DJs under fire after death of nurse in royal prank call

Posted at 7:57 AM, Dec 08, 2012

LONDON (CNN) — As radio pranks go, it was irreverent on-air fare: Two DJs, impersonating Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, trick a nurse to get details about the hospitalization of Prince William’s pregnant wife.

A nurse who was a victim of the stunt, Jacintha Saldanha, apparently committed suicide Friday, King Edward VII Hospital said in a statement

The fallout from Saldanha’s death has stretched around the globe, from Britain to Australia — with questions being raised about how far is too far in the effort to find out details about the Duchess of Cambridge’s pregnancy.

“Pranksters Face World Fury,” screams the front-page headline of the UK’s Daily Mirror, while 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.”

The two Australian DJs, Mel Greig and Michael Christian, behind the practical joke are under fire, with some using the phrase “blood on your hands” to condemn their actions on the Sydney-based radio station 2DayFM.

The DJs have since apologized, and “mutually decided” to go off the air for an undetermined period, Rhys Holleran, CEO of the Southern Cross Austereo media group, said Saturday during a news conference.

Holleran said he was “very confident that we haven’t done anything illegal.”

“This is a tragic event that could not have been reasonably foreseen and we are deeply saddened by it,” he said.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority, the country’s media regulator, has not yet commented on the case.

However, it will be “engaging with the licensee, Today FM Sydney, around the facts and issues surrounding the prank call,” said the regulator’s chairman, Chris Chapman.

A spokesman for David Cameron said the prime minister “thinks this is a very sad case and his thoughts are with her family and colleagues.”

London’s Metropolitan Police said Saturday that Saldanha, 46, had work-provided living quarters in central London. A post-mortem examination will be held next week.

News of Saldanha’s death broke Friday, with the hospital saying she “was recently the victim of a hoax call.”

Police said they were notified Friday morning that a woman was found unconscious. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

Police are treating the death as “unexplained.”

Audio of the call posted online suggests a woman spoke briefly to the DJs before she put the call through early Tuesday morning to the ward where Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, was being treated for acute morning sickness.

Throughout the controversy surrounding the hoax, authorities did not identify the nurse. Her identity was released after her death.

“They were the world’s worst accents ever. We were sure 100 people at least before us would’ve tried the same thing. … We were expecting to be hung up on — we didn’t even know what to say when we got through,” Greig told listeners Thursday.

Off the air, Greig and Christian tweeted about the practical joke on Thursday and earlier Friday, promising “more on the #royalprank.” The pair’s Twitter accounts were taken down late Friday.

Some listeners applauded the prank, like one who identified himself as Guido on the station’s Facebook page and wrote, “It is only a joke people! it was great i love it!!!”

Others were outraged, with such negative comments outnumbering positive ones on 2DayFM’s Facebook page before the nurse’s death.

“Your stunt was done at a time in this country where there is paranoia about the intrusion of the media into people’s lives,” Gary Slenders wrote. “I know you will say it is harmless fun, the management of 2DayFM will say that it won’t happen again, but this exactly where the phone hacking scandal started.”

The outcry grew exponentially after the hospital confirmed Saldanha’s death, leading the Coles supermarket chain to remove all its advertising from 2DayFM.

“This death is on your conscience,” reads one Facebook post. Several accused the two of having “blood on your hands.”

Saldanha’s family released a statement asking for privacy and directing questions to police. She is survived by her husband and two children.

“We as a family are deeply saddened by the loss of our beloved Jacintha,” said the statement, released by police.

Saldanha worked at the King Edward VII Hospital for more than four years, and she was described as an “excellent nurse,” well-respected by co-workers, the hospital statement said.

The hospital “had been supporting her throughout this difficult time,” it said.

A St. James’s Palace spokesman said: “The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are deeply saddened to learn of the death.

“Their Royal Highnesses were looked after so wonderfully well at all times by everybody at King Edward VII Hospital, and their thoughts and prayers are with Jacintha Saldanha’s family, friends and colleagues at this very sad time.”

Separately, a palace spokesman told CNN: “At no point did the palace complain to the hospital about the incident. On the contrary, we offered our full and heartfelt support to the nurses involved and hospital staff at all times.”

The Royal College of Nursing, which represents nurses nationally, also expressed sorrow over Saldanha’s death.

“It is deeply saddening that a simple human error due to a cruel hoax could lead to the death of a dedicated and caring member of the nursing profession,” said Dr Peter Carter, its chief executive.

The hospital said Wednesday that it deeply regretted the call had been put through.

The private hospital is known for treating royals. In June, Prince Philip, 91, was admitted to the same hospital with a bladder infection, forcing him to miss part of the queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebration.

CNN’s Laura Perez Maestro, Max Foster, Per Nyberg, Chelsea C. Carter and Tim Lister contributed to this report.