By Tim Lister
(CNN) — The apparent suicide of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse who inadvertently put through a prank call to the hospital ward where the Duchess of Cambridge was staying, has provoked outrage, sadness and demands for retribution in all corners of the media.
The tragedy has revived memories of previous practical jokes that have gone horribly wrong, but also stirred an already febrile debate on ethical boundaries, whether in the mainstream or social media, and what, if any, legal recourse should be available to people humiliated or taunted in public.
Saldanha, a 46-year-old mother of two, was found dead Friday — three days after Australian DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian of 2DayFM placed a call to the King Edward VII hospital in the UK, where the duchess was being treated for morning sickness. They pretended to be Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles.
A statement on the radio station’s website said: “The hosts have decided that they will not return to their radio show until further notice out of respect for what can only be described as a tragedy.”
Many media organizations played the audio tape of that call in part or its entirety.
CNN broadcast part of it — but not the segment where a nurse in the ward briefly discussed details of the duchess’s condition.
Of the three major broadcasters in the United Kingdom, neither Sky News nor the BBC played the call. ITN played a clip that included the voice of Saldanha (but did not identify her) on several newscasts. It didn’t really matter whether the major broadcasters aired the tape; the whole conversation was widely available online via YouTube.
Before Saldanha’s apparent suicide, the chief executive of the hospital, John Lofthouse, had already condemned the prank, saying, “I think this whole thing is pretty deplorable, our nurses are caring, professional people trained to look after patients, not to cope with journalistic trickery of this sort.”
And trickery seems to go the heart of the issue.
2DayFM has a history of public humiliation. In 2009, a 14-year-old girl was tricked into acknowledging that she had been raped at the age of 12 — only to be asked by a DJ: “Is that the only experience you’ve had?”
That led the Australian Communications and Media Authority to censure the station — saying the broadcast did not meet standards of decency. The station said it had provided the teenager with counseling and vowed “to prevent anything similar from happening again.”
But 2DayFM has been the subject of several inquiries since; and this year was told it “must not broadcast material that demeans or is likely to demean women or girls” as a condition of keeping its license.
That followed a broadcast in which a female journalist was called a derogatory term and told “to watch your mouth or I’ll hunt you down” by DJ Kyle Sandilands. The incident provoked a campaign to persuade advertisers to boycott the show, but 2DayFM was not fined and Sandilands kept his job. He even interviewed Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard in July.
After its latest prank, 2DayFM’s website boasted about the “Biggest Royal Prank Ever,” but in the UK, Daily Telegraph columnist Bryony Gordon said it was “not so funny to hear two grown adults call up a hospital ward full of sick people to try to scam information about one of them.”
“What Christian and Greig did was borderline illegal,” she added.
On social media, the tragedy made an impact in a way that many stories don’t.
“Desensitisation created by 24/7 news means few news items actually cause shock; the death of nurse Jacintha Saldanha is one such item,” tweeted Ricky Seal.
It also prompted visceral hostility toward the radio presenters. ‘I hope they’re proud of themselves’…. “Do the moronic callers still find themselves humorous?”…. “Humanity, we have reached another low” were among the thousands of furious tweets.
Both DJs have deleted their Twitter accounts. As the UK tabloid the Daily Mirror put it on its front-page Saturday, ‘Pranksters Face World Fury.’
Around the world, reaction in the op-ed columns echoed the fury.
In Canada, Christina Blizzard wrote: “So a young woman who cared enough to go into nursing, was courteous enough to pick up a phone because a receptionist wasn’t at her desk, was trusting enough to be helpful — is dead. Two children don’t have a mother.
“But at least a radio station kept their audience entertained.”
However, some — a minority to be sure — said it was too easy to mobilize the virtual lynch mob. One Canadian tweeted: “The two deejays are not responsible for the actions of an unbalanced woman.”
Prank phone calls and other practical jokes have long been a form of entertainment on radio and television. Most of the time they are harmless enough: both sides get the joke. The TV series “Candid Camera” ran for years because the great majority of the people tricked by the show were prepared to sign away their dignity for a few minutes.
But pranks can go wrong.
Back in 2008, the BBC apologized to actor Andrew Sachs after two radio presenters — Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross — left a series of messages on his phone while on-air, including offensive references to his granddaughter. The second message apologized for the first — but also suggested Sachs might kill himself because of the content of the previous message.
The two presenters were later suspended by the BBC, and a senior executive resigned. The corporation was also fined some $225,000 by the UK media regulator and its governing trust described the episode as a “deplorable intrusion with no editorial justification.”
Brand moved on — to a career in Hollywood. Veteran publicist Max Clifford told the Daily Telegraph soon after the incident that Brand’s career would not be hurt.
“He’s known to be controversial and, if anything, it will make him more popular amongst his fans, who will have thought this was hilarious,” Clifford told the newspaper.
As Oscar Wilde once said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
Sachs was at least familiar with the public spotlight as a well-known actor and narrator. Jacintha Saldanha was not. Nor was Gretchen Molannen.
On November 30, the Tampa Bay Times published a story about Gretchen Molannen, a 39-year old woman who had a rare sexual disorder known as ‘persistent genital arousal.’
The Times worked with Molannen and read her the entire story before it was published. She’d written to the newspaper thanking it for showing an interest, adding: “I just hope this will educate people that this is serious and really exists, and that other women who are suffering in silence will now have the courage to talk to a doctor about it.”
The day after the story was published, Molannen killed herself. Even sympathetic coverage and subsequent offers of help could not save her.
It’s unclear whether the publicity about her condition was too much to bear; she had previously attempted to take her own life.
“It’s important to understand that suicide is complex,” says Catherine Johnstone, chief executive of the Samaritans, a UK group that counsels people thinking of suicide.
“Although a catalyst may appear to be obvious, suicide is never the result of a single factor or event and is likely to have several interrelated causes,” Johnstone said on the group’s website soon after news emerged of Saldanha’s death.
If adults are vulnerable to what they perceive as public humiliation, teenagers are doubly so. Tyler Clementi was an 18-year old student at Rutgers University who in 2010 was secretly filmed by his roommate having a sexual encounter with another man. A short while later he jumped to his death from a New York bridge.
Clementi was not only humiliated but his humiliation was amplified by the fact that his roommate, Dharun Ravi, shared the footage with others and tweeted about it. He was later convicted of bias intimidation and invasion of privacy and sentenced to 30 days in jail.
The case seemed to bring together many of the factors that put the vulnerable even more at risk: technology that can record and distribute private acts in a matter of minutes; the failure — especially among many younger users of social media — to understand the potential consequences of their postings; and the uncertain state of the law in many places.
It also highlighted an epidemic of teenage suicides in the United States — one that has coincided with the immersion of that age group in social media and texting for hours at a stretch. Schoolyard bullying ends when recess does; cyber-bullying is 24/7 and reaches into the bedroom, the mall and the classroom.
When 15-year old Phoebe Prince killed herself in Massachusetts two years ago, another student at her school told the media: “Someone told her to go hang herself, and I don’t really know who that was, but she was getting bullied by some people, because there were people talking about her and I guess she didn’t like being hated.”
At first glance, many of these cases bear little resemblance to that of Jacintha Saldanha. But there are common threads.
In the 21st century, personal humiliation can quickly go viral thanks to the reach and appetite of both social and mainstream media. Within hours, the minor transgressions and innocent mistakes, the private behavior and anxieties of ordinary people can reach, or seem to reach, the ends of the earth. For a few, that exposure is quickly overwhelming.