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Jacintha Saldanha is the latest victim of a media saturated world

The dreadful death of Jacintha Saldanha after she transferred a prank call from 2Day FM to a fellow nurse is a harrowing example of the hurt that can be caused when ordinary people get caught up in media…

2day FM is in hot water after a prank call to Kate Middleton’s hospital went terribly wrong. AAP/Warren Clarke

The dreadful death of Jacintha Saldanha after she transferred a prank call from 2Day FM to a fellow nurse is a harrowing example of the hurt that can be caused when ordinary people get caught up in media culture.

A dedicated nurse is dead. The Duchess of Cambridge is burdened with this, adding to the discomfort of having to announce a pregnancy too soon. Radio hosts Mel Greig and Michael Christian face uncertain futures, personally and professionally. Fingers of blame are pointed in their direction, from the medical profession, advertisers and the public.

From the outside, it’s hard to see why no-one paused to think about a prank that could only work if someone could be duped into making a mistake which could clearly have consequences for their career. But perhaps the key is the lack of time that people have to consider the ethics of living in a world where anyone can be summoned to perform for global audiences.

Saldanha’s experience is not unprecedented. There has been a prodigious increase in media time and space that has to be filled. One result of this is that ordinary people actually have a pretty good chance of ending up on air, or, as in Saldanha’s case, being responsible for others doing so.

For many, that’s exactly where they want to be. According Professor Nick Couldry, most of us regard the media as somehow sacred. Couldry thinks audiences believe that television studios and the like are places where societies really come to life, with an intensity that can never be matched off-air. One example of this is the new phenomenon of media tourism. Fans travel thousands of miles to stand in awe in the places where shows such as The Sopranos and Sex And The City are made. Such devotion speaks to a general yearning to be a part of a magical media world, if only for a second.

According to Australia’s Graeme Turner, this enchantment reflects a more fundamental belief affecting public sensibilities in a media saturated society; the idea that appearing in the media is a form of social validation.

Perhaps this is why no one thought to question whether Jacintha Saldanha would object to being the butt of an international joke. UK DJ Steve Penk observed yesterday that the prank call has become a mainstay of contemporary radio. It’s a genre where the public regularly claims their place in the live media spectacle, and generally don’t seem to mind. The Saldanha tragedy could shake that practice to its core.

This is a story that reminds us of the many other ordinary people who are shoved into the media world against their wishes, in profoundly upsetting ways. Research on school shootings shows how victimised institutions quickly have to learn how to deal with the press for investigations and grieving can proceed. Like it or not, they must have a media strategy. Columbine survivor Andrew Robinson was so affected by his experiences with the media that he felt compelled to attend film school, just so he could set the record straight with his own movie on the massacre.

The constant injunction to produce content for unrelenting media industries is a problem for people within and without. There’s a lot of evidence that many don’t want to participate in a media saturated world. But opting out seems to be less and less of an option.

That’s one thing when you’re George Entwistle. The erstwhile Director General of the BBC was taken to task by one of his own journalists for not keeping up with Twitter trends during the Newsnight fiasco.

But it’s quite another when you’re Jacintha Saldanha; expected to combine nursing duties with the need to keep an eye out for media intrusion. Perhaps the problem is that in a media saturated world, no one has the time to wonder if people might not want to be in on the joke.

None of this is to say that Greig, Christian and 2DayFM should not be held accountable for their actions. But we should also ask how people end up in positions where such mistakes can happen.

The proliferation of ethics scandals in the media indicates Jacintha Saldana’s terrible death is part of a problem that goes much deeper than prank calls.

Join the conversation

17 Comments sorted by

  1. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    So it's definitely suicide then, and the prank call was definitely responsible? Or don't you think that it might be wise to get the facts before you accuse a couple of radio station personalities of causing someone's death?

    Further, if a single incident like this could cause someone to commit suicide, then you would have to ask what the mental state of the person was in the first place. I would like to suggest that it would be highly unusual for a stable well adjusted person to kill themselves over a single incident like this.

    But then, getting a story or opinion piece in the media as quickly as possible is more important than finding out all the facts isn't it - especially in a media saturated world.

    1. Andy Ruddock

      Senior Lecturer, Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      The article does not mention suicide, nor does it blame the radio personalities for Jacintha Saldanha's death. The last two sentences conclude that instead of focusing on Mel Greig and Michael Christian, it might be worth thinking about how underlying trends in media culture can lead to such tragedies.

    2. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      I think you are being slightly disengenuous Andy. Although you do not explicitly use the word 'suicide' in your article, the hyperlink you provided does suggest it was suicide, and there is a clear implication that her death was linked to the prank call. And while you do not explicitly blame the radio personalities, you speak about the death then suggest that Greig and Christian should be held accountable for their actions.

      If that is not implicitly blaming them and linking them to the death, then either I have misread your intent, or your words are deliberately or accidently misleading.

    3. Andy Ruddock

      Senior Lecturer, Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      My point is that the death is a tragedy that has raised questions about media ethics. I ask if these ethical dilemmas are the inevitable result of media industries that relentlessly demand content, and often draw on ordinary people to provide it. However, I also state

      "The constant injunction to produce content for unrelenting media industries is a problem for people within and without".

      In that regard, my meaning is that Greig and Christian are also victims of the pressures of their working conditions.

      The only thing we know at this point is that this is a tragedy for everyone involved, that has raised questions about media ethics in a year that has featured many such questions, and the article attempts to consider why these stories are so frequent.

  2. Patrick Ross

    Senior Industry Fellow - Department of Management

    Whilst we should not speculate about the exact causes of this tragic event, until a formal enquiry has been held and the findings tabled, it is nevertheless appropriate to reflect on whether the whole concept of the prank call is really as funny or acceptable to all as it may seem. In particular, I was drawn to the remark "It’s a genre where the public regularly claims their place in the live media spectacle, and generally don’t seem to mind". I acknowledge the sentiments there, but I would challenge us to also consider whether many of those who were the butt of the prank, would actually feel free to admit that they did not like it, or that we have come so far in our pursuit of 15 seconds of fame that we would gladly sacrifice our dignity.

  3. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    She is just as likely a victim of a nasty blame-assigning workplace culture all too common in hospitals, but its easier to pick on two DJs than the medical profession At the time I thought the prank was as funny (well almost) and as harmless as the Chaser dressing up as Osama bin Laden and gate crashing APEC. Though doubtless if there had been a terrorist attack in the immediate aftermath (or a suicide) we would have collectively chased The Chaser into oblivion as well.

    1. Chris Harper


      In reply to Sean Lamb

      @Sean Lamb,

      I think you have nailed it.

      I have no time for these prank calls, and haven't even listened to it, but no one could have reasonably expected this tragic outcome, and it is not justice to blame Mel Greig and Michael Christian for what she chose to do. They didn’t kill her, nor did they contribute in any material way to her death.

  4. Geoff Taylor


    Surely no one in the media world could have been entirely unaware of the Leveson report and of the privacy breaches which led to it, and of the recent breach of Princess Kate's privacy in France.
    That 2Day said they had done nothing illegal can only add to UK concerns about not David Cameron making Leveson at least minimally a matter of law rather than media self-regulation.

  5. Geoff Taylor


    Sorry. Should read: "about David Cameron not making". Hope we get a 24hr Edit function on this site soon.

  6. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Surely the Palace and the Hospital administration are almost wholly responsible for this. They did not put in place a protocol to stop any phone calls proceeding beyond the first receiver at the hospital without some sort of validation.
    They are the "Generals" in the war against loonies, the nurse was a "private". She dies, they pass the blame or search for scapegoats, not unusual.

  7. Pat Moore


    There is a particular relationship between England, its royalty and class structure and one of its old colonies, Australia. This country was a distant & viscious continental prison for members of the CONVICTed struggling working class, often transported to this (then) end of the Earth for petty offences of theft in attempt to survive the upheaval that the privileged classes via the industrial revolution & theft of 'the commons' inflicted on the working (worked) classes and the dispossessed. And…

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  8. Tim Scanlon


    I was under the impression that TV shows had to get you to sign a release form before they could televise you. Several of my friends have been involved in comedy shows where a character does something to the unsuspecting public. But as soon as they are out of shot, the producers are there explaining what is going on and asking if they would like their bit to be available for the show.

    Thus, why is it not required for the prank call to get agreement before putting the bit to air? I know that this would cut down on the number of skits they could do, but it would mean that people who don't want the media pressure can be out of the limelight. Especially since the joke was rather lame in the first place.

  9. john mills
    john mills is a Friend of The Conversation.


    I wonder what the English press and people said about the nurse, id be looking there first, i mean the prank itself i doubt would have caused this sad result, it would have been more about the things the locals say, than what we say or do or did.

  10. Dianna Arthur
    Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.


    I believe that the poor humour of a couple of Aussie DJ's unintentionally revealed a deficit in management at the King Edward VII Hospital.

    I understand both nurses (including Jacintha Saldana) were severely reprimanded instead of debriefed for duties for which they were untrained - reception and screening of calls.

    I am not alone in thinking this, Tess Lawrence has queried the Hospitals management in her article in the Independent Australia blog. She asks all the questions I wanted answers…

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    1. Dave Hughes

      Safety Consultant

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      All valid questions that need answering but as it's easier to take the path well trodden where it's assumed that this woman killed herself because she was involved in this so called prank. I'm beginning to wonder if anyone's ever heard of the words coincidence or evidence or proof.

  11. Michael Leonard Furtado

    Doctor at University of Queensland

    Methinks Dave, Dianna, Pat and Sean have nailed it. Toadying monarchist hospital authorities, embarrassed by an otherwise innocent slip-up, seek scapegoat. State registered and probably unionised nurse who did eventually reply told the impersonators virtually nothing that the rest of us didnt know, which, in the circumstances, kept the message polite as well as professional, as it should be on the occasion of the the future birth of anybody's baby.

    Vulnerable Indian immigrant 'manning' the phones offers easy target and is victimised by the treat of disciplinary action. Being a sole provider to a large family and in fear of losing her job in 'triple-dip-recession' Blighty, her stress levels hit the roof and, tragically, she takes her own life. The palace immediately announces that they made no formal complaint and the hospital blames the Australian media.

    Mel and Michael, hold your heads up, kids. You did nothing wrong!

    1. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Michael Leonard Furtado

      True Mel and Michael are not responsible for Jacintha Saldana’s terrible death, however they won't be winning any Walkley's any time soon.

      We can do better than bogan radio, well we do in Melbourne.