Australian DJs apologize for royal hoax call

SYDNEY — They say they expected a hang-up and a few laughs. Instead, the Australian DJs behind a hoax phone call to the London hospital where the pregnant Duchess of Cambridge was being treated were deeply apologetic 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 by worldwide public outrage after Friday’s death of Jacintha Saldanha, 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.”

Police have not disclosed the cause of Saldanha’s death, but many have assumed it was related to the stress from the call. An autopsy is being held Tuesday.

Prime Minister David Cameron said at a luncheon Monday that “the suicide of this nurse, who worked incredibly hard and obviously was incredibly dedicated … is an absolute tragedy.”

His office later said Cameron’s comment was not an official acknowledgment that the death was a suicide.

Greig and co-host Michael Christian spoke publicly about the prank for the first time in the televised interview. Another interview on rival show “Today Tonight” also aired Monday.

The hoax has sparked broad outrage, with the hosts receiving death threats and demands they be fired.

The radio station’s owner said Greig and Christian were receiving psychological counseling to deal with the tragedy. A British lawmaker said he wished that much was being done for Saldanha’s grieving family.

“They are devastated by what has happened,” said Labour legislator Keith Vaz, who has visited Saldanha’s husband and two children at their home in Bristol, southwest England.

“They want the facts to be established so that they can effectively grieve,” Vaz said. “What is needed, clearly, is an inquiry by the hospital into how this tragic case happened.”

Both DJs apologized for the hoax and cried when asked about the moment they learned that the Saldanha was dead. But neither described having reservations before the hoax tape was broadcast; they said higher-ups at the station had 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 Monday saying that Greig and Christian’s show had been terminated and 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 at King Edward VII Hospital in London. 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 was found dead at the hospital’s nurses’ accommodation.

The DJs said 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.”

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. He told Fairfax Radio on Monday that his station had tried at least five times to contact the London hospital to discuss the prank before it aired, but 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 pre-recorded 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 King Edward VII Hospital denied that its management had been contacted by the radio station.

“Following the hoax call, the radio station did not speak to anyone in the hospital’s senior management or anyone at the company that handles our media inquiries,” the hospital said in a statement.

It also announced a memorial fund to help support the nurse’s family, with the hospital making the first donation.

Saldanha’s children and husband, Ben Barboza, on Monday visited the hospital, which said it was offering assistance to the family.

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.

Meanwhile, there were indications that the Duchess of Cambridge still struggled with acute morning sickness over the weekend when her husband, Prince William, cancelled a Sunday night engagement.

Palace officials said no final decision had been made on whether Kate would attend Wednesday’s British premiere of “The Hobbit,” where she and William are to be the guests of honor.

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