Practical jokes do not cause death

The blame game around two radio DJs effectively accused of prompting a nurse’s death only compounds the tragedy.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

At around half five on Wednesday morning, two Australian 2Day FM djs – Mel Greig and Michael Christian – phoned London’s King Edward VII hospital, which was then treating Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, for acute morning sickness. Putting on daft English accents, and punctuating the call with someone doing an impersonation of a corgi barking, Greig and Christian pretended to be the Queen and Prince Charles respectively. And, much to their surprise and delight, the nurse answering the call put them straight through to the duty nurse who then proceeded to give them an update on Kate’s condition.

And that was that, really. The story did generate a bit of interest, as you’d expect given that it involved the embryonic heir to the throne, plus there was some artificially serious talk of a ‘security scare’. But, at the same time, everyone involved seemed to have taken it largely in the spirit it was meant: a couple of Aussies making grinning fun, in the main, of the spectacle and pomp of Brits and the royal family. At most it was irreverent, not nasty. Nobody involved was disciplined, nothing that wasn’t in the public domain was divulged, and even Prince Charles saw the funny side, telling reporters the following day: ‘How do you know I’m not a radio station?’

But the events of Friday seemingly cast a whole new light on the affair. Jacintha Saldanha, the 46-year-old nurse who had initially fielded the call, was found dead at her London flat. As it stands, her death is being treated as suicide.

We don’t know much more than that. Nor is there any reason why we should. This is a tragedy for Saldanha’s family and friends, not an object of public interest to be scrutinised in the press and argued over on radio phone-in shows.

Yet, in the absence of any knowledge as to why Saldanha might have chosen to take her own life, too many have rushed in with their own explanations. We have seen causes blithely identified, blame hastily attributed. An individual’s death, about which we know virtually nothing, has been all too quickly used to confirm certain prejudices – about vulnerability, about the media, and so on.

For Conservative MP Nadine Dorries and Labour MP Tom Watson, it tells us, once more, about the ruthless, feral press, untamed by Leveson, and no doubt unleashed by Murdoch. In their eyes, Saldanha was the victim of reporters determined to out those who had unwittingly talked to the Australian radio programme about the royal pregnancy. ‘How many paps and journalists were hanging round that poor nurse’s house? How many made her feel sick and scared?’, Dorries asked on Twitter. As it turns out, there is no evidence that journalists even knew who Saldanha was, let alone wanted to doorstep her.

Still, who needs facts when there is so much speculation to be done, so much culpability to be foisted upon individuals and organisations. And here we come to the prevalent form in which this blame game is being played. The djs themselves are being held responsible for Saldanha’s death. Few beyond the environs of social media say it outright, but the implication is there. Take this statement from Dr Peter Carter, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing: ‘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.’ A causal chain is established: the ‘cruel hoax’ led to Saldanha’s death.

More striking, and more influential, has been the press-released letter from Lord Glenarthur, chairman of the King Edward VII hospital, to Max Moore-Wilson, the head of 2Day FM’s network Southern Cross Austereo. Again, the causal sequence is assumed: ‘The immediate consequence of these premeditated and ill-considered actions [the hoax call] was the humiliation of two dedicated and caring nurses who were simply doing their job tending to their patients. The longer-term consequence has been reported around the world and is, frankly, tragic beyond words.’ The letter ends with censure: ‘I appreciate that you cannot undo the damage which has been done but I would urge you to take steps to ensure that such an incident could never be repeated.’

But is it right to call Saldanha’s death the ‘longer-term consequence’ of the djs’ prank call? For a start, no one actually knows yet why Saldanha took her own life; everything so far is assumption and, if all the self-righteous blather about privacy means anything, ought to remain so. As the chief executive of the Samaritans, Catherine Johnstone, cautions: ‘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 inter-related causes.’

More importantly, there is nothing necessary, nothing simply and straightforwardly caused about Friday’s events. As many commentators have noted, the prank call has been a staple of radio, not to mention TV, for time immemorial – Channel 4’s Phonejacker, for instance, is a programme based entirely around this one conceit. And yes, many such calls or hoaxes are indeed humiliating – such is the nature of jokes, especially practical ones. But they don’t necessarily culminate in tragedy; in fact, they rarely end in anything more than a temporarily red face. Stunts are pulled, and invariably jokes are taken. It is just that here, something terrible has happened, but it was no more caused by the djs’ phone call than deciding to go shopping on a Saturday is caused by adverts.

In the reaction to Saldanha’s death there is that all-too-familiar contemporary reflex, that cultural refusal to accept that sometimes bad things do happen for which there is not someone to blame, not someone to hold to account. Most obviously, we encounter this in the phenomenon of compensation culture. But it’s the same logic at work here: something terrible has happened therefore someone or something must be to blame. Hence the causal chain is retrospectively established, with the DJs’ prank call conceived as the equivalent of a balcony push.

But, as difficult as it is to accept, sometimes terrible things do happen. Sometimes accidents befall us and sometimes, as in this case, people do decide to take their own lives. To seek always to attribute blame is to impose a network of extrinsic intention and causality upon events where there are always other factors in play, some of which involve the subjectivity of the putative victim. To think otherwise is to conceive of us as little more than the passive recipients of external compulsion, the victims of external forces – just as in this case, Saldanha is presented as the victim of a thoughtless, prank-calling radio station.

So, to the tragedy of one individual’s death, too many in positions of influence seem keen to add to it by persecuting two radio djs. It is time to move on.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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