My favourite film in the 1990s was probably Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, which stars Jeff Bridges as radio cult personality Jack Lucas, whose offhand incitement to class warfare prompts a lonely caller to open fire on a yuppie watering-hole, killing seven people and then himself. Jack is dancing around his penthouse, rehearsing a catchphrase for a new TV vehicle, when he sees the news on his three televisions. In Richard LaGravenese’s draft script, Jack is finally silenced by the unfolding report. In the filmed version, he manages a manifestly inadequate, and yet somehow perfect, “Fuck.” You can see in his face that he’s not just worried about his career or the public recriminations: he’s devastated because the world has just revealed to him that he’s an arsehole.
Like most people on this side of the world, I heard the news of Jacintha Saldanha’s death hours before Mel Greig and Mike Christian woke up on Saturday morning. I could only imagine that their reactions were something like Jack’s here. I have no doubt that they’re as shattered, gutted and heartbroken as they say. But their near-identical interviews with A Current Affair and Today Tonight are a little off-putting in their repeated insistence that (a) they weren’t responsible for putting the prank to air, and (b) nobody could have expected or foreseen the consequences. I believe that both these things are largely true, and also that the presenters were lawyered out of expressing anything that might be mistaken for actual remorse—as opposed to being “sorry that this has happened”—for the usual reasons. But it doesn’t hurt to admit that you were an arsehole. And if you ring up a maternity ward and ask to speak to a woman who’s having a difficult pregnancy and pretend to be her relatives by putting on silly voices—I’m sorry, but you’re kind of an arsehole. You don’t need to take all or most or even much of the blame for what ultimately happened, and you don’t deserve death threats or invitations to suicide. But you can’t expect much sympathy either, because you were kind of arseholes, and you might as well just own that and try not to be such arseholes next time. If you have to prank call someone, call someone who could conceivably be argued to deserve it. If things go wrong—or horribly right—maybe bail out of the call. Have a think about what you’re doing, and don’t just rely on “processes” you don’t understand to decide whether it’s a good idea or not. Little things.
In the old tellings, the Fisher King’s wound comes to blight the land around him, so that nothing can grow or thrive until he’s healed by a noble fool asking the right question. The actual question varies, but the most poetic one is simply: “What ails you?”. In Gilliam’s film, the land is blighted already—by rubbish and drunks, violent preppies, heartless yuppies, corporate indifference and empty cults. And Jack is wounded long before the loner opens fire and ruins his life—he just doesn’t know it yet.
It’s hard to imagine a more blasted land than the one now occupied by 2DayFM and its barrel-scraping competitors. I don’t know who the afflicted king might be in this scenario—I have a horrible feeling it’s Kyle Sandilands, though Southern Cross Austereo chairman Max “The Axe” Moore-Wilton makes an intriguing candidate. But Mel and MC might suggest that their cancelled Hot 30 Countdown be replaced by a Noble Fool segment where they just call people up and ask what ails them, and how they can help. They can’t be blamed for the state of commercial radio, but they might be inspired to help fix it. Or maybe that’s just in stories.