An Australian radio team was reported to have called the hospital where Princess Kate – Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge – was being treated. This prank has now apparently had tragic consequences, in that the nurse from whom the team received information has seemingly committed suicide. Even before the unexpected terrible outcome was known, it was very clear that this broadcast was not the type of gag that US broadcasters should imitate. Beyond the personal consequences that resulted from this event, the prank itself would be a violation of FCC rules if done by an American station, and would lead to an FCC fine.
The radio team, by pretending to be the Queen of England and Prince Charles, apparently managed to talk to a nurse on the floor where Kate was being treated, and they received inside information about the Princess’ medical condition. The tragic result was the suicide of the nurse after the prank was revealed. Since then, the radio team has apparently been suspended by the station. Even if this situation had not resulted in the tragedy of the death of the nurse, broadcast stations in the United States should not try to repeat such a stunt, or one anything like it. As we’ve written many times before, the FCC rules prohibit broadcasters from putting a phone call on the air, or even recording a call for future broadcast, unless the caller is first told that he or she is going to be recorded, and consents to the call being broadcast. Unlike other laws that deal with the recording of telephone calls for other purposes – where having consent to recording from only one party to a conversation is permissible in many states – the FCC demands all across the US that broadcasters have two-party consent to calls even before the person on the other end of the call says "hello." As we have written before, the FCC imposes significant fines for any violation of the rule, no matter how well meaning, even if the call is done in a news context.
So the Australian call, while possibly amusing to the station’s listeners at the time that it was made, before its consequences were realized, would likely lead to a fine in the US if done by a radio station here. Newsworthiness of the calls is not an excuse for recording a call without permission, and certainly entertainment value has no bearing on the FCC’s practice of fining stations for violation of the rule. Even recording a voicemail message or a message left on the station’s voicemail, or getting permission to broadcast a call after the fact, does not relieve a station from liability. So, beyond the question of civil liability for issues dealing with invasion of privacy and fraudulent attempts to get private medical records, US broadcasters, don’t try this prank, or one anything like it, at home – anywhere in the jurisdiction of the FCC, as the FCC treats the recording or broadcast of telephone conversations without permission as a serious offense.