The two Sydney radio presenters who made a hoax call that apparently precipitated the suicide of a nurse at the London hospital treating the Duchess of Cambridge were holed up at an unknown location yesterday amid mounting public anger tempered by pleas from some quarters not to blame them.
Southern Cross Austereo, which owns the 2Day FM station, defended Mel Greig and Michael Christian, saying Jacintha Saldanha's death was "a tragic event that could not have been reasonably foreseen", and it was confident no laws had been broken.
However, facing a rising tide of outrage, Austereo – whose parent company, Southern Cross Media Group, is publicly listed – took the pair off air until further notice, axed their show and, after advertisers began withdrawing, suspended all commercials on 2Day FM for this weekend.
While many Australians vented their disgust on social media, some commentators expressed fears for Greig's and Christian's mental health. Others pointed the finger at a popular radio culture where "humiliating ppl is [a] stock in trade", as a columnist, Miranda Devine, tweeted yesterday.
The station has become a byword for ever more outrageous stunts perpetrated in the name of entertainment, including, in 2009, subjecting a 14-year-old girl to a lie detector test during which she revealed she had been raped. Recently, the Australian Communications and Media Authority reprimanded one of the station's DJs, Kyle Sandilands, for branding a female journalist "a fat slag" and describing a Pakistani girl born with additional limbs as "spider baby".
Initially, the call to King Edward VII's Hospital – which Ms Saldanha put through to a second nurse who gave Greig and Christian details of the duchess's medical state – caused much glee at the station, which replayed it numerous times and posted the recording on its website, calling it "the biggest royal prank ever".
Neither Ms Saldanha, a mother of two who had worked at the hospital for four years, nor the other nurse was disciplined in relation to the incident. However, the BBC reported that Ms Saldanha had been feeling "lonely and confused" as a result of what happened.
At a press conference in Melbourne yesterday, Southern Cross Austereo's chief executive, Rhys Holleran, said Greig and Christian were "completely shattered" and had been offered counselling. He added that prank calls had been commonplace in radio around the world "for decades".
The two presenters were excoriated on Twitter and Facebook yesterday, with some people claiming they had "blood on their hands". The Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, described Ms Saldanha's death as a "terrible tragedy". The supermarket chain Coles and the telecoms company Telstra led the exodus of advertisers from 2Day FM.
Some commentators warned against linking the hoax call directly to Ms Saldanha's death, noting that suicide generally has multiple causes.
Reflecting on the ethical issues thrown up by the case, Tim Burrowes, a respected Australian media commentator, wrote on his website yesterday: "Tempting as it is, let's not slaughter Mike Christian and Mel Greig. They will now always have to live with the fact that while they didn't kill this woman, they set a chain of events in motion that had a terrible ending. Surely that's enough to deal with."