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British Nurse's Apparent Suicide Is Tragic, But Media and Public Response Has Been Over the Top

12/10/2012 08:48 am ET | Updated Feb 09, 2013
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The awful news of Jacintha Saldanha's apparent suicide is tragic in and of itself. However, to inflate the incident unrealistically, as if a harmless prank from two Australian radio disc jockeys was a causal effect to that terrible circumstance and in so doing possibly ruin their careers and/or scar them for life, is an example of how the media blows things out of proportion feeding public frenzy to propel stories and boost their ratings.

Let's start at the beginning. By the way, I'm not a fan of the sort of radio shenanigans put forth by Mel Greig and Michael Christian of Sydney's 2 Day FM station. Nor am I an aficionado of those in my own country. But it was what it was. A joke that went further than was expected and, until the unexpected aftermath, was actually treated with hilarity by most media outlets around the world.

Only when the bizarre and still unexplained death of the initial nurse who took the call from a woman posing as Queen Elizabeth did everyone's sensibilities go out of whack. Suddenly, it was declared that the two DJs' actions were horrible and has been equated to some kind of bullying, the sort of which has led to suicide in recent years.

On CNN, Anderson Cooper only gave passing mention to the possibility that other things might have been going on in the woman's life as he questioned his colleague in London. The UK correspondent didn't know but surmised she might have been overwhelmed by the incredible publicity the event engendered throughout the world. Even though the woman merely acted as the receptionist, answering the call in the following manner:

"Hello, good morning, King Edward VII hospital" to which Mel Greig, imitating the Queen asked, "Oh, hello there. Can I please speak to Kate, please -- my granddaughter?" Ms. Saldanha's response was simply "Oh, yes, just hold on, ma'am." That was the extent of her involvement with the ruse.

Then Michael Christian said, quite beside himself, "Are they putting us through? If this worked, it's the easiest prank call we've ever made. Your accent sucked by the way. Just wanted you to know."

Suddenly, a second nurse answered, the one actually attending to the Duchess of Cambridge. "Good morning, mum, this is the nurse speaking. How can I help you?" After some queries that were clearly ridiculous, the nurse revealed "She's sleeping at the moment and she's had an uneventful night.... She's been given some fluids to rehydrate her."

Throughout this exchange, Greig announced she was feeding the Corgis and then asked, "When is a good time to visit her, because I'm the Queen." During the course of this, Christian impersonated Prince Charles, and the nurse suggested they come after 9 a.m. when the doctor would be there, and then she said, "She's quite stable at the moment. She hasn't had any retching with me, since I've been on duty."

Needless to say, the hospital spokesman said it was reviewing its telephone protocols, indicating that it views patient confidentiality seriously, as it should.

But let's back up. The nurse who merely put the call through to the ward nurse is the one who committed suicide, not the one who blabbered on about Kate's condition. And she didn't take drastic measures. Plus, we've since learned the hospital staff was supportive of Saldanha, did not reprimand her and that the royal family did not complain.

So, why did this woman end her life? There is no rational explanation, as there could be none reasonably connecting this very sad happenstance to the Australian radio personalities, except as a possible proverbial straw on the camel's back, which in itself might suggest the woman was going through many stresses in her life. One that would cause her to leave her husband and two children behind.

I'm not a psychiatrist or a mental health professional and won't begin to presume what might or might not set someone off. However, I do know the joke -- and it was a joke -- would not by itself precipitate such an action on a person endowed with normal mental health. This is not meant to fault the woman, but rather to deflect the tremendous unwarranted anger away from the two entertainers on the other side of the world, who have been unfairly marked and perhaps damaged for life.

Indeed, although their station has issued a statement in support, as has Jeffrey Kennett, the former premier of Victoria, major sponsors of the station, including Coles supermarket group and the phone company Telstra, said on Saturday they were suspending advertising with the station and others were expected to follow suit.

This is preposterous. It's indicative of mob hysteria rather than reasonable thought. Remember again that prior to the inexplicable suicide most reportage of the event took the affair lightly, and indeed it was a frivolous incident. What would have been so awful if Kate Middleton had actually gotten on the phone? Yes, it was a hospital, but she was not there for anything critical, and most of the reports of her hospitalization centered on the fact that it appeared she was pregnant and her condition might indicate she was carrying twins.

What would have been outrageous and insupportable is if such radio DJs had impersonated Bill Clinton and had the call put through to a grieving Queen or Prince Charles after the death of Diana. This was not such a situation.

And what about when Sébastien Trudel and Marc-Antoine Audette, a Canadian radio duo, actually got Sarah Palin on the phone during the 2008 campaign, pretending to be French president Nicolas Sarkozy? She conversed for quite awhile before realizing the leading questions were a hoax. Did her assistant who convinced her to take the call commit suicide?

That escapade was deemed hysterically funny, as were those when celebrities were Punk'd by Ashton Kutcher on his MTV show. On the first episode, in 2003,when no one had previously been so affected, actor Frankie Muniz was convinced his $250,000 Porsche had been stolen, and Justin Timberlake was distraught when he found so-called IRS agents repossessing his house. Let's not forget the trauma they evidenced was real and not so funny to them at the time.

Though when Tom Cruise was merely accosted by a British Channel 4 media guy who splashed him with a water pistol at a London première in 2005, the star wasn't at all amused and kept asking, "Why would you do that ... why would you do that ... why would you do that?" One can't help wondering if the man removed a mask from his face and it was actually Ashton Kutcher, Cruise probably would've started laughing, apparently because it's okay if someone did that if he was a celebrity almost at his level.

We cannot know why people do unfortunate things and what their mental stability is, so will this overwrought reaction from the media and those who are commenting in the social media -- and now even Scotland Yard -- mean we are no longer able to play a joke on someone, or tease them or say anything sarcastic or uncomplimentary, even if it is serious, for fear of how it will set them off?

We also don't know why certain people go "postal" and take people's lives. Perhaps because of the loss of employment or a loved one or how they are treated by their peers. But we do know that most people who go through difficult times do not kill others or even themselves. Not even Holocaust survivors or most of those who've experienced war.

Yes, truly bad behavior is wrong and bullying certainly is, but subsequent suicide or murderous behavior are indicative of something far more serious within the essence of that human being

The episode preceding the death of Jacintha Saldanha was not anywhere near the accusations of horrendous behavior being bandied about in many circles, nor could it reasonably have caused the action she took and therefore should not in any way harm the lives of the Aussie radio disc jockeys professionally or emotionally. That would be a worse tragedy, for them and our society.

Michael Russnow's website is www.ramproductionsinternational.com

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