Two radio disc jockeys from Australia had a great idea for a hoax – or so it seemed at the time – last week.
The Dutchess of Cambridge, nee Kate Middleton, wife of England’s Prince William, is pregnant, big news in royalty-obsessed England and the rest of its one-time empire. Suffering from intense morning sickness, she was in the hospital.
Mel Grieg and Michael Christian, the Melbourne DJs, thought to call King Edward VII Hospital, impersonating Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, William’s grandmother and father, respectively.
The radio personalities’ put-on British accents were, by their own admission, terrible. How likely was it that anyone at the hospital would be fooled? Very likely, it turned out. Nurse Jacintha Saldahna put the call right through to the Dutchess’ ward; a nurse working there, thinking she was speaking to the highest echelons of the royal family, shared information on the patient’s condition – e.g., no nausea, no other dramatic symptoms
– and discussed convenient times for the putative in-laws to come by for a visit.
No inappropriate details were shared; but no one outside of the royal family should have been privy to the information, which was broadcast, apparently to great hilarity, on the 2DayFM radio station.
Then the British press reported on the prank.
Then Saldhana died, three days after the hoax. Apparently by suicide. According to news reports, she hanged herself. The cause of her death was “unexplained,” police said – a British euphemism for someone taking one’s own life.
Saldhana, who had worked at hospital for four years, was, according to media reports, a dedicated medical professional, popular with her colleagues.
It was not immediately clear why she committed suicide; it looked like she couldn’t handle the embarrassment of being so publicly fooled. She reportedly left a suicide note to her family, but its contents have not been revealed. Her family, London’s Daily Mail newspaper reported, “believe she died of shame.”
Doing a hoax can often be risky. If it’s a physical prank, physical harm can ensue. If it’s only verbal, people’s feelings can be hurt. The butt of a joke may have thin skin; outsiders may not understand.
Jewish tradition discourages unbridled frivolity. The Yom Kippur liturgy offers an apology for the sin of “foolish talk.” The laws of lashon hara, or forbidden speech, ban words that may be harmful. Talmud cites people whose loose words brought dire consequences, and Rabbi Israel Salanter’s mussar (ethics) movement was thought to have originated with him overhearing a satirical remark.
Radio pranks are a stock-in-trade of disc jockeys. Harmless fun. The Australian DJs, popular entertainers now inconsolable and suspended from work, were guilty of nothing more than an innocent prank. They never thought that a two-minute call could have fatal consequences.
Next time, they’ll think harder.