The phone rang its ordinary ring, but this would be no ordinary call.
It was 5:30 in the morning, that yawning time of day that connects the late night to the early morning. Lights are beginning to go on, sleepers are beginning to stir, the first gentle noises of morning are beginning to sound. A receptionist has walked away from her post. Perhaps she is fetching a cup of coffee, stretching her legs or using the bathroom. The phone is ringing its ordinary ring.
The senior nurse on duty is within earshot. She steps to the phone, and she answers it. The caller makes her request, and the nurse responds. “Oh yes, just hold on ma’am.” How long was the nurse on the line? 10 seconds? 15? And then it was over.
Except that it wasn’t over. In fact, it hadn’t even really begun.
The caller was one half of a radio DJ duo based in Australia. The caller was pretending to be Queen Elizabeth II. The caller’s ruse, presented in just a sentence before the “Oh yes, just hold on ma’am,” was that the “Queen” wanted to speak to “her granddaughter.” Who just happens to be Kate Middleton, Earth’s Sweetheart. Who just happens to be newly pregnant and receiving hospital care for a rare form of extreme morning sickness. Who just happens to have been assigned to two nurses that cannot differentiate between this impersonation and the real thing.
After the call was transferred, the “Queen” and “Prince Charles” spoke with Kate’s attending nurse. This nurse relayed that Kate had been receiving fluids, was sleeping, and had not “retched” recently. The call ended, and soon the world was abuzz with the story of how two young Aussies pranked their way into the middle of the biggest pregnancy news of the millennium.
“Oh yes, just hold on ma’am.” The sentence was replayed on the radio. It was heard on YouTube. It was read in on-line transcripts.
It was connected to Jacintha Saldanha, a 46-year-old wife and mother of two teenagers who had been working at the King Edward VII’s Hospital for four years.
The events that followed tumbled down from fate as quickly as the phone conversation that precipitated them. Just three days after she answered the phone, Ms. Saldanha was found hanging from a scarf in nurses’ quarters near the hospital, three suicide notes lying near her. 2DayFM has indefinitely suspended Mel Greig and Michael Christian, canceled their show and donated approximately $500,000 to Ms. Saldanha’s family. Australia’s media watchdog is investigating whether the radio show or anyone associated with it violated the station’s broadcasting license.
The rest of us are left shaking our heads. Maybe pointing our fingers. Hopefully examining our collective conscience. Probably not, though.
Unless you are Mel Greig or Michael Christian, or the producers that gave the go-ahead to broadcast the prank, or the lawyer that vetted it, or the station that allowed for pranking of this nature to continue even after being censured previously for coaxing a 14-year-old girl to take a lie-detector test about her sex life that prodded her to announce, on air, that she’d been raped, you have a good argument that this is simply someone else’s tragedy. You could be excused for glibly placing the blame for a woman’s suicide at the feet of the “shock jocks” that broadcast her being duped. You might forget about Jacintha Saldanha, just as you might have forgotten about Tyler Clementi or Phoebe Prince – victims not of prank calls, sure, but of public consumption at their personal expense. Jacinthas of circumstance.
Can we let it go at that? Maybe we can, but maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should think more about what happened, about why it happened, about how it happened. Maybe we should ask questions even if they don’t look like questions, and even if they don’t have answers.
Suicide is complicated. Regardless of what is contained in Ms. Saldanha’s suicide notes, we will probably never know how big a role her one-sentence participation in a prank call played in her decision to end her life. Being a global laughing-stock is not a boost to anyone’s ego, but it wouldn’t destroy everyone’s will to live, either. It is too easy, however, to dismiss this tragedy as a freak circumstance of a viral straw breaking a frail camel’s back. There is an undeniable temporal connection between the call and the death. A 72-hour thread between Event A and Event B that can easily be imagined as the noose that was tied in the form of a silk or cotton or wool scarf.
The law does not put the responsibility for that knot at the feet of Mel and Michael, though. They may have broken laws on surreptitious voice recording, but unless someone can prove that it was reasonably foreseeable that their call would prompt Ms. Saldanha to kill herself, they have no legal relationship to her death.
Morally, there’s more to argue.
Mel and Michael preyed on the privacy of a young woman in the most vulnerable period of her time as a mother: the time when her body is violently reacting to the early stages of a pregnancy she no doubt desperately wants to maintain. They mocked the palace and the royals, what with their exaggerated toodling of the British accent and their references to yapping dogs and swanky palace accommodations. They used two innocent nurses as the means to their entertainment ends.
We can condemn them for their heartlessness, for their willingness to overlook all manner of decency in their grasping attempt to get – or create – the story. But what then? Is it light’s out for comedians everywhere? Curtains closing for John Stewart and Stephen Colbert? Pens down for movie critics, zippered lips for fashion police, all-quiets on the sets of Saturday Night Live? When is it okay for entertainment to come at someone else’s expense?
Chris Rock, of all people, might know the right place to start. He recently explained that he will not incorporate his family into his comedy if it involves an experience that is “just theirs.” Okay, so we stick to jokes or schticks or pranks that expose some aspect of a commonly-shared human experience. We avoid the situational comedies that depend upon exploiting the story or position a person uniquely owns. Would that line in the sand have helped Ms. Saldanha? I’m not sure.
So maybe we also need to think about who is being used as our entertainment vehicle. Is it someone who has already volunteered themselves for the limelight? If yes, perhaps that makes them fairer fodder for manipulation or satire or comment. If yes, that makes the Jacinthas of the world largely off-limits. Perhaps now we’re getting somewhere.
That can’t be the end of the road, though. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will always have the power to hurt. Fame is not humiliation’s kryptonite. It must be true that somewhere in the course of conceiving or writing or planning a joke, the joker should be called upon to think of the effect the joke might have on the jokee. How would it feel to have your most embarrassing personal or professional moment digitally broadcast with a single click? Is it still worth the reaction you think it might get? Maybe suicide is unpredictable, but a bruised ego or shattered confidence might not be. Are you okay with being that bully?
These are hard things to think about. This was a hard column to write. We are all caught up in this, somehow. We read about other people’s foibles, we write critical assessments of other people’s actions, we participate in a social culture of constant access and instant gratification. Twitter is nothing if not a platform for perfecting satire and polishing irony.
We might not create the entertainment, but we consume it. Where there is supply, there is demand. Where there are shock jocks and prank calls, somewhere there is an audience laughing.
Where there is a phone ringing, there is someone getting ready to answer.
Image via The Guardian