Silly joke has tragic consequences

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

We laughed. The prank was so sophomoric — two radio disc jockeys affecting an air of pomp and privilege as they impersonated the queen and prince of England. Surely no one would take them seriously at the British hospital where Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, was being treated for morning sickness.
But Jacintha Saldanha did. The nurse on the overnight shift took the call because there was no receptionist on duty, and innocently patched the Australian pranksters through to another nurse, who updated them on the patient.
The radio station aired the fake conversations for all the world to hear. And the deeply shamed Saldanha killed herself, leaving behind a distraught husband and two grieving children.
The tragedy has outraged some, mystified others and stunned the two deejays who perpetrated the hoax, thinking — they said tearfully in a TV interview — that they would be detected and hung up on in 30 seconds.
Police are exploring criminal charges against Mel Greig and Michael Christian for recording a private conversation about a patient. Their show has been cancelled, advertisers are boycotting their radio station, and a wave of international outrage reportedly drove them into hiding.

How could a silly joke trigger such a terrible chain reaction? Nothing terribly private was revealed, no hospital staffer reportedly was punished for the breach of patient privacy, and no one from the monarchy took action over the impersonation.
To understand, you would need to put yourself in the shoes of the 46-year-old Indian nurse, described by her brother as a devout Catholic and “a proper and righteous person,” who would have “felt much shame” from the incident.
Imagine, through her lens, the shame of compromising the royalty’s privacy, and being jeered around the world for it. Saldanha took her job at King Edward VII private hospital so seriously that she commuted 100 miles to it, sleeping away from her family, in a nurses’ residence while on shift. It’s a common immigrant story of hard work, struggle and sacrifice, and there’s not always room in it for levity.
To someone like her, who didn’t get the cultural nuances, the prospect of playing such a joke on British royalty may have been unimaginable, and the callers’ phoniness therefore undetectable.
Saldanha died of shame, her brother said.
This is a tragic reminder that not everyone speaks the same cultural language, and that the target of an innocent prank may have no context for handling it. That goes for the person who sits one desk over, or an ocean away.
Saldanha was described as an excellent and well-respected nurse by the hospital, whose chairman said the prank humiliated “two dedicated and caring nurses,” the Associated Press reported.
A spokesperson for the Australian radio station at first tried to deny a connection between her death and the prank, speculating Saldanha was depressed. But reports say she wasn’t. Shy and nervous, maybe, but not depressed. So to dismiss her reaction as meaningless suggests a costly lesson has gone unlearned.

For some of us, the idea of taking such deep personal responsibility when something goes wrong — even if you were the victim of a scam — may be hard to imagine. You pass the buck, sue or shrug off what happened as inconsequential. But in some old cultures, virtue, honor and dignity are still paramount.
More universally, in an era when anyone can instantly broadcast compromising things about someone else, we have repeatedly seen humiliation lead to suicide. Whether it’s intentional bullying or reality-show entertainment, popular humor increasingly seems to turn caustic at someone’s expense, and for everyone’s viewing.
It’s easy to feel empathy for Greig and Christian, who couldn’t have known who would pick up the phone or what reactions their joke would trigger. But that’s the point. In laughing at the hospital’s gullibility, we all forgot that at the front end of an institution are low- or mid-level employees just trying to do their jobs, who can least afford the pressures on their employment.
Nor can anyone predict who might be in a particularly fragile or sensitive place when you make them the butts of seemingly benign jokes. That’s why you play it safe and don’t subject real people to humiliation for sport.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Email: