They expected a hang-up and a few laughs. Instead, the Australian DJs behind a hoax phone call to the U.K. hospital where the pregnant Duchess of Cambridge was treated were in tears Monday as they described how their joke ended up going too far.
The phone call - in which they impersonated Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles - went through, and their station broadcast and even trumpeted the confidential information received. Whatever pride there had been over the hoax was obliterated in a storm of worldwide public outrage after Friday's death, still unexplained, of the first nurse they talked to.
“There's not a minute that goes by that we don't think about her family and what they must be going through,” 2DayFM radio host Mel Greig told Australia's “A Current Affair,” her voice shaking. “And the thought that we may have played a part in that is gut-wrenching.”
She and co-host Michael Christian spoke publicly about the prank for the first time in the televised interview. A separate interview on rival show “Today Tonight” also aired Monday evening.
Both DJs apologized for the hoax and broke down in tears when asked about the moment they learned that the nurse, Jacintha Saldanha, was dead. But neither described having reservations before the hoax tape was broadcast; they said higher-ups made the decision to air it.
“We didn't have that discussion,” Greig said.
Southern Cross Austereo, the parent company of 2DayFM, released a statement on Monday saying Greig and Christian's show had been terminated, and that there would be a company-wide suspension of prank calls. The DJs themselves remain suspended.
Saldanha, 46, had transferred their call last week to a fellow nurse caring for the duchess, who was being treated for acute morning sickness. That nurse said the former Kate Middleton “hasn't had any retching with me and she's been sleeping on and off.”
Three days later, Saldanha died. Police have not yet determined the cause of death, but many immediately assumed it was related to the stress from the call.
The DJs said that when the idea for the call came up in a team meeting, no one expected that they would actually be put through to the duchess' ward.
“We just assumed we'd get cut off at every single point and that'd be it,” Christian said.
“The joke 100 percent was on us,” he said. “The idea was never, 'Let's call up and get through to Kate,' or 'Let's speak to a nurse.' The joke was our accents are horrible, they don't sound anything like who they're intended to be.”
“The entertainment value was in us,” Greig added. “It was meant to be in our silly accents. That's where it was meant to end.”
The decision to air the prerecorded call was made by executives higher up the chain, the DJs said.
Southern Cross Austereo CEO Rhys Holleran has called Saldanha's death a tragedy, but defended the prank as a standard part of radio culture. He has also insisted the station had not broken any laws and had adhered to procedures.
On Monday, Holleran told Fairfax Radio that the station had tried at least five times to contact the hospital to discuss the prank before it went to air, though the station never succeeded.
When asked why the company made the attempts, Holleran replied, “Because we did want to speak with them about it.” When pressed as to whether this meant the station had reservations about the prank, Holleran said only, “I think that that's a process that we follow and we have checks and balances on all those things.”
The hoax has sparked broad outrage, with the hosts receiving death threats and calls for them to be fired. Greig said she doesn't even want to think about returning to the airwaves.
“I remember my first question was, 'Was she a mother?'“ she said on “Today Tonight.”
Saldanha had two children. Her husband, Ben Barboza, expressed his sadness on his Facebook page with a short note “Obituary Jacintha.”
“I am devastated with the tragic loss of my beloved wife Jacintha in tragic circumstances,” he wrote. He said she will be laid to rest in Shirva, India. - Sapa-AP