Nurse who took prank call about royal Kate found dead

LONDON Sat Dec 8, 2012 12:09pm IST

A police officer is reflected as he stands outside King Edward VII hospital, a day after Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge was discharged in central London December 7, 2012. REUTERS/Olivia Harris

A police officer is reflected as he stands outside King Edward VII hospital, a day after Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge was discharged in central London December 7, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Olivia Harris

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LONDON (Reuters) - A nurse who answered a prank call at the London hospital that was treating Prince William's pregnant wife Kate for morning sickness has been found dead, the hospital said on Friday, in a suspected suicide.

The death comes days after the King Edward VII hospital apologised for being duped by an Australian radio station and relaying details about Kate's condition which made headlines around the globe.

"It is with very deep sadness that we confirm the tragic death of a member of our nursing staff, Jacintha Saldanha," John Lofthouse, the King Edward's chief executive told reporters outside the central London hospital.

"We can confirm that Jacintha was recently the victim of a hoax call to the hospital. The hospital had been supporting her throughout this difficult time."

Police said they had been called at 9:35 a.m. (0935 GMT) about a woman found unconscious at an address near the hospital. The woman was pronounced dead after ambulance staff arrived.

Police said the death was being treated as unexplained but they were not looking for anyone else, indicating the nurse had taken her own life.

William and Kate, who left the hospital on Thursday, said they were "deeply saddened" by the death of the nurse, who was married with two children.

"Their Royal Highnesses were looked after so wonderfully well at all times by everybody at King Edward VII Hospital, and their thoughts and prayers are with Jacintha Saldanha's family, friends and colleagues at this very sad time," a statement from William's office said.

CONFIDENTIAL DETAILS

The radio station launched its stunt in the wake of a frenzy of media attention in Britain and worldwide after officials announced Kate was pregnant with a future British king or queen.

Two presenters from Australia's 2DayFM radio station called the hospital early on Tuesday British time, pretending to be William's grandmother Queen Elizabeth and his father, the heir-to-the throne Prince Charles.

Despite unconvincing accents, presenters Michael Christian and Mel Greig were put through to the ward where Kate was being treated and were given details about how she was faring.

Saldanha had answered the call as it was early morning and there were no receptionists on duty, and had passed it to a nurse on the ward. Saldanha, who had worked at the hospital for four years, had not been facing any disciplinary action, a source said.

"She was an excellent nurse and well-respected and popular with all of her colleagues," Lofthouse said.

William's office said there had been no royal complaint about the breach of confidentiality, although the hospital said it was reviewing its "telephone protocols".

"On the contrary, we offered our full and heartfelt support to the nurses involved and hospital staff at all times," a royal spokesman said.

Prince Charles had made light of the intrusion, joking to reporters after the incident: "How do you know I'm not a radio station?"

The private hospital is one of Britain's most exclusive and has a history of treating members of the royal family, including the Queen's husband Philip who was admitted in June for a bladder infection after taking part in a jubilee pageant on the Thames river.

PRESENTERS "SHOCKED"

The prank call and its tragic aftermath comes as Britain's own media scrambles to agree a new system of self regulation and avoid state intervention following a damning inquiry into reporting practices.

A recording of the call was widely available on the Internet and many newspapers printed a transcript of the call.

The Australian radio station and its owner Southern Cross Austereo said the presenters were shocked and would stay off air until further notice.

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Chief Executive Rhys Holleran told a news conference in Melbourne on Saturday that he was confident that the radio station had done nothing wrong and would cooperate with authorities in any investigation. He added that it was too early to draw conclusions from the incident.

"This is a tragic event that could not have been reasonably foreseen and we are deeply saddened by it," Holleran told reporters. "Our primary concern at this stage is for the family of Nurse Saldanha."

A spokesperson for Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard described the death as a "terrible tragedy".

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said that the country's independent broadcast regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), had received complaints about the hoax broadcast.

ACMA Chairman Chris Chapman said the regulator would hold talks with the radio station over the facts and issues surrounding the hoax call.

Earlier this year the ACMA imposed strict licensing conditions on 2DayFM after a radio host talked a 14-year-old girl to reveal on air that she had been raped, prompting community outrage and an advertiser backlash.

On Saturday, two large companies - supermarket chain Coles and phone company Telstra - suspended advertising on the station.

The two presenters deleted their Twitter accounts shortly after the news broke amid widespread condemnation of their actions on the social media website.

Austereo's Holleran said that the company was concerned for the welfare of the radio hosts. "These people aren't machines; they're human beings. We're all affected by this."

Facebook tribute pages swiftly set up after the nurse's death attracted messages of sympathy, some calling for the radio station to pay compensation to her family and for the presenters to resign.

Saldanha's family said they were deeply saddened and asked for media to respect their privacy "at this difficult time", in a statement released by police.

(Additional reporting by Peter Schwartzstein and Michael Holden in London, and Morag MacKinnon in Perth; Editing by Louise Ireland and Jeremy Laurence)

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