Prank call with tragic consequence

Jacintha Saldanha, 46, took her life in the nurses' quarters at King Edward VII Hospital.
Jacintha Saldanha, 46, took her life in the nurses’ quarters at King Edward VII Hospital.

The day before the apparent suicide of a British nurse, the NSWNMA warned Radio 2Day FM to consider the personal toll on nurses of its prank calls

A senior nurse at London’s King Edward VII Hospital was found unconscious and unable to be revived at a nurses’ accommodation block, two days after transferring a hoax call from 2Day FM radio DJs, Mel Grieg and Michael Christian.

Nurse Jacintha Saldanha transferred the hoax call, which unbeknownst to her or her colleagues was being broadcast, to the duty nurse.

Posing as members of the royal family, the DJs were able to elicit confidential details of treatment being given to the pregnant Duchess of Cambridge, who was suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum, or acute morning sickness.

The call received widespread, international media coverage, prompting the NSWNMA to write to 2Day FM management asking them to consider the serious professional consequences such a call could have on nurses.

The day after the call, and a day before Mrs Saldanha’s death on December 7, NSWNMA General Secretary Brett Holmes wrote to 2Day FM general manager Jeremy Simpson, drawing attention to “the very serious professional consequences such a stunt would have had for a nurse or midwife in the Australian context.

“As regulated health professionals, Australian nurses and midwives must comply with strict professional and legal obligations in terms of patient privacy,” he wrote.

He added that a nurse working in New South Wales, taken in by such a hoax, could potentially have to respond to three separate disciplinary processes conducted by the employer, the regulating authority and the Health Care Complaints Commission.

“In our role as industrial and professional representatives for NSW nurses and midwives, we deal with these processes every day and I can assure you that they are stressful and deeply traumatic experiences for many nurses and midwives, regardless of the level of wrongdoing or the nature of the precipitating incident.

“In the future I urge you to consider the personal toll such a prank could exact from a professional caregiver such as one of my members,” Brett wrote.

He called on the station to “undertake to never again attempt to jeopardise their professional standing by perpetrating such a deception against another hardworking nurse or midwife.”

Four days after Mrs Saldanha died, Brett Holmes wrote a second letter to 2Day FM – this time to CEO Rhys Holleran – saying that the station’s public response to the tragedy “demonstrates either a reckless indifference or a fundamental misapprehension with regard to the legal and professional framework that governs nursing practice and the principle of patient confidentiality.”

His letter described the professional and legal obligations of Australian nurses concerning patient privacy, which, he said, were similar to those applying in the UK.

“As we pointed out in our earlier correspondence, this nurse would have potentially been facing disciplinary action conducted by her employer, regulatory authority and health care complaints agency.

“On top of these very serious professional and legal repercussions, she had to deal with the shame and humiliation of her mistake being broadcast to a global audience.”

In a reply dated January 11, 2013, Day FM general manager Jeremy Simpson wrote: “We have conducted a review of the process undertaken in airing the segment and found that our announcers and producers followed our internal processes and procedures.”

He also wrote: “We appreciate your comments regarding the regulation of health care professionals and how such a prank call could cause serious personal and professional ramifications … We are taking this situation very seriously and have responded by:

  • Donating all profits from advertising on 2Day FM from 13 December 2012 to 31 December 2012 to an appropriate fund that will directly benefit the family of Jacintha Saldanha with a minimum contribution of A$500,000;
  • cancelling 2Day FM’s Hot 30 program; and
  • suspending all ‘prank’ calls across the SCA radio network.”

The NSWNMA published a message of condolence to the “family, friends and colleagues” of Mrs Saldanha on its website and urged “all nurses and midwives who are under pressure or feeling stress to seek appropriate assistance and to feel confident they can reach out for help.”

If you or someone you know may be at risk of suicide contact Lifeline 13 11 14, Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36, or Salvo Care Line 1300 36 36 22.


Culture of ‘reckless indifference’

How much responsibility should Radio 2Day FM have taken for the death of British nurse Jacintha Saldanha?

In his letter to the NSWNMA, 2Day FM general manager Jeremy Simpson said:

“As you know, the content we broadcast is governed by the Commercial Radio Australia Codes of Practice (the Codes). In your letter, you mentioned that the Codes require that an identifiable person should not be broadcast without their permission. With respect, it is our view that no breach of the Codes has occurred. The relevant Code that prevents the unauthorised broadcast of statements by identifiable persons is Code 6. We do not consider that the two nurses whose words were broadcast were identifiable. At no time during the segments did we broadcast (or indeed even know) the name of either of the two nurses.”

However, Dr Denis Muller, Honorary Fellow in the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne, questioned the station’s claim that no law had been broken, saying the prank call possibly breached laws in New South Wales, Australia and the UK.

According to Dr Muller, 2Day FM, its licence holder Southern Cross Austereo, its management and its board of directors had created “a culture of reckless indifference to the welfare of others and contempt for norms of decency.”

Dr Muller, a leading expert on media ethics, said: “To obtain private information about a person’s health without that person’s consent is itself a serious breach of ethics. To obtain it by deception makes it worse, and to then broadcast it publicly over the radio makes it beyond all civilised standards of behaviour.”

Former 2Day FM presenter Wendy Harmer said she believed the station had broken the Commercial Radio Code of Practice by not gaining the nurse’s permission to broadcast the exchange.