British Prank Call – Could It Happen Here?

I assume most readers have heard about the two Australian radio personalities who called the hospital where Kate Middleton was being treated for morning sickness pretending to be Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles. The staff patched them through to the maternity ward and provided some private information about Kate’s medical condition. The prank call played on the radio show and was widely circulated on the Internet.

Now reports speculate that the nurse who was duped by the hoax committed suicide.

Lots of folks have raised questions about who’s at fault here, but one question I’ve not heard asked is, “could it happen here?” The answer is, probably not.

In the U.S., the Federal Communication Commission has strict requirements for broadcasts of telephone conversations. According to the agency’s rule, before recording a phone call for broadcast (or live broadcasting the call), the radio station must tell the other party that the conversation will be broadcast on-air – unless, based on the circumstances, the other party is presumably aware.

But that carve-out is quite limited. The radio station can only “presume awareness” where the other party is associated with the station (like an employee) or the caller initiates calls in to the station. So, it’s unlikely we’d see a similar event on this side of the ocean.

That’s mildly ironic, because in most cases the U.S. First Amendment allows more speech than is permitted in England, which has no First Amendment equivalent.

What do you think – are the radio station or hosts at fault for this tragedy? And is the FCC rule a good idea?