British Nurse Hoaxed by Radio Prank’s Apparent Suicide: Totally Unthinkable?

Paul Zanetti, Australia

How could she possibly do it?

How could nurse 46-year-old Jacintha Saldanha possibly take her own life after two Australian radio DJs using bad accents crank-called a hospital in Great Britain, and tricked her on the air into transferring them to get confidential information on Prince William’s wife, Kate Middleton?

How could the DJs and radio station be so unthinking, some wonder. How could she take a prank so seriously, others ask. How could the media be guilty of such overkill on a quintessential radio hoax call prank, still others wonder. And could the media that gleefully reported the hoax now be so hypocritical as to lambast the two young DJs, once the death became known, many ask.

DJ’s Mel Greig and Michael Christian expressed shock and grief. Grieg, quoted by The Daily Mail, said when she heard the news “‘my first question was, ‘Was she a mother?’ … It was the worst phone call I have ever had in my life. There’s not a minute that goes by that we don’t think about her family and what they must be going through.”

I’ve been personally involved with two forms of a “hoax” — a hidden camera stunt and a DJ radio hoax — and I can understand the feeling what one family member said was the dead nurse’s likely feeling of overwhelming “shame.”

In 2001, I was on NBC TV hidden camera show “Spy TV” in my incarnation as a ventriloquist. The set up was I walked into a fake office where a mother and her pre-school-age-ish child was sitting, took out my dummy who interacted with them, got called into the other room, and put the dummy down. When the mother was called out of the room the dummy came “alive” and asked the little boy to help him to run away from me. The mothers of all kids taped (they selected the best kid) all signed releases and were in on the prank.

Several years ago I got a call from a radio show staffer in England. He said his show’s host saw my characters on the Internet and because “we broadcast near a children’s hospital and there are many sick kids. We wanted you to come on so our host could interview you and have you talk like some of your characters talking to little children to cheer them up.” He said he wanted me to talk specifically to very young kids, and the host would tape it and edit it for time purposes.

It clearly was a hoax. The host asked some basic questions, then insisted I do a few jokes aimed for kids in the voices of some characters, then he’d say, “Oh, yes. That’s classic comedy… You’re really a great comedian.” When I quickly sensed the set up, I angrily told him so and hung up.

This was an attempt to get me to say specific things for an edited bit, after getting me by appealing to my feelings for sick children. I felt beat-up, humiliated and victimized. Yes: I CAN imagine what Jacintha felt.

The Australian DJ’s bit was not mean-spirited, but it left a host of victims. A mother of two will be laid to rest in India. The DJs’ careers and lives will never be the same. Meanwhile, the radio station Southern Cross Austereo now says it’ll donate rest of the year’s ad profits to a fund for Jacintha Saldanha’s utterly decimated family.

But you know the old saying: money doesn’t buy you love. And hoax comedy doesn’t always buy you universal laughs.


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8 Comments

  1. While this is an extremely sad case, I believe there was more going on in the life of this nurse that caused her to take her life. Perhaps this embarrassment was just the final straw, but then something else may have been down the road.

    When a person decides to take their life, they are not thinking about anyone else but themselves and their own pain. She gave no thought to her children or her family. She had other problems far graver than being the butt of a joke.

  2. Mr. Gandelman,

    I have been commenting about this tragedy on many posts in themoderatevoice.com and I must say, I think the two DJs are being treated unfairly concerning the unfortunate outcome of their prank.

    Your personal illustration about the embarrassment and humiliation that results from ill conceived pranks, involves, as you say, “An attempt to get me to say specific things for an edited bit, after getting me by appealing to my feelings about sick children.” However, from what I have heard so far about the nurse involved, she was not baited with specific questions intended to get her to say anything. She was just asked if the caller could talk to Kate’s nurse,and she merely transferred the call.

    On a smaller level, I can also relate my feelings of embarrassment when, during a speech before one of my high school classes, several of my friends made silly noises and snickered at my speech. However, at the time, I had a reaction similar to yours which was one of anger at the pranksters. And, I certainly was not going to take my life because of it.

    I don’t know for sure, but the fact that this nurse apparently was so easily upset by her minimal role in the incident, is a signal that she either had some sort of mental illness, or was suffering because of other issues in her life.
    None-the-less the pubic seems to have already convicted the two DJ’s in the court of public opinion and has asked that they be severely punished.

    In my life I have also suffered SEVERE humiliation at the hands of others, and my opinions about the nurses tragic end, don’t jive with a judgment that find the DJs culpable for a deliberately negligent action. This was—a relatively harmless prank, that was not even directed specifically at the nurse.
    I also don’t think anyone could have seriously thought, “I better not make this prank call because if an unknown nurse answers and agrees to transfer my call, It will surely disturb her so much, that she will have no choice but to take her own life.”

    As some comenters on these forums have said, it makes more sense for the radio stations owners, to change their policies about radio pranks—not to severely punish, and possibly end the two DJs future careers.

    I have been involved in some pretty severe harassment and even false accusations for things I didn’t do. This has made me aware that, as some convicted felons are hauled away screaming that they are innocent, some of them actually are, and DNA evidence has exonerated many of them from guilt, later!

    This is not on the level of premeditated murder, but please, lets all show some restraint before we make assumptions that are not even backed up or justified in making— since none of us yet knows the full story! Let’s not wreck everyone’s life for those who are involved in this incident. And, let’s not destroy the DJs careers for something they, most likely, could not have anticipated!

  3. Thanks Joe…your own experiences here brings much for consideration…Only today did i realize she was from India. Often in increasing global world cultural differences are forgotten…There are so many places in the world where doing anything that might be considered bringing shame on the family is considered much greater than even personal shaming….It is a tragic and sad situation for all.. hope that some good can come from this by exposing another layer of insensitivity and cruelty with low grade humor or bullying…

  4. While of course we don’t know if there might have been other issues that contributed to the woman’s tragic decision, I think some people have a hard time conceiving of how other people respond to humiliation and publicity. There are people out there that would be mortified to be talked about by strangers. A lot of people who read this forum would never even think about posting anything here, for fear of criticism or even just attention from people they don’t know. I didn’t know these people existed until one came into my life, and I learned that it is not some sort of character flaw, but just a different way of looking at life.

    If you take one of those people and throw them into instant publicity against their will, even if it’s not necessarily bad publicity, it’s not going to go well. This came up when there was a story about a kid Mitt Romney allegedly bullied, and the victim’s family put out a statement saying they didn’t want details about their sibling to be published, and some couldn’t understand why since he had done nothing wrong. But I can.

    I don’t consider the DJs to be murderers, but there is a reason why we have laws against this sort of thing. There’s a reason why privacy should be respected. And yes, I do believe they have broken laws. I’m not a legal expert and certainly don’t know how such laws would be applied internationally, but I believe there are two laws that are broken:

    1) Recording and/or broadcasting a private conversation without permission. I’m pretty sure that is illegal or at least should be, except for cases where there is a public interest such as a whistle blower case.

    2) Gaining access to confidential patient information under false pretense. From working in the healthcare industry, I know this is something that health care professionals take very seriously. While the hospital was apparently willing to cut the nurse some slack given the circumstances, it’s still true that the nurse herself must have known that this was breaking a fundamental rule of patient care. Furthermore, as a patient I don’t want to have to prove my identify every time I call my doctor to ask about myself or my kids. There needs to be a level of trust, which means those who take advantage of that trust have committed as serious offense.

    Looking more broadly, I believe this a symptom of the modern day “don’t take anything too seriously” culture, as if the most important thing in life is to not care too much about any one thing at all (what a meaningless existence that would be!). We have lost respect for most sorts of sanctity. Ordinarysparry is correct that this is not true in all places in the world, which is something westerns often forget or never learned. Anyone who takes their selves, their religion, their profession, their morals or their politics too seriously is thought of as strange and worthy of ridicule or, in this case, at least pity–oh, how could she take a joke so seriously? Maybe because it’s a joke that she might have considered to expose her weakness to the world in what she held sacred–her integrity and her professionalism.

  5. Concerning the fact that the nurse was from India,

    It is true that different cultures have ingrained differing reactions in people about the seriousness of social mistakes or infractions. But I still think it is remarkable that, even with support from others at the hospital, and even without condemnation from the royal family—in fact apparently the opposite—they expressed their support and sympathies for the nurse—that this nurse still would not know that In England, she was not considered at fault for what happened, and, should not feel terminally guilty . We also do not know if Indian society, or the mores of her religion even DID condemn her passive participation in something she did not cause—enough to feel disgraced into ending her life and leaving behind her family and children.

    That is the point—we don’t know, and we don’t know, and we don’t know! So why are so many people ready to read the DJs the riot act and mete out serious punishment for causing something that none of us would also have been able to foresee?

    For we in the West, this type of prank certainly does not, or should not, be equated with a terrible crime, nor is it considered to provoke serious trauma in others. And, I don’t believe, from witnessing their remorse—that the two employees of an Australian radio station are corrupt, insensitive or even unethical)–If anything the RADIO STATION should answer for any unforeseen consequences of their own programming—since certainly the DJs were not responsible for this particular type of programming involving pranks—at least if they were, they had the approval of the station to do it.

    There has been way to much immediate blame passed around because of this incident, and it is really peculiar how eager the public is to find a scapegoat for what happened. Could it be that the British people, are embarrassed and outraged that this tragedy happened on their own watch, and the rest of the world is too determined to jump on the band-wagon with them? Perhaps not, but lets at least wait and see!

  6. adelinesdad i think you make a good point about readers here at TMV… one woman told me that she has followed the post and readers for years, and has come to feel she knows the commentators and regularity carries on long dialogues with the post and comments but has felt too shy to join for she would feel everyone one would think poor of her…

    petew i will share a quick story on culture differences… am good friends with a very well educated couple from India.. They are both PHD…The wife was going through a high risk pregnancy… one day she was struggling with trying to reach over her belly to get her shoes… to which i just reached down gathered the shoes and put them by her feet to make it easier for her… she burst into tears and started saying how sorry she was…she continued to sob and sob… it took awhile for her to explain she had brought shame to me because her shoes had touched me…In India the feet and shoes are considered unclean…She was so full of embarrassment and shame… this is a woman i had and continue to have close friendship. Even now i totally do not understand the force of the shame she experienced for something that her action played no part…

    One of the things i like about my Native lineage, we find ways to laugh at ourselves before others can beat us to it…that often helps…

  7. petew,

    To be clear I’m not saying necessarily that her reaction is necessarily because she is from India. As I implied I know westerners who would be deeply troubled to be thrust into the public eye (whether or not it’s their fault). Nor am I saying there weren’t other, unknown factors at play that have nothing to do with the phone call.

    What I am saying is that there is a reason why these sorts of things are (I think, or at least should be) illegal. People have a right to go about their daily business without worrying that they will be the butt of a joke that gets widely broadcast against their will or knowledge. The DJs aren’t responsible for her death, but they are responsible for the laws that they broke. In this case the apparent result was especially and perhaps unpredictably tragic but the laws exist for the purpose of avoiding this kind of circumstance where real damage is done because of a violation of privacy.

    Here’s another way to look at it. Running a stop sign is a minor traffic infraction. In fact, most of us don’t usually come to a complete stop. 99.9% of the time there is no bad result. But occasionally someone gets killed. I’ve often wondered why we treat those situations differently. In one case we give the offender a ticket, and in the other the offender gets locked up for manslaughter or something. But, didn’t they both make the same mistake? Shouldn’t we treat them the same? Or is it necessary to punish the latter more severely to discourage others from making the same mistake and/or to give the victims some sense of justice? I don’t know the answer, but it’s something to think about with regards to this situation.

  8. Ordinary sparrow and adelinesad,

    Yes, I admit that culturally instilled mores often puzzle those of us who are from cultures that don’t make a big deal about what we would consider, only a mild social faux pas. And if that is what happened here, then the nurse’s death is indeed, a terrible tragedy. However, once again we have to ask ourselves whether we are being too quick to condemn the DJs about what happened, when they also, could not possibly have been able to foresee this cultural difference.

    I agree that the DJs are not responsible for her death, and, it is my opinion that they are also NOT vicious and mean spirited people. That adjective would more accurately apply to people who would consciously know about the cultural differences that might cause such a tragedy, but, would go ahead with the prank anyway.They are however, responsible for breaking the laws involved even if their bosses OK’d the prank.

    It is really the responsibility of media outlets to examine and learn from this incident, since they are perfectly capable of changing their policies in order to prevent an encore of this terrible outcome.

    What has bothered me about all of this rush to judgement, is that the DJs were immediately villainized as if they knew what the outcome would be, but went ahead anyway. We have to ask ourselves if we are failing to place the blame where it should be placed, when immediately condemning both DJs with heinous behavior, when actually, they had no idea that the call WOULD even be transferred to the second nurse! And they were certainly not aware of what their actions might bring.

    If they are guilty of breaking laws, that is one thing, but the public seems to have attacked their very character as human beings. So are we really being fair when we appear to want blood for something that undoubtedly has been done by many other radio stations, including those in America.

    It might be good if something like this became clearly regarded as illegal, but when you make the claim that, people should not be made the butt of a joke that goes public or even viral, without our knowledge, you are bound to open a can of worms that involves the intrusive actions of the paparazzi, as well as comedic television shows, like those of Ellen Degeneres and David Letterman—who play these kinds of (what some may consider such cruel) pranks regularly without legal consequences. You might say that in these cases, the victims are asked to sign a release form before the material is aired, but that alone is no guarantee that such a thing won’t happen anyway, and even might cause a heart attack or violate sacred cultural mores that already may have caused shame and embarrassment—even if they are never aired at all! The legal system will also have to vigorously pursue those in the paparazzi, who regularly invade the privacy of celebrities in terribly personal ways, but, seldom suffer any consequences for their transgressions.

    Personally I don’t think anyone should be allowed to imitate another for the purpose of gaining confidential medical evidence, and I do not accept the argument advanced by the press that famous personalities have no right to prevent their privacy from being invaded—apparently on the grounds that, when they became celebrities they are tacitly agreeing to accept those personal invasions. But here again, the paparazzi is completely aware of how their actions might upset their victims and go on with them anyway.

    We also may, or may not, hear further information that can help explain the nurses desperate reaction, and, we may find that radio stations will voluntarily review their policies to prevent this sort of thing in the future. In any case, we don’t have the right to automatically assassinate the character of the DJs even before we know all the facts in this case. The press may also be considered in violation of THEIR personal privacy by, as usual, sensationalizing this case in order increase THEIR OWN personal gains, at the expense of the DJs.

    I think the Australian radio station should bear the brunt of criticism for this scandal, and that we should ask ourselves if we are really interested—out of sympathy for the nurse—in making sure this never happens again, or, if we are just too eager to assign blame, without complete knowledge of the facts, on the wrong people, in order to assuage our anger?

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