Nurse's death not black and white

By Jay Kuten


In the days of black-and-white TV, the programme Dragnet featured its creator, Jack Webb, as Sergeant Joe Friday, an earnest, fast-talking detective of the Los Angeles Police Department. His tagline, the iconic element of the show, explained what was wanted in his investigation: "Just the facts, ma'am". The era of that show was itself more black and white, with good guys and bad guys who played their roles with clarity. It's not just colour TV which changed things.

We live in a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-Iraq War era, ambiguous when it comes to moral clarity and to the expectation of knowing what is true. Especially that is the case about the way we are easily misled by pictures that can be Photoshopped, by newspapers that hack into the phones of bereaved parents of a murdered 12-year-old, or by a 24-hour news cycle that demands sensationalism in order to sustain our collective, ever-shortening attention span.

Two Australian radio hosts made a prank call to the private hospital in which "Kate", Duchess of Cambridge, was being treated for hyperemesis gravidarum, a potentially serious condition of vomiting during pregnancy. The nurse who answered, Jacintha Saldanha, apparently fell for it, thinking, despite the poor imitation, that it was the Queen calling and she said simply, "Oh yes, just hold on, ma'am. I'll put you through." A second nurse then gave the pair details regarding the condition of the Duchess.

After some banter about corgis, the pair were advised they might visit after 9am.

Three days passed, during which the world learned of the broadcast hoax and it was treated first as a joke. Even the Duchess's father-in-law fell in line. Prince Charles chided reporters with "How do you know I'm not on the radio?"

Then the 46-year-old nurse, mother of two teenaged children, was found dead at the hospital nurses' quarters. While no official cause has been pronounced, her death was widely reported as a suicide. Few news outlets troubled to add the modifier "alleged".

The good humour faded quickly and the whole matter took on a darker tone.

Calls for punishment of the two broadcasters assumed a lynch mob frenzy. There was a good deal of moralising from the chattering class. Even Lord Leveson, who had certainly heard hard evidence of criminal behaviour by newspaper people during his recent inquiry, appeared to lend himself to condemning the prank and the pranksters.

What do we actually know?

A prank call was made. It was at worst a tasteless invasion of the privacy of a public figure, yielding some details of her condition, certainly private to her, but little that could not be found in a standard text on the ailment. The death three days later, of the nurse-receptionist is presumed suicide.

While Ms Saldanha's death is tragic, especially for the damage and hurt it will impose on her two children, its connection to the prank call is at best tenuous.

Because one event follows another is no basis for concluding a causal connection. If, indeed, this was a suicide, we may never know why. That's often the case, because the complexity of such a decision to end one's life is seldom, if ever, fully understandable to the victim's family, to their loved ones, to bystanders, perhaps, even to the person themselves.

No, the broadcasters aren't blameless. They were tasteless at best, but if their actions in any way precipitated this death, neither they nor anyone else could have predicted it.

Here we have a bad joke that may have evolved into a tragedy.

But beyond that we have a rush to judgment impelled by that same hunger for excitement that motivated the call in the first place. In the media-sponsored calls for the heads of the broadcasters, it's the media monster feeding on itself, when what we need is not sensationalism but "Just the facts, ma'am".

- WANGANUI CHRONICLE

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