THE BLOG
12/10/2012 05:47 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2013

Punked to Death: Nurse's Apparent Suicide Puts Ratings Hunger on Trial

In the world of sensationalistic media -- print, online, TV, radio -- the general mandate is "nothing is off limits," ratings drive content, and the best in the business push, prod, prank, and punk with no concern for the object of their manipulation. But when a British nurse and mother of two commits apparent suicide after being "punked" by Australian shock jocks, Mel Greig and Michael Christian, it became tragically clear there are limits and some very unfunny damage that can be done in the service of "entertainment" and ratings hunger.

Yet even as the world remains stunned by the lethal prank and a family grieves the loss of a beloved member, we're now being told by Australian media that the shock jocks involved are in a "fragile state" and offered intensive therapy. Do we care about them at this point? We care about the tragically humiliated nurse, but do we care about the sniggering two who had no compunction about tricking her into crossing a very sensitive line of hospital privacy and then publicly humiliating her across the blogosphere? Do they deserve our contempt or are they, too, victims of the soulless drive for higher ratings and media one-upsmanship?

A brief timeline (the story's been well-documented but let's set the stage). According to the Guardian:

"Monday 3 December: The Duchess of Cambridge is admitted to the King Edward VII hospital in London. At 4.01pm St James's Palace announces she is in the "very early" stages of pregnancy and suffering from acute morning sickness.

Tuesday 4 December: Radio DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian, from Sydney's 2Day FM, call the hospital switchboard at around 5.30am GMT pretending to be the Queen and Prince of Wales. They speak to nurse Jacintha Saldanha, who is working on reception and puts the call through to a duty nurse.

Wednesday 5 December: News of the prank call makes headlines around the world. The hospital condemns it as "deplorable" and "journalistic trickery". Greig and Christian offer "sincere apologies" and say they were surprised to get through due to their "terrible accents".

Thursday 6 December: The duchess is discharged from hospital.

Friday 7 December: Police and an ambulance crew are called to a flat in Weymouth Street, near the hospital, at 9.25am where the unconscious body of a woman is found. She is pronounced dead at the scene. Scotland Yard says the death is not being treated as suspicious at this stage. The hospital later confirms the woman is Saldanha."

Once word got out the media ate it up; covering, with growing incredulity, the ease with which the shock jocks broke through the firewall surrounding the duchess. Saldanha's name was splattered all over the Internet and the successful prank was considered quite the coup for the station:

"Predictably, the blogosphere ridiculed Saldanha, and Greig and Christian boasted shamelessly about their ruse. 'Easiest prank call ever made,' the pair giggled on its show. 'They were the worst accents ever and when we made that phone call, we were sure 100 people at least before us would have tried the same thing,' Greig marveled, calling it a 'career highlight.' The radio station's website touted the gag as 'the biggest royal prank ever.'"

The sniggering, however, was short-lived: When news of Saldanha's apparent suicide broke, ridicule quickly turned to outrage and criticism bombarded the station from every corner of the globe. Greig and Christian shut down their social media sites and while the station has refused to fire them, they withdrew from the show. The station did release a contrite statement:

"SCA and 2Day FM are deeply saddened by the tragic news of the death of nurse Jacintha Saldanha from King Edward VII's Hospital. [...] SCA and the hosts have decided that they will not return to their radio show until further notice out of respect for what can only be described as a tragedy."

There has been no official word as to why the nurse at the center of the storm, Jacintha Saldanha, killed herself; the presumption at this point is that she "died of shame,"as her brother put it, emotionally devastated to have been tricked into breaking hospital protocol, particularly in a case as high profile as Kate Middleton's, and deeply humiliated after her gaffe was made widely known.

It's a tragic story, all agree, but who's at fault here? The hospital? The shock jocks? The radio station? Eyes are turning toward the parent company, Southern Cross Austereo, and the station, 2DayFM, which apparently has a long history of pushing the boundaries of public decorum in their quest for ratings:

"For over a decade, 2Day FM, which launched in 1980 as one of three radio stations to be granted FM broadcasting licenses in Sydney, has marched on the edge of propriety, fostering a culture of shock jocks and raunchy content. Various hosts working for the station have deployed an alarming amount of questionable stunts in an attempt to goose ratings, which have been on a roller-coaster course for much of the past decade."

Obviously Greig and Christian are as culpable as the station's management. Still, some have remarked that it really was all in fun, no harm intended and, frankly, since they couldn't have known they were dealing with a woman of such emotional fragility, there could be no fault... right? Certainly the radio station would have you see it that way but it's just been reported that the Scotland Yard is getting involved. Not surprising, as there is a strong whiff of the "Eggshell Skull Rule" swirling around this story. This particular rule of law (in America), also called the "you take your victim as you find them" rule, states that one is liable for all consequences of their misdeeds even if the victim has a "pre-existing vulnerability" -- which could include emotional fragility deep enough to compel suicide after global humiliation.

The more far-reaching issue is the way we, the audience, consume media. The burgeoning demand and insatiable appetite for the most radical, outrageous and boundary-pushing content compels people like Greig and Christian to go as far out on the limb as possible to "win," to get that feather in the cap of "gets" and "gotchas." It's the demand of any entertainer in the new world of media over saturation and ratings hunger. Yet where Candid Camera had its gentle tease, we've now progressed into the realm of sanctioned bullying, a form of public humiliation that's become a sort of "snigger porn." That a woman allegedly killed herself should be warning enough to change where the lines are drawn, but we'll see if that happens. Or if we'll all just be outraged for a while... until we're laughing at the next trending exploit -- hoping, this time, that no one vulnerable cracks under the weight of our "entertainment" demands.

Follow Lorraine Devon Wilke on Facebook, Rock+Paper+Music, and Addicting Info; for details and links to her other work, visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com.