Respect, fairness and responsibility

The tragic turn of events in the United Kingdom has cast a pall over the excitement generated by last week's announcement Prince William and his wife Catherine are expecting a child, caused shock and distress, and once more propelled the issue of media ethics into the international spotlight.

Last week's ''prank'' call to the King Edward VII Hospital in London, where the Duchess of Cambridge was receiving treatment for severe morning sickness, made by two Sydney radio show broadcasters pretending to be the Queen and Prince Charles fooled two nurses. One was Jacinta Saldanha (46), who took the call and transferred it to another nurse who unwittingly gave details of the duchess' condition. Wife and mother-of-two Ms.Saldanha was found late on Friday (New Zealand time) unconscious in her nurses' accommodation and died a short time later. Her death is being treated by police as unexplained but appears likely to be a suicide.

Even before the tragic fallout, the hoax call by 2DayFM presenters Mel Greig and Michael Christian had received worldwide condemnation, with many horrified by the attempt to solicit private information about the clearly ill duchess in a fragile condition early in her pregnancy. Of course there were others who found the original hoax - which was pre-recorded and broadcast on-air and on the radio station's website after receiving sign-off from the station's lawyers - entertaining and, without the benefit of hindsight, a bit of ''harmless'' fun.

The radio station company has now removed the website content. The presenters' Twitter accounts have been closed and the pair are off air after they were inundated with angry and threatening messages. The presenters have gone into hiding and are reportedly receiving counselling.

While no-one could have foreseen the tragic outcome, the case has sparked renewed debate internationally about media ethics, already in the spotlight in the wake of the recommendations from the Leveson report into press standards in the UK, which followed the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

Only last week this newspaper stated that with the rights associated with freedom of the press came great responsibility.

But there is no doubt a sector of the public demands and supports low-brow entertainment, salacious gossip, and publicity stunts and jokes - often on the unsuspecting public. Some radio stations and their ''shock jock'' presenters have notoriously sailed close to the wind in providing this - as do some television shows worldwide - and the digital age offers increasing access and means of distribution for not just the good, but the bad and the ugly as well. Royalty, politicians and the rich and famous have often been seen as fair game - both by the media and the public. They are already in the public eye, and in some cases rely on the media to promote them and their causes, so are seen as being able to expect to take the good with the bad.

While high-profile public figures are more likely to have huge security and support networks in place and are perhaps more used to media and public scrutiny - and better equipped to cope with it - it appears in this case little thought was given to others caught up in such events who may have no such experience.

And, of course, what may be seen as fun to one person, can be something entirely different to another.

Now the tables have been turned and the DJs are getting the unwelcome spotlight shone on themselves. It is certainly hoped there is no vigilante action taken against them, for they - like others in this shocking saga - are now likely facing intense soul-searching. There are no winners here. Shame and humiliation have proved lethal partners. And the shock and distress caused will no doubt ensure lessons for the future are learnt. While it is easy to point the finger and become involved in the blame game, perhaps it is more important we turn the mirror on ourselves and consider our own opinions and actions. For while we cannot know the consequences of our actions, we can - and should - simply treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. The principle of fairness is fundamental for a responsible media - and something all individuals should strive to live by.

• For support or information about suicide prevention contact Lifeline on 0800 543-354 or www.lifeline.co.nz