Anger over nurse’s death in royal hospital hoax
Days after being publicly ‘humiliated’ in a radio prank call, nurse Jacintha Saldanha has been found dead – apparently after taking her own life. Where does responsibility lie?
For Australian radio hosts Michael Christian and Mel Greig, the prank call was nothing more than a joke.
The target? An exclusive London hospital, where Kate Middleton was being treated for extreme morning sickness. Armed with terrible English accents, the hosts hoped to pass as the Queen, Prince Charles and even a pair of yapping ‘royal corgis’: if they didn’t get a line to the Duchess of Cambridge, they thought, their viewers would at least be amused.
A nurse answered the phone, and Greig, in an exaggerated royal twang, asked to speak to her ‘granddaughter’. To her shock, she was put through to Kate’s nurse, who went into detail about the Duchess’ health.
The clip immediately went viral: millions, including Prince Charles himself, listened and laughed. It appeared that the prank was a success – until it became a tragedy.
On Friday, the nurse that answered the call was found dead. Jacintha Saldanha, it appeared, had taken her own life – days after being duped on internationally broadcast radio.
Mirth was replaced by grief and anger. The ‘shattered’ presenters have stepped down. Yesterday, the hospital’s chairman accused the radio station of a ‘truly appalling stunt’ that had ‘humiliated’ hospital staff. Twitter was less diplomatic: Christian and Greig, one user said, had ‘blood on their hands’.
Can third parties be held responsible for someone’s suicide? It is not unheard of. Last year, five American teenagers were found guilty of harassment after their bullying resulted in the death of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince. In France, telecoms boss Didier Lombard is being investigated after 30 of his employees committed suicide – driven to desperation, it is claimed, by the unbearable working conditions he imposed.
According to pundits, Greig and Christian could also be answerable. Broadcasting the call without Saldanha’s permission could be a breach of Australia’s media code. The owner of their radio station, 2Day FM, has even been forced to deny negligence: a serious accusation, which means someone is partly responsible for a tragedy because they failed to sensibly assess the potential consequences of their actions.
But are the pair culpable? No, many say: no-one could have predicted such a tragic outcome. If people censored their speech by how the most vulnerable might react, nothing would be said at all: the best we can do is to treat others as we would wish to be treated.
But is that enough? The fact that one person can deal with pranks and insults, others say, is not permission to throw them at everyone. People must consider how their behaviour might affect those more vulnerable than themselves: this kind of compassion, they say, is the mark of a civilised society.
- Are Greig and Christian responsible for Jacintha Saldanha’s death?
- How far should people be expected to consider possible negative outcomes when they decide how to behave?
- Imagine you are one of the radio presenters to have carried out the prank call. Write a diary entry describing your feelings.
- Hold a court case to decide whether the Australian radio presenters should be held responsible for this week’s tragedy. Structure the trial with lawyers representing both cases, and have a jury decide.
Some People Say...
“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.’ JRR Tolkien”
What do you think?
Q & A
- So could I be held responsible for something I didn’t actually cause?
- When someones takes their own life, there are always many complicated causes: underlying mental health issues, family problems, personal insecurities. It may be tempting to place blame when tragedies like this occur, but it is rarely fair, accurate or helpful – as Samaritans, the leading charity for those affected by suicide, pointed out this week.
- So in what circumstances might blame be relevant?
- Legally, someone is more likely to be held accountable for contributing to a death if they were responsible for the welfare of the deceased person. A case of clinical negligence, for example, might involve someone taking their own life after a doctor failed to assess their needs correctly, gave inefficient care or prescribed inappropriate medication.
- Exclusive London Hospital
- Established in 1899 for soldiers injured in the Boer War, King Edward VII’s Hospital Sister Agnes is one of London’s most exclusive private hospitals. It is regularly used by the royal family, and also supports the treatment of men and women serving in the British military. After the prank call incident the hospital was not pursuing disciplinary measures against staff, and said it was ‘supporting’ the nurses involved.
- Prince Charles himself
- The royal family quickly condemned the Australian prank, first because of the invasion to Kate Middleton’s privacy. Nevertheless, her father-in-law Prince Charles joked with reporters as they waited outside the hospital, asking ‘how do you know I’m not a radio station?’
- Guilty of harassment
- Individuals that have been prosecuted in relation to the suicide of others have normally been pursued under charges like harassment, not negligence. Harassment can be illegal whether or not it leads to someone’s suicide – although the consequences of the bullying behaviour influence how someone is sentenced, and will often bring the case to court in the first place.
- Australia’s media code
- As in the UK, Australian radio stations must stick to a code of ethics and law. It has been challenged by pranks before: in 2009, Australians were appalled when a 14-year-old girl was forced to admit that she had been raped live on air, in a disastrous lie detector stunt.