Australian DJs break silence over UK royal prank tragedy

CANBERRA Mon Dec 10, 2012 10:19pm IST

1 of 4. 2day FM radio hosts Mel Greig (L) and Michael Christian, pose in Sydney in this picture obtained by Reuters on December 8, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Southern Cross Austereo/Handout

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CANBERRA (Reuters) - Two Australian radio announcers who made a prank call to a British hospital treating Prince William's pregnant wife Kate broke a three-day silence on Monday to speak of their distress at the apparent suicide of the nurse who took their call.

The 2DayFM Sydney-based announcers, Mel Greig and Michael Christian, said the tragedy had left them "shattered, gutted, heartbroken".

Greig and fellow presenter and prank mastermind Christian have been in hiding since nurse Jacintha Saldanha's death and the subsequent social media outrage at their prank.

Their show, "Hot 30," has been terminated, the station's parent company, Southern Cross Austereo (SCA) (SXL.AX), said in a statement on Monday. SCA also announced a company-wide suspension of prank calls.

Greig told Australian television her first thought when told of Saldanha's death was for her family.

"Unfortunately I remember that moment very well, because I haven't stopped thinking about it since it happened," she said, amid tears and her voice quavering with emotion. "I remember my first question was 'was she a mother?'"

"I've wanted to just reach out to them and just give them a big hug and say sorry. I hope they're okay, I really do. I hope they get through this," said a black-clad Greig when asked about mother of two Saldanha's children, left grieving their mother's death with their father Ben Barboza.

Saldanha, 46, was found dead in staff accommodation near London's King Edward VII hospital on Friday after putting the hoax call through to a colleague who unwittingly disclosed details of Kate's morning sickness to 2DayFM's presenters.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said news of the Saldanha's death was "shocking".

"I just feel incredibly sorry for her and her family. It's an absolute tragedy this has happened, and I'm sure everyone will want to reflect on how it was allowed to happen," he said.

The hospital at which Saldanha worked told the BBC it had not disciplined her for taking the prank call. Police said a post-mortem examination would be conducted on Tuesday.

FIRESTORM

A recording of the call, broadcast repeatedly by the station, rapidly became an internet hit and was reprinted as a transcript in many newspapers.

But news of Saldanha's death sparked the Internet firestorm, with vitriolic comments towards the DJs on Facebook and Twitter.

Christian said his only wish was that Saldanha's grief-stricken family received proper support.

"I hope that they get the love, the support, the care that they need, you know," said Christian, who like Greig struggled to talk about the tragedy.

Both Greig, 30, and Christian were relatively new to the station, with Greig joining in March and Christian having been in the job only a few days before the prank call after a career in regional radio.

Greig said she did not think their prank would work.

"We thought a hundred people before us would've tried it. We thought it was such a silly idea and the accents were terrible and not for a second did we expect to speak to Kate, let alone have a conversation with anyone at the hospital. We wanted to be hung up on," she said.

Christian drew headlines only two weeks before the royal prank call by angering fellow passengers with a harmonica playing stunt aboard pop star Rihanna's private jet.

SCA, 2Day's parent company, has received more than 1,000 complaints from Australians over the actions of the popular presenters, who have both been taken off air during an broadcasting watchdog investigation.

"SCA and the hosts of the radio program have also decided that they will not return to the airwaves until further notice," SCA said in a statement.

Shares in SCA fell 5 percent on Monday after two major Australian companies pulled their advertising with the radio station in protest and other advertising was suspended.

The station said it had tried to contact hospital staff five times over the recordings.

"It is absolutely true to say that we actually did attempt to contact those people on multiple occasions," said SCA chief executive Rhys Holleran.

"No one could have reasonably foreseen what has happened. I can only say the prank call is not unusual around the world," he said.

The fallout from the radio stunt has brought back memories in Britain of the death of William's mother Diana in a Paris car crash in 1997 and threatens to cast a pall over the birth of his and Kate's first child.

Australia's Communications Minister Stephen Conroy sought to deflect calls for more media regulation, telling journalists that a looming investigation by Australia's independent regulator should be allowed to happen without political interference.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas in London; Editing by Michael Perry)

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