The Radio Prank Tragedy: This is the lesson we must take from it


I have no clever or impressive way to open this column. And nor should I.

Jacintha Saldanha is dead and – it’s fair to say – the news of the British nurse’s suicide in the wake of a meaningless radio prank – has broken all our hearts.  In Australia we woke yesterday morning to the news and it made us shudder. The tragedy – that a woman potentially felt so humiliated by a inane prank phone call that she would take her life because of it – left us devastated. And speechless.

Well temporarily speechless, at least.

Because after the shock wore off, almost instantly the recriminations began.

We blamed the radio hosts for being so completely thoughtless and juvenile to do such a disrespectful prank in the first place.

We blamed the hospital for not having better protocols in place when it comes to access to the Royal family.

We blamed the radio station producers and management and even the network owners for airing a pre-recorded segment that had clearly gone too far (since the second nurse did end up giving away private details of the Duchess of Cambridge’s condition).

But I think all this finger pointing misses the point.  As the blame shifts like fetid smoke, there is a bigger, more important lesson to be taken from Jacintha’s tragic death and it’s this: Nothing ruins your life forever.

And it’s a message – more than ever – we need to drill into our nieces and nephews, our children, the teens in our lives and frankly, ourselves.

It goes without saying that I don’t know Jacintha’s story. None of us do yet. Perhaps in time we might. Currently we do not know her mental health history (I am not suggesting for a moment that Jacintha was mentally ill), the degree of humiliation she felt from the stunt, whether her death was a cry for help or a determined attempt to take her life. It matters little. A husband has lost his wife. Two children have lost their mother. No amount of speculation is going to change the unbearably sad outcome.

But here’s what we do know, there is nothing any of us can do to protect ourselves from humiliation and embarrassment, from heartbreak and disappointment and devastation.

Would it be prudent for radio stations everywhere to rethink their culture of  ‘Gotcha calls’ and stunts? Yes, of course. (Let’s face it, prank calls are purely designed to leave someone looking stupid. And today, thanks to social media, that humiliation can go global within minutes).

But banning prank calls is probably not the answer. Not really. The real answer is teaching ourselves, our children, our students, our nieces and nephews to be resilient. To build up our emotional armour.

Because the real truth is this: Life can be wonderful and joyous and thrilling but it can also be unspeakably awful at times. The third guarantee in life after death and taxes is that there will be at least one moment in your life when you don’t think you can possibly survive the pain you feel. There will be a time or times, when life feels inescapably bleak.

[NOTE: If you are ever in a situation where you are considering suicide, please call Lifeline on 131 114. You can also visit the Lifeline website here and the Beyond Blue website here.]

An email of complaint you thought was private gets forwarded by a company to hundreds or thousands of people.  A wardrobe malfunction sees photos of your nipples making the rounds of the internet. You discover your long-term partner has been having an affair. Rumours snake through your workplace about a drunken night with your supervisor. You gain a reputation – deserved or not – for something you did at your university college O Week. You lose a loved one. An ex Facebooks naked photos of you in an act of revenge. You lose your job.


I could, quite easily, keep going.

I’ve been there myself many, many times. I’ve been dumped as a newspaper columnist three times in my career.  I’ve lost a child. I’ve embarrassed myself in front of thousands of people.  I’ve had bad reviews of my books.  And bad reviews of plays based on my books. And in 2010 I humiliated myself on statewide radio when during a celebrity NRL  tipping competition I oh-so-confidently proclaimed, “I’d never tip the Broncos. I can’t stand that Brendon Fevola”.  It was at that point the host gently pointed out that I had the wrong, er, code.  But the humiliation I felt was epic.  I was teased by friends and colleagues for months.

We’ve all been there – or we’ll go there in the future. As will every person we love.  And at the time – whatever the cause of your pain – all you want to do is camp out in your bedroom and eat Milo from the tin. To not see anyone. To just disappear. When life goes dark, you become convinced it will be that way indefinitely. And when you have humiliated yourself, you feel that this event will haunt you forever.

But it won’t.

Because nothing ruins your life forever.

Pain dissipates. Hearts heal.  New opportunities cross your path. And when it comes to gossip and scandal, people move on. Mostly because we live in a 24 hour news cycle and you can guarantee that someone else will do something stupid (or have something stupid done to them) and the world will quickly forget you and your story. And so it goes.

If you have a family who love you or a tribe of friends who adore you or even just one great friend you can count on  … you can survive anything. Anything. There are counsellers and help lines you can call.  And there is time, which when it comes to tragedy and humiliation, is always on your side.

Yes, you have a digital footprint. Yes, we all need to be careful.

But not matter how badly you screw up, no matter how embarrassed you feel about something, no matter how bleak life seems  … nothing ruins your life forever.  There is always light ahead. I know that from repeated personal experience.

For Jacintha, it’s a message we all dearly wish we could have whispered to her in person with a hug and a squeeze of her hand. To say, “You will get through this, Jacintha. We promise, it will pass.”  It is an absolute tragedy that this dedicated nurse and mother of two, was left feeling like her situation was helpless.

But for those two Australian radio hosts, it’s a message I hope they too take on-board as they deal with the fall-out from a silly prank turned tragic.  Tomorrow is another day.  You will survive this.

Nothing ruins your life forever.

If this post brings up issues for you, or you just need someone to talk to, please call Lifeline on 131 114. You can also visit the Lifeline website here and the Beyond Blue website here.

 NOTE FROM BEC:  I want to make it very clear that this post is not about blaming Jacintha, expecting people who are mentally ill to just “buck up” or implying that Jacintha wasn’t resilient enough. None of us know the facts nor what Jacintha was living through last week. My concern now is for the thousands of vulnerable people (particularly teenagers) who are absorbing this story. The message for all of us is that no matter how bleak and painful life seems, things can and do get better.  Nothing is worth taking your life. And there is always someone ready to listen – be that a friend, a teacher, a colleague or an anonymous counsellor on the other end of a phone.