SYDNEY // The two Australian radio hosts who made a prank call linked to the death of a British nurse emerged from hiding yesterday to say they were "shattered, gutted, heart-broken" by the fallout from an "innocent" joke.
Weeping frequently, Mel Greig and Michael Christian said they had expected to be cut off within moments of telephoning King Edward VII's Hospital in London last week, pretending to be the Queen Elizabeth and her son Prince Charles. The prince's pregnant daughter-in-law, the Duchess of Cambridge, was being treated at the hospital for an acute form of morning sickness.
To their astonishment - and glee - Jacintha Saldanha, who answered the phone, put the pair through to Kate Middleton's ward, where a second nurse disclosed private details of her medical condition. The pre-recorded call was then broadcast after being vetted by lawyers at the Sydney radio station 2Day FM.
On Friday, three days later, Saldanha, 46, was found dead at her London apartment. It is presumed she took her own life, but UK police said they would not confirm that until an investigation was completed.
Amid a wave of outrage and disgust, the two disc jockeys went into hiding on Saturday, leaving Southern Cross Austereo (SCA) - which owns 2Day FM - to defend the station's conduct.
Rhys Holleran, the SCA's chief executive, said the death of the Indian-born mother of two was "a tragic event that could not have been reasonably foreseen".
Breaking their silence on prime-time television, the pair said they were "incredibly sorry".
"There's not a minute that goes by that we don't think about her family and what they must be going through," said Ms Greig, through tears. "And the thought that we may have played a part in that is gut-wrenching."
The hospital, which is used regularly by the royal family, has said that neither Saldanha nor the second nurse was disciplined over the incident. The hospital's chairman, Lord Glenarthur, described the hoax as "truly appalling". St James's Palace, where office staff for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are based, did not complain to the hospital, and the couple were said to be "deeply saddened" by the turn of events.
Saldanha's husband, Ben Barboza, wrote on his Facebook page that he was "devastated with the tragic loss of my beloved wife". The family - including their 16-year-old son, Jumal, and daughter, Lisha, 14 - live in Bristol. Her relatives in India's Karnataka state were also grieving.
The affair has raised questions about media ethics in Australia, which is currently playing host to Lord Leveson, the British judge who conducted an inquiry into phone-hacking and other dubious practices in the UK. He told a symposium in Sydney last week that new laws were needed to protect privacy.
In Australia, prank calls are common in the youth-orientated commercial radio world. One former 2Day FM presenter, Amber Petty, said in a newspaper interview that humiliating stunts were "very much part of the culture" at the station. In one notorious incident in 2009, two DJs subjected a 14-year-old girl to a lie-detector test during which she revealed she had been raped.
"Right, and is that the only sexual experience you've had?" asked one of the presenters, Kyle Sandilands.
For now, hoax calls and stunts have been banned on 2Day FM, and all advertising has also been dropped until at least midweek, after sponsors began withdrawing in protest.
SCA managers insisted that no laws were broken last week, nor was any code of conduct transgressed. But media lawyers noted that it was illegal in Australia to record a telephone conversation without seeking the other party's permission.
Mr Christian said the joke was supposed to be on him and Ms Greig, who adopted fake British accents for the call.
"It was meant to be just a silly little prank," said Ms Greig, who added that she would be willing to attend the inquest in London and face Saldanha's family.
Asked what she would say to the family if they were watching the interview, she replied: "I've thought about this a million times in my head … I've wanted to just reach out to them and just give them a big hug and say sorry, and I hope they're OK, I really do. I hope they get through this."