royal panic: when a phone-call prank becomes not very funny…

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and the breaking news about nurse Jacintha Saldanha’s death – reported as apparent suicide, following a telephone prank by two Australian DJs at the London King Edward VII hospital where the nurse worked in close proximity to the newly pregnant Duchess of Cambridge – will, no doubt, be triggering an onslaught of grief, remorse and dread for the two people at the centre of the storm. Radio DJs Michael Christian and Mel Greig probably never thought the prank would initially work as well as it did. Now it has, they’ll be wishing it didn’t. And it goes without saying that they’re not the only ones…

Personally, my mind is still boggling and trying to make sense of all this. Like everyone else, I heard about the prank, in which the DJs pretended to be the Queen and Prince Charles. At the time, although I didn’t actually hear it over the radio, I thought it mildly amusing and a bit bizarre. Neither then, nor after, did I consider that it might have such grave side-effects.

Emphasis on the might. Because while the newspapers and online news sites are already out in force, painting a picture of cruelty on behalf of the two DJs, I think we need to keep some perspective on this before things spin wildly out-of-control — that is, unless things already have and already are. There’s no doubt about it: looking at what we presently know to be the facts, the hoax surely contributed to the nurse’s death. Yet that’s simplifying things a bit too much, isn’t it? I mean, think about it critically and logically: these two DJs, for whatever reason, pretended to be two very famous people, who were then believed. Following this the nurse, presumably in shame — if what we read holds any truth, which is hard to say with certainty when such huge journalistic mistakes have been made in the past — apparently committed suicide. For me, the facts don’t add up. Without knowing any more about what actually happened, or, for that matter, Jacintha Saldanha’s state-of-mind in the weeks, days and hours leading up to this event, it feels wrong – and I think is wrong – to go pointing the finger and casting aspersions. All of which I expect will happen with relentless force over the next 48 hours and beyond. I am bracing myself, and that’s tragic: a woman has died. Surely that’s what we should be focussing on?

One thing that is, apparently, a fact, is that the Sydney radio station in question is already in trouble for breaching its regulator’s code. Then again, show me one single big radio station on the face of this Earth which hasn’t been in trouble for violating something at one time, whether it be it’s code or the Law. It all adds up to a very murky picture. My sympathy is with the family and close friends of Jacintha Saldanha at what must be a truly disturbing and horrible time. With some luck, the internet will think before it speaks and we’ll be given a bit more information first, before we start issuing rights and wrongs. It just all seems a bit premature to me.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with the fact that this was clearly a misjudgment on the part of the radio station itself. After all, it’s their responsibility to vet and control its employees, and this could so easily have been avoided — surely by now we’ve heard enough radio pranks to last a bloody lifetime? Yes, undoubtedly it was their fault for making the phone-call, but could they have foreseen it would have such dire consequences so soon after, if indeed it was the call which induced the nurse’s decision to end her own life? I find that extremely unlikely, and I know that because I’ve seen what happens when people play pranks. Most of the time it’s a spontaneous event. Most of the time, you could never have seen the bad news coming.

You can probably think of a prank or a hoax or something that went horribly wrong, so this may well seem like nothing very unusual, even if it did at the time. I recall one particular prank that happened when I was at sixth-form-college, and, as pranks go, it was a good one: that old classic, wait until the person goes to sit down and then pull their chair away quickly…to much embarrassment and a huge round-of-applause from the rest of the class. Only what happened didn’t play out quite like the person who was playing the prank expected, or as any of us could have predicted, either. One moment the boy was sitting down, the next he fell backwards, all of his weight driving his inertia. The sound of his head cracking against the side of the table is something I’ll never truly forget. Entirely oblivious to the prank, he’d fallen with all his weight in one solid mass. There was no warning. From the colossal impact, it was more or less a miracle that he didn’t break his neck.

In the days and weeks that followed, my friends and I often sat about and joked about the prank. We were kids, young adults thinking we knew the world, and we thought it funny. But, much as we knew that the boy was alright – aside from a gigantic bump on the head and a serious case of distrust in anyone who was standing behind him – there was always the nagging feeling that air could have been expanding in his brain. That the prank might have had some long-term side-effects that would take months or years to fully come to surface. As it happened, there wasn’t. Years later, that same boy came out as gay, but despite what some might say, I highly doubt that has anything to do with what happened to his head.

So…how do you punish two radio station DJs who made a mistake and probably should have known better? Throw them in prison for a while to beat the life out of them? Send them to a rehabilitation clinic to learn the perils of having fun? Scotland Yard may have launched an investigation, but what, if anything, is it an investigation into? Once again, I’m confused…

There’s no doubt that it seems right that someone should pay for the nurse’s death, I’m just not sure it’s going to be easy figuring out who that might be, especially when we presently have no idea about what happened after the prank and how this connected with the nurse’s fatal decision.

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