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Pair off air after prank recipient's death

Radio 2DayFM hosts Mel Greig and Michael Christian will not return to radio for some time, after a British nurse who took a prank call from their show died. Lifeline: 13 11 14.

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Idiotic pranks are almost as old as radio itself, a tried and tested staple of the commercial breakfast market, replicated to exhaustion the world around.

Australia does not have a monopoly on them, though ours seem, when they go wrong, to be the most egregious.

Teenage girls tied to lie detectors and questioned about their sex lives, school students weeping when told - untruthfully - they have failed their HSC and now the death of a British nurse who was the victim of an Australian radio station prank aimed at the Duchess of Cambridge.

The line between black humour and offence is difficult to measure, perhaps necessarily so. As a culture, we wrestled with that very question when The Chaser broadcast a sketch which seemed to mock dying children. In fact, it was aimed at charities, though in the aftermath the finer detail was lost.

So when does funny become offence? In the motive? When the target is a vulnerable member of society, such as a teenager, or in the case of the Duchess of Cambridge, a pregnant woman being treated in hospital and the staff caring for her?

Or when, as has happened in this case, subsequent events have overtaken the original stunt?

The truth is we may never know. Nor fully understand.

And yet there has to be a line in the sand. A measure by which a sensible society sets limits to protect the vulnerable from such pranks and, in a modern society, the media fallout which inevitably follows them when they go wrong. The latter, in particular, is a major issue at play here.

The events themselves - an embarrassing prank call and its humiliating aftermath - are not so terrible when looked at in isolation. They happen often, usually with no significant consequences.

But in 2012, and in a society ruled by social networks and the excoriating kangaroo court of the Twitterverse, the aftermath can too easily snowball into something far more sinister.

And that is where the real responsibility of radio stations sits. Michael Christian and Mel Greig were hardly motivated by a desire for such an extraordinary, and tragic, outcome. They will wrestle with these events for many years to come, perhaps for the rest of their lives.

Now we are grappling not just with the death of the nurse, Jacintha Saldanha, but a fiery blowback against the pranksters, Christian and Greig. All of it risks turning into a cyclone of blame from which there is rarely any useful outcome, except to fuel talkback and tabloid media.

The King Edward VII hospital prank is not funny. It wasn't funny when it was played. Not for some hand-wringing sense of righteous judgment, but simply because one of its targets - a mother to be whose pregnancy was causing so much discomfort that she had to be hospitalised - was so vulnerable, and its effect - to have details of her medical condition broadcast on radio - was an appalling breach of privacy.

What holds a civilised society together is an understanding of action and consequence, a duty of care to each other that allows some elasticity for fair mischief and good humour, but does not contravene a handful of basic tenets: humanity, dignity, compassion, respect.

There is a lesson in all of this. Commercial radio, and perhaps the media at large, would do well to learn it.