A tragic and unintended outcome of an act with no benefit

Recently, a pair of radio hosts from the Sydney 2Day FM station prank-called the hospital in which the Duchess of Cambridge was receiving treatment for medical issues associated with her pregnancy. Pretending to be the Queen, at 5:30am UK time, they managed to fool the nurse who was staffing reception (as the normal reception staff were not on duty) and got put through to the ward, where they managed to extract some information. Exceedingly sadly, after the hoax became apparent, this rather thoughtless and unfunny invasion of privacy has now had a tragic final act, in that the nurse who was believed to have passed the call through, Jacintha Saldanha, has been found dead, apparently by her own hand. You can read about this in a reasonable summary from the Sydney Morning Herald.

There is (currently) no direct connection between the prank event and the death of Ms Saldanha but, given who the people and the profile that we are talking about, one can easily imagine the pressure (real or imaginary) that someone would be under if they had failed to protect any patient, let alone the one that we are discussing. Of course, the radio show hosts did not intend for this outcome and, before there are any more calls for their heads, let us remember moral accident and the fact that, while their action was an inexplicable invasion of privacy, foolish, unfeeling and in poor taste, it was never intended to be lethal. Should they face questions? Yes.


Because it is not hard to summon the modicum of empathy required to understand why a woman who is experiencing any difficulties at all during pregnancy might have the reasonable expectation to be left alone and not be picked on for the delight of two radio hosts and their audience. Regardless of which family the Duke of Cambridge was born into and into which the Duchess of Cambridge has married, they are people and, by all accounts, live a surprisingly normal life for the couple who will (most likely) one day rule as the King and Queen of the United Kingdom. It is none of my business as to the details of the Duchess’ illness or condition, unless she wishes to release it, any more than it is the Queen’s business to prank call me into revealing the mark I received for Numerical Analysis I the first time I sat it, in the hopes of embarrassing me.

(With the greatest respect, Your Majesty, it was a 23 Fail because I did not attend lectures or do enough of the preparatory work. I would be grateful if you would consider using that knowledge wisely, Ma’am.)

As it stands there is the usual angry media reaction (and popular backlash) one sees when a stupid prank goes horribly wrong but what was never truly questioned is why on earth we persist with this nonsense in the first place? I often ask my students very direct questions when they tell me things. “Why did you do this?” is, apparently, a startling question to some of my students because it seems to stun them with its simplicity.

“You performed this action that had no positive value or it had a negative and unpleasant impact on the world. Why did you do this?” is the simplest, sanest question that should be asked whenever anybody does something like that. No doubt all of my poor Grand Challenge students are waiting for me to type Cui Bono? so I’ll get that out of the way but, in reality, cui bono (who benefits) seeks to locate the benefiting party to assign malign intent, rather than quisquam bono?, which is what I’m asking here: does anyone actually benefit. (My Latin is very rusty so I welcome corrections from classical scholars and revenant Romans.)

I often mutter things along the lines of “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”, mainly because I’m now middle-aged and it’s somewhat expected, but also because I strongly believe that we are moving into an age where the ability to do stupid things on the global scale is now within the reach of anyone with a telephone, a web browser and a general lack of empathy or kindness.

It is because I understand people, and I do have empathy, that I have the deepest sympathies for the family of Ms Saldanha, a husband and two teenagers, who must be suffering through a terrible and public loss, but are doing so with a great deal of dignity as I understand it. However, it would be wrong not to have some feeling for the radio hosts themselves because it would be the most egregious error to assign intent to their thoughtlessness. They did not set out to create this situation. However, and let me be clear, any situation that they did set out was almost completely without benefit to anyone, lacked respect, lacked empathy, was invasive, was unpleasant and should never have been attempted. Their lack of genuine apology could be seen, until recently, in the Tweeted advertisements carried in one of the host’s feeds until it was suspended. (For me, it is the lack of empathy that is sadly unsurprising. Why should Michael Christian be doing anything other than his job in this situation: producing high impact media buzz and then tapping it to drive up ratings? Of course, if he had a real sense of what he was doing, he would have pulled the prank either before it started or once they got past the reception, because they were about to violate someone’s privacy. Are we at fault because of who we select to hold the broadcast roles? Can you blame the gladiators for being bloodthirsty when we’re screaming around the circus?)

My next question to my students would normally be “So what now?” What is it that the student is planning to change in order for this situation to not occur again? In the case of my students, they are juggling work, family and being young. However, almost all of the things that my students do have some benefit (pub crawls notwithstanding). In this case, the CEO of the radio station has offered that, while no-one could have foreseen this, prank calls had been going on for years… Yes. And? We died of cholera for years, too. Let’s not argue tradition for something that has as its prime fruits the embarrassment and humiliation of another person, where we play with people without knowing how robust they are for this game.

Jacintha Saldanha is, tragically, dead and it does appear that this questionable act of entertainment may have been associated with her death. Perhaps, now is not a bad time to put the prank call into the same giant old wardrobe where we put all of the behaviours that never really made any sense and certainly make no sense when we should know so much better – and let’s stop the practice.

Why are we doing something? What is the benefit? Is our enjoyment really worth humiliating or embarrassing someone else on public radio? Where is the benefit in this, for anyone? If my students can drag together sensible and coherent answers to this when asked, so can our broadcast institutions and our journalists.

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