The following commentary examines a tragic event that attracted global attention in late 2012. In December 2012, an on-air prank call was made to the United Kingdom hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton) was a patient. While seemingly without malice, the prank, a “wind-up call” carried out by two inexperienced Australian radio personalities, involved an impersonation of Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Phillip. The hospital nurse, Jacintha Saldanha—an Indian émigré and mother of two teenagers—put the call through to Middleton’s suite, where the attending nurse revealed personal details of the Duchess’s health. In its wake, a tragedy occurred. Several days later, as word of the “Royal Prank” emerged, Saldanha committed suicide.
In this commentary, we do not assign blame for Mrs. Saldanha’s death, but rather accountability for the prank. The Royal Prank was not an isolated, disconnected occurrence. Hence, we attempt to better understand the event and all its important trigger points. Using the science of semiotics – signs, language and artefacts – we examine the interdependencies and intersections where cultural behaviors, beliefs and motivations collide. By deconstructing the event, along with behaviors and beliefs—some ethnographic, others social and economic—unintentional sources of the crisis emerge. These root causes and their coincidental encounters lead us to question and challenge overarching contemporary behavior present in modern day life—that which we call, a new incivility.
A New Incivility—A Semiotic Commentary
The following commentary examines a tragic event that attracted global attention in late 2012. By deconstructing the event, along with behaviors and beliefs—some ethnographic, others social and economic—unintentional sources of the crisis emerge. These root causes and their coincidental encounters lead us to question and challenge overarching contemporary behavior present in modern day life—that which we call, a new incivility.
The Disc Jockey Who Would Be Queen
“The DJ who would be Queen” (The Daily Beast 2012) was a media headline made in reference to the female disk jockey who impersonated Queen Elizabeth II in an on-air prank call to the United Kingdom hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton) was a patient in December 2012. While seemingly without malice, the prank, a “wind-up call” carried out by two inexperienced Australian radio personalities, involved an impersonation of Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Phillip. The hospital nurse, Jacintha Saldanha—an Indian émigré and mother of two teenagers—put the call through to Middleton’s suite, where the attending nurse revealed personal details of the Duchess’s health. In its wake, a tragedy occurred. Several days later, as word of the “Royal Prank” emerged, Saldanha committed suicide. Across the media—print, radio, television and the internet social media world—news of her death spread like a virus. Globally, the story consumed our public and private conversations for many days and set off a flash-fire of condemnations. We each had our opinion about the prank and most of us were willing either to point the finger of blame or to rationalize the prank as innocuous but “no harm intended.” Of course, most of us felt anguish and despair for the young nurse and for her family.
In this commentary, first, we do not assign blame, but rather accountability. This was not an isolated, disconnected occurrence. Hence, we attempt to better understand the event and all its important trigger points. Using the science of semiotics, we will examine the interdependencies and intersections where cultural behaviors, beliefs and motivations collide. Second, we use many forms of media as source data—a reminder that many now find their daily news and source materials through a variety of online agencies as well as traditional print, television or radio materials. It was through these online communication channels that a global reaction exploded just days before Christmas 2012. Finally, we suggest that the prank and its unraveling tragedy were a great deal more complex than most observers suggested. The prank set in motion a confluence of commercial and economic motivations, the phenomenon of social media, contemporary and traditional behaviors and beliefs—all semiotic signs and cultural representations that often go unnoticed.
So What Is Culture? Institutions, Markets and Morals
Having lived some periods of life as an expatriate, I propose that the beliefs and behaviors of groups—small or large, ethnically, religiously or socially—will organize into systems or templates of subjective moral and social reasoning. Like well-developed muscles, the template provides the structures and the strength we use to convince others of our embedded beliefs. We begin our semiotic analysis first with cultural constructs.
Accepted and embedded beliefs labeled as “truths” are examples of cultural constructs—social, political and religious foundations that guide and dictate the moral choices and behaviors of our day-to-day life. Briefly, the more constricted or narrow our view, the less input creeps in from the outside world. Beliefs then create rigid boundaries for collaborative living, and we adhere and cling tightly to their ideological lines of reasoning, often writing literature and enacting laws to keep them safely in place. Adam Etinson (2013), in his article on ethnocentricity, points to the argument of 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill maintained that the “magical influence of custom” affected our beliefs, our emotions and thoughts. Jesse Prinz (2013), a distinguished professor of philosophy at City University, New York, moves our reasoning into the 21st century when he argues that the source of our moral inclinations is merely cultural. David Wong (2013) further complicates our reasoning when he introduces the component of generational shifts in subjectivity and objectivity. When we explore celebrity culture, we will see this shift.
We will begin our examination with the cultural and professional world of Jacintha Saldanha, an Indian nurse and expatriate living in the United Kingdom. Moving to the 2Day FM radio station, we look at its entertainment strategies and on-air policies of its corporate owner, Southern Cross Media Group. We will then investigate the world of the radio hosts, Mel Greig and Michael Christian, and the celebrity culture to which they aspire. Finally, we will consider: who decides? How does today’s audience—television, radio and popular social media—play its part in perpetuating the new incivility, the shock and shaming state of mind prevalent in today’s entertainment?
Jacintha Saldanha, the Senior On-Duty Nurse: Institutions and Ethnicity
This paper does not address Saldanha’s reported ongoing depression or resulting suicide. Rather, we will examine the cultural characteristics surrounding her and their role in the aired prank. Saldanha was raised within the Indian culture of Mangalore and professionally trained at Mangalore Hospital. She studied general nursing from 1984 to 1988 at the Father Muller Medical College (FMMC), of which the College of Nursing is a part. She was a member of the junior staff in 1989. Several of her peers remember her as a diligent and intelligent student, a class leader who was extremely active in the Students Nursing Council and in extracurricular activities (The Hindu 2012). Nathalia Martis, another batch-mate and assistant lecturer at the hospital, said it was hard to believe that a “bold girl” like Jacintha could have committed suicide (The Hindu 2012).
Saldanha’s intelligence and her leadership role took place within a primarily female environment—a nursing school. But within the traditional Indian culture, a woman must first obey her father, then her husband, and then her son; a normal pattern throughout a woman’s life. Men control and make all financial decisions. Although older women may be very influential behind the scenes, they wield little legal authority in property and marriage matters. This description conceals a host of humiliating and discrediting cultural beliefs and behaviors.
In the professional life of Jacintha Saldanha, the culture is similarly structured. From a recent encounter within the American medical system, we observed a male-dominated pecking order that is not hidden and is vigorously preserved. Those within the nursing ranks point out the embedded patriarchal behaviors where males are most often in supervisory and management positions. From a recent New York Times (Brown 2013) opinion commentary: “the power differential in hospitals is such that if a doctor chews out a nurse, it tends to make her less likely to speak up the next time.” While she was seen as a leader and outspoken student in the nursing school, patriarchal most commonly describes both systems of Saldanha’s life. Further, the medical profession is archaically structured to exclude demands of parenting, and Saldanha was the mother of two teenagers. In addition, according to a 2013 European Union study (Ross 2001), pay equity is still an issue—today’s women are paid 79 percent of a man’s wages. Again, embedded behaviors destroy confidence and equally do financial harm. Thus, to fully grasp the power of the Royal Prank, we must examine the cultural ideologies and their various emotional shades coloring Saldanha’s life. We begin with the heightened feelings provoked when one is made to feel ‘less than’ others within their society.
In her blog, psychologist Jan Fable (1999) writes: “Shame is an unrelenting feeling of not being wanted and of being unworthy of being wanted. This kind of shame is experienced whenever what you believe to be your ‘worthless,’ ‘inadequate,’ or ‘bad’ self is threatened with being exposed and you feel in danger of being humiliated and rejected by others.” She continues, “Excessive shame is a prison. It keeps a person caged in feelings of worthlessness, self-hatred, and even despair.” There are several sources for shame, including our genetic and biochemical make-up. Chronic depression can be an underlying mood. Also entering the psychological picture is our culture and our families of origin. Coupled with our current relationships—personal and professional, particularly if they are shaming in nature—they keep one bound in the despair. Even a professionally trained nurse with Saldanha’s background would own conflicted and self-shaming thoughts and behaviors (Fable 1999). Consequently, when she was duped by the Australian radio hosts, shame could have penetrated and upended Saldanha’s emotional resolve.
We presume that at 2Day FM no one considered that the call would be taken literally or seriously. The impersonations were awkward and amateurish. That English was the second language of the nurse left the door wide open—the unexpected element of language set the prank in motion. From personal experience while residing in Australia, I have found that Indian and Asian clients always assume that I am Australian, because I speak English. It never occurs to them that I might be otherwise. To their ears, my pronounced American dialect—slow and Southern—is hidden, undetected. Thus, it can be contended that Saldanha fell victim to a dialect failure.
Southern Cross Media Group: 2Day FM—Humiliation as Entertainment
A local (national) backdrop can shift and rearrange as the culture is exposed to external financial power, long-term war and occupation, global business, technological change and medical advancement. In recent decades, as entertainment practices from the dominant American culture slip in through the popular mass media, national boundaries and behaviors of most cultures worldwide are at risk and weakened.
Examining the “Royal Prank”, we see that Australians, much like American Southerners, enjoy a good practical joke. However, the shock-jock mentality of ridicule and shame goes beyond a practical joke. Acceptance of ridicule must have support within the culture because, as Paulette Kurzer (2001) states: “To be legitimate, institutions must formulate objectives and execute their policies in congruence with fundamental beliefs of society.” In other words, owners and policy makers of media must either set and enforce a policy congruent with public opinion or look the other way when infractions occur if fundamentally the public does not object. In the 21st century, the industry of shock and shame media in Australia is pervasive and obviously entertaining, at least to some in the Australian public. Australia is a very large continent with a relatively small national population, yet the trend of shaming has had an economic advantage spawning similar stations, more reality entertainment and greater shock titillation for this small population. Thus, the practice of belligerent broadcasting and makeover television is our new incivility. With the
globalization of television programming, we risk legitimatizing industries built upon hurtful, degrading and shaming behaviors.
2 Day FM, is an Australian radio station owned and managed by corporate Southern Cross Media Group. The drivers of 2Day FM are listener ratings—and ratings are tied to revenue from advertisers. According to the online Daily Beast (2012), the station is “already serving two five-year license probations after serious breaches of the Australian regulator’s code.” According to a lead article in the Sydney Morning Herald’s BusinessDay (Ferguson 2012), the broadcaster was handed the first reprimand by the Australian Communications and Media Authority in 2009 and then again in 2012 for on-air code breaches by a “shock jock personality.” With each event, the public reaction was negative—an emotional response augmented through Twitter and Facebook. Some consumer advertisers withdrew from the radio station. Most advertisers returned later as sponsors, but the public memory was not so short.
Within hours of the death of Jacintha Saldanha, the Royal Prank was the front-page headline of Australian and British newspapers—opinion commentaries filled the interior pages. Many op-ed writers assigned blame. Peter FitzSimons, in his opinion piece, took umbrage with those who criticized the two DJs (Sun-Herald 2012), claiming their prank defined “huge swathes of the Australian population when it comes to how to deal with English aristocracy. It has been ever thus.” His is a reminder of a long standing posture of early Australia—most First Fleet prisoners had good reason to dislike the classist society of England—an attitude that resonates across the culture today.
When questioned by the press after the death of Saldanha, management seemed confused at best and evasive at worst. While the prank call was pre-recorded and vetted by company lawyers before airing, the policy of informing those who were recorded before airing may have been circumvented and a breach of rules occurred. In her December opinion piece, respected business journalist Adele Ferguson (2012) chastised media companies: “Companies need to wake up, particularly those with a strong consumer interface and brands and enact social media policies and have proper systems to monitor social media platforms.” However, it was Southern Cross
Media that experienced Ferguson’s utmost wrath: “What we do know is the culture at Southern Cross Media is nasty and allows shock jocks to pull pranks all the time.”
As stated, the public reaction to the prank was negative and the threat to boycott large advertisers’ sales was real. Six days after the Middleton prank aired, Telstra and Coles, among the largest advertisers in Australia, pulled their advertising from the Hot30 Countdown program (on which the prank aired) fearing incrimination by association. Later that day, 2Day FM suspended all advertising for the show indefinitely. An estimated loss of $1.5 million a week in advertising revenue and an 8 percent drop in the stock share price make owners of media outlets take notice. Advertisers’ brands depend upon rapid amplification through popular media and the impulsivity of emotional buyers (Woodward 2009). As a result, the Sydney Morning Herald (2012) reported: “The Hot30 show has been taken off air and the future of its presenters is uncertain.” The hosts were hidden from public eye and the station provided counseling to the two.
Recalling the words of Paulette Kurzer (2001), policies must be congruent with the “fundamental beliefs of society.” Now, we look beyond the commercial world to yet a larger culture, a force driving the inexperienced radio hosts.
The Culture of Celebrity, the Fakery of Fame
“To be famous is ‘to be famous’ and that is all that matters.” (Holmes & Redmond 2006)
After joining the Hot30 Countdown, radio host Michael Christian (Sun-Herald 2012) told a radio news website early in December, “with my skills as a social media specialist here at the Fox, I’m hoping to do things on the Hot30 that have never been done before.” His co-host, Mel Greig, came to 2Day FM nine months earlier and just before her 30th birthday. To her Facebook friends she “declared she was the luckiest girl in the world” (Sun-Herald 2012). Christian does not make clear his qualifications as a specialist, nor does Greig go beyond being “luckiest girl in the world.” In a global society where many desire adulation and popularity, the two
inexperienced radio hosts were ready for celebrity recognition, publically boasting of their success on Twitter and Facebook the day following the on-air prank’s airing.
Embedded in the words of Christian and Greig is the footprint of a contemporary celebrity and its high-fashion pageant of personalities. In the past decade, much has been written about the fissure between contemporary stardom—where talent, craft and achievement inspire admiration—and the materialization of “craftless” celebrity and notoriety (Bennet 2012). As we shall see, Christian describes his talent as a social media specialist—his career peaking with the success of this high-school mentality prank call.
An entire industry of visual media—including shock and shaming entertainment—has cultivated and matured upon the hypothesis and practice of notoriety and celebrity. Unfortunately, the hyperreality of fame and celebrity, particularly in the visual media arts, concocts a striking appearance of life rather than revealing real life (Salgado 1998). The celebrity culture described as flat and devoid of human traits depends upon the fabrication of personality, and nowhere more than in the realm of craftless celebrity. Contemporary media’s blending of craft and craftless celebrity has left those of demonstrable accomplishments dismayed, seeking refuge in anonymity and shunning the limelight, often considering retirement. Yet, accomplished stardom also depends upon the communications media.
At this juncture, popular social media such as Facebook and Twitter slip into the equation of defining celebrity. Notoriety, with its propensity to amplify our simple emotions such as pleasure and arousal, increases a host’s social mobility or wider group-recognition. The recognition value of a radio host, albeit through anti-social pranks, can influence and even create trends and norms accepted by the public. Trend followers (such as on Facebook) equate to potential consumers; consumers equate to brand value and thousands of advertising dollars. By association, celebrity and notoriety equate to impulsively driven purchasing power.
The night before Hot30 was removed from the radio schedule, 21-year old Christian wrote in a Facebook post about the fame he and co-host Mel Greig gained through the royal prank: “The only bad thing about our Royal Prank and [sic] is knowing that I will NEVER EVER top this.
Less than a week in the job & I’ve already peaked” (Sun-Herald 2012). We can only assume that he had not followed the public outrage directed at the radio station and the program’s sponsors—13,000 complaints within hours of the young nurse’s death. However, within days, the two employees portrayed themselves as the injured parties and said they were misled by the irresponsible management chain of command. Such is the reverse characteristic of social media’s power—the plunge from fame into obscurity can happen in a Facebook or Twitter minute and in its descent, blame is amplified, repeatedly exposing sheer triviality and superficiality in the wake of a tragedy.
Did the loss of revenue change management attitudes toward on-air behaviour or policy? We are unable to determine the answer and, according to news sources, the station has refused to answer questions with regard to sensitivity training for its staff. Still, life for the young radio hosts changed dramatically and, according to Holmes and Redmond (2006), “If you are not famous then you exist at the periphery of the power networks that circulate through the popular media.” Commenting about an entirely unrelated matter, John Mescall, creative director of Sydney based McCann Worldgroup said, “Humour is a very powerful way for a brand to generate the likeability that is needed to create memorability.” He went on, “It [humour] is very subjective… Bad taste jokes don’t work well for brands, especially in a social world where the power is very much with the consumer” (Sydney Morning Herald 2012). Like Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts, the public through popular media demanded a head—in this prank, two as it were. Advertisers withdrew. 2Day FM management complied.The show was cancelled permanently and the two radio hosts disappeared from view.
Who Decides? A Generational Shift
It is our opinion that senior management of the parent company, Southern Cross Media Group, understands the essence of its listening audience and plays to its tastes through trivial and too often shocking tactics. Advertisers who buy on-air time employ meaningless motifs—adulation, emulation and identification—to sell their products to this audience, so it is a marriage of convenience until something goes awry, off-centre (Holmes & Redmond 2006).
The demographics of audiences highlight the chronological and emotional maturity of those watching television and listening to radio programming. Studies have clearly defined the types and styles of entertainment that appeal to this audience, aged 17 to 25. Many have not completed a high school education and are unemployed or underemployed. This group is the largest television demographic. According to a CNN evening news report (February 2013), this age group is a risk in the long run to American growth and stability. Lack of education or job training and poorly disciplined, the American military now considers them a threat to the discipline of the armed forces. Yet, increasingly, reality shows proliferate network broadcasts, marketing and programming to an even younger demographic—all minors. If we can examine the following statistics (Girl Scouts of America 2011), certainly networks, producers and advertisers will continue to do so.
MTV’s Jersey Shore Season 5 averaged 5.8 million viewers, including 1 million ages 12 to 17.
Bravo’s Real Housewives of Beverly Hills Season 2 averaged 2.2 million people, with about a quarter of the viewers under 18.
E!’s Keeping Up With the Kardashians averages around 209,000 people in the 12 to 17 demographic per episode.
CW’s America’s Next Top Model attracted 1 million minors out of its 1.2 million average viewers last season.
VH1’s Basketball Wives Season 4 averaged 166,000 teen viewers per episode.
The 2011 study by the Girl Scouts of America Research Institute found significant differences between girls who consumed reality television on a regular basis and those who did not. The study revealed: “Many girls think these programs reflect reality, with 75% saying that competition shows and 50% saying that real-life shows are ‘mainly real and unscripted’.” The research went on to indicate that the girls who are regular viewers believed that “being mean earns you more respect than being nice” and are “more focused on the value of physical appearance.” While teen boys were not included in this study, we do not think they escape the influence of these shows.
James Bennet (2012) draws our attention to the participants—2Day FM, the advertisers, the hosts and the listening audience—when he asks: what forms of (celebrity) achievement should be recognized? And: “who decides?” In a New York Times article, “The Woman With a Billion Clicks Jenna Marble,” journalist Amy O’Leary (April 2013) reminds us that teenage girls spend their lives on the Internet. “A young woman with magenta streaked hair stands in her bathroom speaking to a webcam. In a hushed tone she chews over a thorny problem of young adulthood: how to apply full evening makeup when you’re already inebriated from drinking all day.” Her core followers: 75 percent are young women and girls, mostly from the ages of 13 to 17. Remember—a billion clicks on her video, “Drunk Makeup Video.” The teen audience is determining content and programming.
Perhaps today’s celebrity is merely our reflection—mirrored back to us. After all, we do bestow recognition. In this silent world of social media, do we engage in mean tactics and is day-long drinking to a point of inebriation now culturally acceptable? Bennet continues: “Are audiences, considering their age and education, best equipped to judge achievement?” In a social milieu where attention is fleeting and desires driven by compulsivity, can audiences see through the fakery of fame?
Today, we are tethered together in a virtual world—timeless, spaceless and silent—a world of silent emails or text messaging or one where we sit fascinated by reality television shows, You Tube videos and interviews with craftless celebrities. We neither see nor hear face to face, but through a technological intermediary (Salgado 1998). As we move farther away from personal interactions—always delicate at best—we discover the ease with which we can torment or embarrass others (Salgado 1998). Andrew Cline (2011) echoes these sentiments:
“I suspect that people’s ability and willingness to take pleasure in such things may stem from the increasing separation we experience from others around us. The more distant we are from each other as individuals, the more readily we can objectify each other and fail to experience sympathy and empathy when others around us suffer. The fact that we are witnessing events not in front of us but rather on television, where everything has an unreal and fictional air about it, probably aids in this process as well.”
In the past two decades, face to face intimacy has measurably decreased, and “fandom involves an illusion of intimacy that aims to compensate for such loneliness” (Holmes & Redmond 2006). In our detachment, do we project our internalized bully onto radio or television hosts eager to make their way into the celebrity domain? Perhaps. Still, our emotional reactions stem back to our conditioning—to our culture, its assumptions and beliefs. “Our emotions are visceral reactions which occur outside reasoned deliberation. It is therefore not possible or reasonable to evaluate emotional reactions against standards of reason” (Cline 2012). Where are the precautions and safeguards protecting us from commercial schemes and strategies directed at our emotional weaknesses?
In a depersonalized world where humiliation and objectification is the norm, the prank, which no one involved thought would make its way beyond the first terrible and amateurish impersonation, went terribly wrong. It was the “perfect storm.” Ironically, the storm exploited today’s most powerfully connected technology—Facebook and Twitter—unleashing public wrath against the Southern Cross Media Group. Its entertainment strategies of mean, malicious and humiliating behavior and the two disk jockeys who implemented those strategies fell in the path of Facebook and a global public. Adele Ferguson (2012) points to yet another risk of social media—that of the pack mentality. If the mob’s lust for blood flows unchecked, as on Facebook, reason again flies out the door.
While we will always be a step behind technological development, we must be alert to the societal changes it brings. To some, regulatory bodies may feel like an extension of government interference, yet we must put in place societal safeguards to protect us from commercial schemes and corporate strategies directed at our emotional weaknesses. And the regulatory rules must be enforced. As with the Royal Prank, the public must demand adherence from the media and punishment meted out by regulatory agencies.
In an economically difficult period, each parent—single or couple—must earn a wage. Family time is diminished—children are often without strict supervision. We cannot place the full monitoring burden upon the parents’ shoulders, yet parental awareness of television and social media consumption at home is essential.
Only recently has the education system, now feeling the pain of student suicides, brought “bullying” to the table of public forum. Yet, this is insufficient—schools must examine the new incivility systemically and bring the discussion into the classroom and with students rather than as an infrequent school-assembly topic.
Should we ignore the role of celebrity, of technological changes and of commercial exploitation, we are assured that the new incivility will continue uncontrolled on its pathological progression altering our culture, our beliefs and our behavior when our youth reach adulthood.
“All the more reason, then, to maintain basic human decency and respect in all exchanges, even—perhaps especially—those meant in jest”.
Kent Sepkowitz (2012),
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