It wasn’t even very funny. They rarely are. Most of the time they’re just plain mean bordering on cruel. But the prank phone call generating so much buzz this past week was, as pranks go, pretty mild and hardly constituted what some are now trying to frame as a crime.
Full disclosure: I have never liked prank phone calls. To me, they’re down near the very bottom of the comedy food chain, somewhere below prop comedy and (perhaps) just above a vigorously-applied wedgie. It doesn’t matter if the calls are the work of for-lack-of-a-better-term “professionals”, such as the Jerky Boys or Comedy Central’s Crank Yankers, or your run-of-the-mill local Morning Zoo crew, I rarely find those calls funny and always find them uncomfortable listening. Maybe it’s because I am inclined to identify with the victim and rarely with the antagonist. Prank calls strike me as professionals picking on defenseless amateurs, kind of like the New York Giants’ offensive line stomping on a junior high school nose tackle. Not funny. I rarely laugh and usually wince. Most often I just change the station.
You’ve heard the story: The Duchess of Cambridge, better known in the tabloids as Kate Middleton, was being treated at London’s King Edward VII Hospital for dehydration brought on by acute morning sickness. Putting on fake British accents, Sydney, Australia, radio DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian pretended to be the Queen and Prince Charles. The DJs' phone call was apparently answered by nurse Jacintha Saldanha, who transferred the pranksters to another nurse. The second nurse, seemingly in the belief that she was talking to the royal family, gave details on the Duchess' condition to the DJs, who not only played the call on the air but also boasted about it on Twitter.
From Greig identifying herself as “The Queen... Kate’s grandmother” to the ridiculous notion of the Queen calling the hospital herself at 5:30 a.m. to the ludicrous discussion about the Prince of Wales giving the Queen a ride to the hospital to the thoroughly unconvincing British accents, it’s hard to imagine anyone believing the phone call was real, let alone two medical professionals charged with the care of a high-profile, high-security patient. And yet so they did, to the point of feeling at liberty to discuss their patient’s condition on the telephone. I don’t know the rules in Great Britain, but just try getting through to a nurse for details about a relative in the hospital here in the United States.
Funny? Not really, but neither was it as cruel or mean-spirited as most prank calls. Compelling radio? To each his own, I guess. The pranksters themselves marveled that the call made it as far as the nurses’ station on the Duchess’ floor, fully expecting, they’ve said, to be “made” early on. But the DJs, and presumably their audience, had a chuckle and moved on with their lives. The story made the news, though, and most of the world probably reacted as I did: “Not terribly clever, but how did such an obviously phony call make it that far?”
Then, an unexpected tragedy: Jacintha’s Saldanha's body was discovered three days later in the nurses' quarters around the corner from the hospital. Details have been sketchy, but Saldanha appears to have committed suicide. A note to her family has been found, its contents yet undisclosed.
Greig and Christian have deleted their Twitter accounts and 2Day FM has taken their program off the air; the professional future of the DJs is uncertain and may well be forfeited. Rhys Holleran, the chief executive of the radio station has said, “This is a tragic event that could not have been reasonably foreseen and we’re deeply saddened by it. I spoke to both presenters… and they’re completely shattered. These people aren’t machines, they’re human beings….” Holleran was careful to defend his station and its programming, noting that prank calls have been “around for decades” and “they’re not just part of one radio station or one network or one country. They’re done worldwide.” Whether Greig and Christian violated any station rules or practices seems unclear at the moment; in a litigious world, 2Day FM has been cautiously mum on such details.
But now on the social media and some news outlets, there’s talk of the pranksters having “blood on their hands.” The Australian Communications and Media Authority and 2Day FM have been flooded with complaints, with more than 14,000 comments posted on the station’s Facebook page. Various parties in Britain and Australia are investigating whether criminal charges are warranted.
Criminal charges? Really? Nobody knows for certain why Jacintha Saldanha, a 46-year-old wife and mother, took her life. Of course it’s reasonable to assume the prank may have contributed to her despair and may have even been the trigger point — but we don’t know for sure, at least not right now.
You may argue that point with me, but you can’t convince me that anyone should have seen this coming. In the long, dull-witted history of DJs planning prank calls and lawyers and program directors vetting those calls for airplay, I doubt anyone has ever said, “We should stop to consider whether our target will be so humiliated she’ll take her own life.”
One can understand Saldanha’s embarrassment. By all accounts, she was a competent nurse and seemingly normal family woman living a private life, when suddenly two witless wags from Down Under had a laugh at her expense and got her name splashed across the internet for a day or two. I wouldn’t enjoy the attention and neither would you, but I believe we’d both get over it soon enough. One can imagine the hospital being angry and embarrassed about their employees’ carelessness or star-struck lack of discretion, but no serious harm had been done to the privacy of their royal patient and no one was publicly calling for the nurses’ dismissal. How the hospital was treating the matter internally, if at all, is unknown.
But blood on the DJs' hands? Criminal charges against them and/or their radio station? No, no, no. This wasn’t an idiotic radio stunt gone tragically but foreseeably wrong, like the one in 2007 in which a young California woman died hours after taking part in KDND’s “Hold Your Wee for a Wii” contest. This was a stupid prank call, notable only in its connection to the royal family, and then because of the stunning but tangential tragedy that followed.
But it is not the fault of those two DJs that Jacintha Saldanha committed suicide. Whatever the impact of that phone call or any unrelated demons she may have been dealing with, that was her decision, her action, and her responsibility. It’s tragic but true, and I extend my sincerest condolences to the woman’s broken-hearted family. But if I had to choose to live in a world free from stupid prank calls or a world in which every joke, every action, every utterance had to be measured first against its worst-case effect on any one of six billion fragile psyches, all I can say is, “Excuse me, do you have Prince Albert in a can?”