The suicide of an Indian-born nurse at the King Edward VII’s Hospital, who had been the victim of an Australian radio phone prank, raises many questions. Not the least of which is – how could something so inane affect this poor woman so tragically?
Did she die of shame? Her migrant and cultural background is a clue. But that’s not letting the juvenile radio station off the hook. The hospital prank victim leaves behind a bewildered and grieving family.
Jacintha Saldanha, 46, a nurse at the London private hospital treating Catherine, the pregnant Duchess of Cambridge who was suffering from extreme morning sickness, was found dead three days after taking the hoax call from the 2Day FM presenters Mel Grieg and Michael Christian. They pretended to be the Queen and Prince Charles, wanting to get information about Catherine.
The logic of targeting a pregnant woman in hospital for a radio prank is highly questionable.
According to media reports, Ms Saldanha emigrated to Britain nine years ago, long enough to settle into the English way of life. She was a committed Catholic. The chances are that she had also faithfully retained the social and cultural expectations of her Indian upbringing. Women in conservative, traditional cultures are expected to be the moral guardians of the family and to guard their honour at all times, including not being the focus of gossip, scandal or innuendo. Suddenly, BAM, she’s headline news.
Travel does broaden the mind, and enables many people to make productive lives in countries far away. In my experience (I’ve been a migrant twice) you take your core values from home to the new place and these remain intact, as you go through the tumultuous adjustment process of finding your feet in a foreign country.
It can also be very confusing, being a migrant and trying to understand the mentality of a culture light years from your own. It’s easy to feel vulnerable. And the brash world of commercial radio may not have been something she was familiar with.
Ms Saldanha didn’t tell her family of the prank phone call, possibly because she felt she had let people down, including her family, her employer and the royal patient. Did she feel she had dishonoured her family and community? I can only imagine her horror and humiliation mounting by the hour as the headlines loomed large in every British newspaper and the news spread like wildfire around the world.
Is it possible she felt so humiliated that she felt she had no choice but to take this drastic and fatal step? She leaves behind her husband and a son aged 16, and a daughter, 14.
After the stunt, the DJs spent the next few days exercising bragging rights, boasting on Twitter and even demanding that listeners wanting a particular song to be played on their show to call in and ask for it in an English accent. Oh yes, they were loving every minute of it. For hours after the nurse’s death, the audio of the call was still available on the station’s website.
And that’s the thing about radio phone pranks in Australia, and worldwide. The DJs laud their prowess at successfully humiliating a hapless member of the public. Playing the public bully boys. Their ratings soar. Here it’s seen as good old fashioned Australian larrikinism writ large.
In a letter to Max Moore-Wilson, chairman of Southern Cross Austereo which owns 2Day FM, the hospital chairman Lord Glenarthur said: “The immediate consequences of these premeditated and ill-considered actions was the humiliation of two dedicated and caring nurses who were simply doing their job tending to their patients.”
Southern Cross Austereo has insisted it did nothing wrong and it had not broken any broadcasting standard rules. Surely the Australian Communications and Media Authority needs to start re-examining those standards. This ain’t over yet, not by a long shot.
* Readers seeking support and info about suicide prevention: beyondblue.org.au is a national, independent, not-for-profit organisation working to address issues associated with depression, anxiety and related disorders in Australia.