née Middleton’s confinement. While, of course, I do not celebrate the fact that a nurse is believed to have committed suicide, I cannot join in the condemnation of the phonecall.

The phonecall was funny, lighthearted in intent, and transparently not from the Queen. The accents were extraordinarily phoney, and the call was littered with humorous comments about the Queen having to go and feed the corgis, etc. The male presenter also attempted to imitate the yapping of corgis at one point. The call was just “high jinx” — a joke. They could not have known that the nurse would commit suicide — and such a reaction is by no means a logical consequence of having been the “victim” of such a prank. There must be more to this story. Was the nurse already suffering from depression? How did the hospital management regard her failing to observe protocol and put this call through? This is a top private hospital, after all, and it can be expected that the management of such facilities do have words with members of staff who do not protect the privacy of their patients.

Whatever the background, the radio station making the prank call is not responsible for the suicide. It was not “quality journalism” — there is nothing ‘Reithian’ about this radio programme – but it was not highly objectionable either. Now, to my dismay, the two radio presenters involved have been disciplined, and their show may be permanently cancelled. I would not like to see two promising careers ended over this incident, as the extreme reaction of the nurse could not have been foreseen. This could feed into calls for more controls on the press, including arrangements for the protection of privacy. Most of such laws and proposed laws go too far – and the Royal family are about the most legitimate targets of an intrusive media in Britain today.

You could argue that ordinary people should not be subject to scurrilous media attention, but the Royal family have courted the attention of the Press when it has suited them. We should always err on the side of press freedom, although that does mean that silly prank calls will take place in a free country.


Note that the hospital bears a considerable responsibility also.  If they had employed a native speaker of English in the reception role, she would have been highly likely to have detected the amateurish hoax immediately.  All men (and women) are not equal

Free speech tripped up by offensive line


I WISH to discuss the boundary between hate speech, a significant factor in social inclusion, and free speech, perhaps the most fundamental human right underpinning participation in public life.

This issue has been controversial in Australia in recent years, in the context of the racial vilification provision in section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, which is proposed to be re-enacted as section 51 of the new omnibus legislation, the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012.

There may now have elapsed sufficient time for us to debate the issue dispassionately, and not on the basis of whether you like Andrew Bolt. The focus of that debate was not on the existence of a racial vilification provision but on the breadth of the conduct to which section 18C extends: namely, conduct "reasonably likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person".

The key criticism was directed to the fact the section made speech that merely "offends" unlawful. A similar, but less powerful objection, can be made to the reference to "insult".

These matters have long concerned me, but my thoughts have crystallised after reading a book by Jeremy Waldron, one of the foremost jurisprudential scholars of our time, with joint appointments to Oxford University and New York University law school.

From the perspective of society, Waldron emphasises inclusiveness as a public good, providing an assurance and sense of security to all members of the society that they can live their lives without facing hostility, violence, discrimination or exclusion.

From the other perspective, of those who are meant to benefit from this assurance, the fundamental human right that is affirmed is the right to dignity. Hate speech undermines the sense of assurance and denies the dignity of individuals.

The section of Waldron's hate speech book that is of particular significance for our debate is the chapter he devotes to establishing the proposition that protection of dignity does not require protection from being offended. As he puts it:

"Laws restricting hate speech should aim to protect people's dignity against assault. Dignity in that sense may need protection against attack, particularly against group-directed attacks. However, I do not believe that it should be the aim of these laws to prevent people from being offended. Protecting people's feelings against offence is not an appropriate objective for the law."

I agree with Waldron. His detailed analysis supports the proposition that declaring conduct, relevantly speech, to be unlawful because it causes offence goes too far. The freedom to offend is an integral component of freedom of speech. There is no right not to be offended.

I am not aware of any international human rights instrument, or national anti-discrimination statute in another liberal democracy, that extends to conduct that is merely offensive.

Section 19(2)(b) of the proposed Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012 introduces "offending" into the definition of discrimination for all purposes, not just for racial vilification. The new S19 defines, for the first time, discrimination by unfavourable treatment to include "conduct that offends, insults or intimidates" another person. Significantly, unlike existing S18C (or its replacement by the new S51), there is no element of objectivity, as presently found in the words "reasonably likely to offend". It appears to me the new bill contains a subjective test of being offended.

There are 18 "protected attributes" set out in section 17 of the draft bill, seven of which apply only in the employment context. These are wide ranging and, in some respects, novel.

The inclusion of religion as a "protected attribute" in the workplace appears to me, in effect, to make blasphemy unlawful at work but not elsewhere. The controversial Danish cartoons could be published but not taken to work.

Similar anomalies could arise with other workplace-protected attributes, such as political opinion, social origin and nationality.

Further, each of the four existing commonwealth anti-discrimination acts proscribe publication of an advertisement or notice that indicates an intention to engage in discriminatory conduct. Section 53 of the new omnibus bill goes further into freedom of speech territory by extending this proscription beyond advertisements to any publication.

The new bill proposes a significant redrawing of the line between permissible and unlawful speech. A freedom that is contingent on proving, after the event, that it was exercised reasonably or on some other exculpatory basis is a much reduced freedom.

Further, as is well known, the chilling effect of the mere possibility of legal processes will prevent speech that could have satisfied an exception.

When rights conflict, drawing the line too far in favour of one degrades the other right. Words such as "offend" and "insult" impinge on freedom of speech in a way that words such as "humiliate", "denigrate," "intimidate", "incite hostility" or "hatred" or "contempt", do not. To go beyond language of the latter character, in my opinion, goes too far.

We should take care not to put ourselves in a position where others could reasonably assert that we are in breach of our international treaty obligations to protect freedom of speech.


$1m to help education workers feel good despite Baillieu Government job cuts

No word on whether there was any evident benefit

EDUCATION workers have undergone "emotional intelligence" sessions on coping with change under the Baillieu Government.

The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, which is axing more than 400 jobs to meet savings under the Government's "sustainable government initiative", has spent more than $1 million on workshops and training sessions since March last year.

About 25 per cent of the money was spent on 103 workshops, seminars and training dealing with change, documents released under Freedom of Information reveal.

The courses included Recognising and Managing Stressed Employees, Managing Change and Building Resilience, Leading Through Change, Coping with and Managing Through Change and Understanding and Coping With Change.

In October the department paid $56,000 for career support seminars to help staff manage their careers and apply for jobs.

It also spent $62,700 on a two-day workshop titled Managing With Emotional Intelligence.

Shadow parliamentary secretary for education Colin Brooks said running workshops on managing with emotional intelligence at the same time as cutting the education system and sacking hundreds of staff seemed ludicrous.

"The hundreds of education staff losing their jobs won't feel like holding hands and singing Kumbayah at one of these workshops," he said.

Public Sector Union state secretary Karen Batt said sending people on the courses "just shows complete insensitivity".

A spokesman for Education Minister Martin Dixon said: "Professional development is central to building a world-leading education system."


Climate Skeptics in Australian politics still skeptical

THE most prominent political climate sceptics see no reason to change their minds, despite the welter of studies over the past fortnight showing forecasts of global warming were correct or underestimates.

Many of the climate sceptics, influential in elevating Tony Abbott to Coalition leader, say they see nothing to convince them that human activity is causing the climate to change.

The Global Carbon Project has released forecasts that the planet could warm by between 4 degrees and 6 degrees by the end of the century and Nature Climate Change on Monday published a study finding that warming is consistent with 1990 scientific forecasts.

South Australian senator Cory Bernardi, formerly Mr Abbott's parliamentary secretary, said: "I do not think human activity causes climate change and I haven't seen anything that changes my view. I remain very sceptical about the alarmists' claims."

Queensland senator Barnaby Joyce said the whole debate about whether humans were causing the climate to change was "indulgent and irrelevant".

"It is an indulgent and irrelevant debate because, even if climate change turns out to exist one day, we will have absolutely no impact on it whatsoever … we really should have bigger fish to fry than this one," Senator Joyce said.

West Australian backbencher Dennis Jensen, who had read the recent scientific literature, said he interpreted the findings in different ways and believed climate scepticism within the Coalition was increasing.

"The scientific papers saying it is as bad as we thought, or worse, are talking about concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere - and concentrations are indeed increasing - but global temperatures have not gone up in a decade," he said.

"It's the impact of the increased concentrations of CO2 that is in dispute and I agree with [US professor] Richard Lindzen that it is more likely to be 0.4 degrees than 4 to 6 degrees … the doomsday prophesies do not stand up to reason."

Mr Abbott now says he accepts "we have only one planet and we should tread lightly upon it".

Questioned about climate science last year, Mr Abbott said: "I think that climate change is real, mankind does make a contribution and we should have strong and effective policies to deal with it. As far as I am concerned, the debate is not over climate change as such. The debate is over the best way of dealing with it."

He has never repeated his 2009 comment that the "settled" science of climate change was "absolute crap".

His $10.2 billion "Direct Action" climate policy was deliberately crafted to straddle the deep divisions over climate science within his party.

To qualify for grants from the Coalition's proposed emissions reduction fund, a proposal must "deliver additional practical environmental benefits" as well as reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Mr Jensen said it was this proviso that allowed him to back the Coalition plan.  "At least we will be doing things that make sense for other, practical reasons," he said.

Tasmania senator David Bushby said he remained a true "sceptic".  "I know eminent scientists have one view but I know other eminent scientists - usually ones who have retired and are no longer reliant on government grants - have a totally different view," he said.


1 comment:

Paul said...

We do have trouble from time to time with people ringing the hospital pretending to be someone else to get information they have no automatic right to. Would-be burglars do it, among others. Some problems I've noted with this story are, given the security you would expect to surround a Royal in Hospital, what was a nurse doing relieving on the switchboard? Why were such calls not going to someone highly placed, such as a Hospital Manager (senior medical/Nursing/Admin/Media liaison, doesn't matter). One has to wonder if this hospital has any policies at all to deal with basic confidentiality let alone a major security issue. If they did then this nurse would have followed them, because you would expect that Staff education and briefing would have been given a VERY high priority. Imagine if the caller had been some troublemaker looking to establish the whereabouts of the Princess within the hospital. There would have been no silly accents or giggles to warn even an "English Speaker". This is really a story of a monumental lapse of basic procedures, let alone management of basic common-sense security in an unusual situation. The Hospital ultimately bears more responsibility for this than do a couple of dimwit barely-of-age radio gigglers on the other side of the world. I notice that the hospital management is trying to deflect their culpability by keeping the focus on the suicide outcome. The death is tragic if a bit of an over-reaction, but it actually isn't the real issue. The Hospital's serious procedural lapses are the real issue. Cairns Private would have done a better job, and they are crap.