LONDON — As pranks go, this one appeared outrageous and obnoxious rather than malicious: after convincing a hospital nurse who answered the phone this week that they were Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, two Australian radio hosts then tricked another nurse into disclosing medical information about the pregnant Duchess of Cambridge, who had been admitted with acute morning sickness.
The call was broadcast on Australia radio; then it went out around the world.
But the incident took a horrific and unexpected turn Friday, when the nurse who answered the call, 46-year-old Jacintha Saldanha, was found dead, an apparent suicide.
The Metropolitan Police would not release details of the death, except to say that they had received a call reporting that there was an unconscious woman in Weymouth Street, in central London, and two ambulance crews had arrived to find Saldanha already dead. A police spokesman said they were not treating the death as suspicious.
It was unclear what exactly had happened since the prank itself to make Saldanha, who was reportedly married and had two children, take her life. King Edward VII’s Hospital, where she worked, said it had not disciplined her, but rather had been “supporting her during this difficult time." Nor, apparently, had the royal family raised a fuss with the hospital, an exclusive private institution that has long been the hospital of choice for Britain’s royals.
Whatever the immediate impetus for Saldanha’s death, the incident was a sobering reminder of the harm that can come in a media landscape where the boundaries between news and entertainment are blurred.
The latest breach came courtesy of the Sydney radio station 2Day FM, during a program presented by the DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian. On Tuesday, Greig took on the role of the queen, while Christian pretended to be Prince Charles. Telephoning the hospital, Greig asked to be put through to “my granddaughter Kate" — the duchess.
The station posted a statement saying it was deeply saddened by the tragic news of the death. The statement added that Christian and Greig would both remain off the air indefinitely, “out of respect for what only can be described as a tragedy."
But the apology was met with little sympathy on social media sites. “You weak dogs. You’ve got blood on your hands now," Aaron Reschke from South Australia wrote on the station’s Facebook page. “Both presenters and their producer should be charged over this woman’s death."