THE BLOG

Royal Prank Suicide: Hospital Deflects Its Responsibility by Playing Blame Game

12/09/2012 02:15 pm ET | Updated Feb 08, 2013

First and foremost -- let's be absolutely clear. The death of the nurse Jacintha Saldanha is very sad. All deaths are sad. When a nurse age just 46, who has a husband and two teenage children dies, that is obviously a very sad event. Our thoughts and sympathies must be with her bereaved family.

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The question the hospital doesn't want you to ask: Why was this beautiful, talented, experienced registered nurse being used by the hospital as a cheap night-time substitute for a trained telephone operator?

Having said that -- and in no way taking away from that acknowledged sadness -- one has to note that there appears to be some rushing to judgment going on. And a lot of the rushing and judgment is coming from the one party with everything to lose from this highly unusual and unforeseeable tragedy. The hospital that charges astronomical fees to fat-cats.

It is the hospital that bears ultimate responsibility in this matter. Not a couple of brash entertainers doing something that has been done many times over past decades with not even the hint of such a sad, bizarrely melodramatic, denouement.

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The very exclusive private hospital that has its profitability at stake. At any cost it must avoid the appearance of any responsibility in the tragic death of its employee

Before we get into that, let's remember that no one knows yet if this is a suicide. It is assumed to be one. The police have ruled out foul play. But no authority has yet determined or announced that this person took her own life or if she died because of some other cause. So while assumptions are that it was suicide, it would be prudent to wait for the official ruling before the condemnations start.

Of course no one else is waiting -- so we'll ignore that recommendation for the purposes of this article.

Let's say for the sake of argument that it was suicide. There then has to be a determination as to what caused this woman to take her own life. Was it solely the tempest in a teacup of the preceding 72 hours? If that minor incident was a factor, was it the only factor in this person's life that prompted her to commit suicide?

Let's think calmly for a second.

This lady's involvement in the prank lasted all of three seconds. There was no massive outcry against her. Did you see screaming headlines "who was the moron who foolishly believed that it was the Queen on the phone and put the call through to the ward?" Was there any mocking of her by anyone? Was she named by any media outlet? Was she shamed by any media outlet? (These are rhetorical questions addressed primarily to the hospital's damage control team since no one else seems to have asked them.) Even the radio hosts, who were incredulous about being put through so easily, did not say anything about the person who connected them to the nurse who volunteered so much information.

In other words, there was no massive public or media outcry against her. The pranksters didn't make fun of her. There was no calling for her scalp by the public or the media. (What may have gone on inside the hospital is another matter -- and we'll get to that in a moment.)

A reasonable, normal reaction to such circumstances is to apologize to those affected by one's mistake, shrug one's shoulders and move on. Her crime was nothing more than gullibility at the vulnerable hour of 5:30 a.m. in the morning after a presumably long night shift doing a task which wasn't in her nurse training. Not a hanging offense in the eyes of the public, the media or the royal family. (Though we don't know what the embarrassed hospital management actually felt.)

So, suicide for such a trivial matter does seem a rather excessive reaction by a 46-year-old woman who has been described in very glowing terms by her colleagues. Especially a woman in a stable marriage with two teenage children. Reasonably balanced people -- and every indication has been that she was a reasonably balanced person -- don't usually commit suicide over such trivial matters.

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A plush room in the swanky hospital where the rich pay very handsomely to be protected from intruders, media and Australian radio presenters...

One report described her as a "nervous" person. Taking one's own life after a three-second incident in which one had not been publicly identified would certainly be a new definition of being "nervous."

The apparent source for that definition is quoted in the UK's Sunday Times. That paper's report says: "Jeff Sellick, Saldanha's driving instructor, described her as a 'quiet and shy' person who had been 'quite nervous' when starting her lessons but gained confidence and went on to pass her test." (That sounds like 99.9 percent of people.) The paper quoted Sellick as saying: "She wouldn't say boo to a goose. She seemed quite private and I can only imagine that something like this would have preyed quite heavily on her mind."

If that was the assessment of her driving instructor who knew her only for a few weeks, what was the assessment of the senior management at the hospital where she had worked for four years?

According to the investigation undertaken by the Sunday Times:

"Sources at the hospital insist that Saldanha was not disciplined or subjected to any 'serious interview' over her handling of the call. 'She was telephoned about it and asked what had happened and she explained' said one. 'She was traumatised by it and by the media coverage afterwards. The hospital was working hard to support her. But I don't think anyone realised how traumatised she was. There was a plan to have a chat [with her] at some time.'"

She was telephoned about it?! This poor woman was living in nursing accommodation just yards away from the hospital. And the best that the hospital could do was speak to her on the telephone?! The very means of communication that had caused the issue. What person in the hospital management decided not to visit her or invite her in for a friendly, supportive conversation in person? (Since she was located just five minutes walk away.)

"There was a plan to have a chat [with her] at some time.'"

Really? And when was that due to occur?

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Among the many "victims" of phone pranks in recent years. Number of the people who put those phone calls through who subsequently committed suicide? Zero.

Think of some of the other high-profile prank radio calls in recent years. Prank phone calls by radio DJs from different countries have been put directly through to the Queen, Tony Blair, Hugo Chávez, Fidel Castro, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Sarah Palin and Pope John Paul II, among many. Do you recall hearing about suicides of the people who answered the phones and made the decision to put those prank callers through to their illustrious bosses? Of course not.

In most cases the people and institutions who have been pranked have had the wisdom and grace to put on a rueful smile, admit that their vetting protocols were faulty -- and move on.

And, prior to this week, we have never heard that the first contact point in a prank call has committed suicide. It's just not a normal reaction to what, in essence, was just a very bog-standard phone prank. The sort of prank that has been a staple throughout the world for five decades on TV shows such as Candid Camera and large numbers of radio shows.

An emotionally mature professional whose sole culpability in a matter was to be too trusting and not savvy enough to think carefully before putting through a call might be upset to have made a mistake. But to end one's life over such a matter? -- when one has a family and children to live for... ? Something is not adding up here.

So let's look at the one entity with something to lose in this matter.

I'm not referring to an Australian radio station that might lose a few advertisers for a while. That's part and parcel of modern-day media.

I'm thinking of the very tony private hospital that makes vast profits by charging substantial sums of money to the fabulously wealthy -- whether they be self-made billionaires, inheritors of vast stashes of lucre or royal family members on the very healthy annual stipend they get from UK taxpayers. If you're going to charge patients thousands of pounds a day for services that in real world terms probably cost £37.50 daily -- to keep your customers satisfied you have to maintain an image of supreme efficiency and utter security. Or at least project an illusion of those qualities.

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What's at stake for the hospital is the reputation it brags about in its brochure and on its website

Obviously the Edward VII Hospital has found some additional ways to boost its already sumptuous profits. Why pay to have a trained telephone receptionist -- who has experience fielding incoming phone calls -- answer your switchboard at nights when you can save money by getting a registered nurse on night duty do the chore?

The Sunday Times confirms that the hospital was cheapskating its high-paying customers.

"Britain's most prestigious private hospital, a favourite with royalty and celebrities, does not employ trained telephone operators to work night shifts. Instead Saldanha, 46, a mother of two, had been asked to take calls -- a task she had done before and now considered routine."

The fact that a nurse has almost certainly not received training in how to field phone calls at a high-profile hospital with VIP patients likely to be of keen interest to media and others is something to ponder.

Especially give the pledge it makes to its patients (key passage highlighted)

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This is what patients paying thousands of pounds a day are promised. Note the reference to "contractual and legal obligations" of the hospital's personnel

The initial reaction by the hospital's chief executive John Lofthouse to having its security breached by a pair of panto-level royal impersonators from an Australian radio station was: "We take patient confidentiality extremely seriously and we are now reviewing our telephone protocols."

Ya think?!

A fourth-rate boarding house in Blackpool domiciling a few scraggly end-of-the-pier variety performers would have had better protocols to prevent phone calls seeking celebrity residents being put through without at least minimal vetting. That's a basic courtesy to those who are guests (or patients) and pure common-sense.

Lofthouse also said: "I think this whole thing is pretty deplorable. Our nurses are caring, professional people trained to look after patients, not to cope with journalistic trickery of this sort."

Absolutely correct. So if the hospital's nurses are "caring, professional people trained to look after patients, not to cope with journalistic trickery" -- why was a nurse press-ganged by the hospital into undertaking such an important non-medical function that has major security implications? Why does the hospital not employ trained telephone operators at night-time? Cheaper to slough that chore onto a nurse perhaps?

The second and more pressing issue that we might never hear an honest answer to is what precisely was the initial reaction of the hospital management towards Jacintha Saldanha when she was telephoned by hospital management?

Especially given that the hospital's website pledges that:

"All personnel working at King Edward VII's Hospital are under both contractual and legal obligations to keep all patient information and records confidential."

Which of these two postulated reactions do you think is most likely to resemble what was expressed to Jacintha Saldanha when the hospital realized that its careful veneer of being a place worthy of £10,000 a night had been demolished within a few minutes?

Jacintha my dear... what a dreadful experience for you to have suffered. How could you have been expected to suspect that a voice sounding like a 30-year-old native of Sydney, Australia was not actually Her Majesty The Queen? Of course you were tricked. But think nothing of it. We aren't going to discipline you. Even though this is desperately embarrassing to us and might cost us millions in lost revenue. We don't care about that at all. All we care about is you. So take a few days off on full pay. And don't worry at all. We love you and we support you without any reservation.

Saldanha! You are a total moron! What were you thinking?! You know full well that we pride ourselves on our reputation. On making sure that our rich and famous punters always feel secure. You knew that there was enormous media frenzy about the Duchess. How on earth could you have put through a phone call from someone claiming to be the Queen without checking it first with another staff member. Your gross stupidity has embarrassed us. Don't come in for a couple of days while we think about what we're going to do with you...

And what would be governing the hospital's reaction? Well of course they would be concerned about the opinion of their primo customers the royal family.

Here's what Dickie Arbiter -- the queen's longtime former press secretary -- told the Daily Mail earlier in the week:

"This is a shocking breach of security. The Royal Family have been clients of the King Edward VII Hospital for many, many years and it simply beggars belief that a member of the public could call up and obtain details of the Duchess's medical condition in this way. Where on earth were the checks and balances? The hospital will be livid at what has happened and I am sure the palace will be demanding answers. There will be fireworks over this, for sure."

Based on that very expert analysis -- one is inclined to agree...

So you be the judge of what Jacintha Saldanha heard from the hospital.

What we're hearing now -- and we have zero means of determining whether its truth or self-protective spin -- is that the hospital was not going to discipline her. And that they were fully supportive of her.

Meanwhile -- in full damage control -- the hospital is blasting the radio station. It was all their fault.

As Mandy Rice-Davies would have put it so eloquently some 50 years ago -- "well they would say that, wouldn't they?"