This article first appeared on Left Futures, on Thursday 13th December 2012
I’ve spent the past few days weighing up whether to write about the tragic death of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse who committed suicide after transferring a phoney Queen and Prince Charles to the bedside of the Duchess of Cambridge. The blame dished out to Australian DJs Michael Christian and Mel Greig has been absurd – as has the ritual attempted-catharsis of their streaming faces on TV and the newspapers.
There are more ethical targets of prank calls than nurses, for sure. She was not a celebrity – and so dealing with any unwanted publicity was inevitably going to be that bit worse. But the idea that one can hold humourists responsible for the death of someone they only spoke to for a matter of seconds just doesn’t follow. Indeed, it is ridiculous to say that anyone should take the blame for such an irrational act as suicide.
Until yesterday, however, I wasn’t sure whether I had enough original contribution to the debate to warrant an article on an event I find pretty distressing to think about. Then Morrissey, that well-known bastion of sensitivity, took the liberty of commenting.
His opening comments, reported in the Guardian, are quite outrageous. “[She] was in the hospital, as far as I could see, for absolutely no reason,” the singer told the paper. “Does she have a health condition? Is it anorexia or is it pregnancy? … I mean morning sickness already? So much hoo haw and then suddenly as bright as a button as soon as this poor woman dies she’s out of hospital? It doesn’t ring true.”
Quite the medical expert, so it seems. Somehow his previous loud-mouthery makes this dismissive misogynistic outburst fail to surprise. You’d think an anti-monarchist like Morrissey would deplore the media’s obsession with the looks of female royals. But he doesn’t seem to have found the space in his narrow mind to find a meaningfully different attitude, or indeed to understand what pregnancy actually involves.
The Labour leader of Camden council, Sarah Hayward, tweeted:
I’m no royalist but my Morrissey is a dick. When did that happen?
— Sarah Hayward (@Sarah_Hayward) December 12, 2012
I’m minded to agree with her – for these comments and mouthing off about “no shame”, yes he is a dick. But he did make one point that stands. He argues that “the pressure put on the woman who connected the callers was probably so enormous that she took her own life”, which is the most logical explanation, unless there were other factors at work which we have yet to hear of.
The pressure on Saldanha was not a result of professional misdemeanour. It was a result of the untouchable status of the royal family in our culture, where more than any other group the outrage provoked when a single toe is placed across the line of decency. The same press now baying for the Australian DJs attempted to make the hospital staff look like insensitive fools.
The taboo of obtaining details of a royal’s medical conditions via a prank call was such that BBC Radio, at least on the occasion I heard, did not play the recording of the ward nurse unraveling the story to the DJs. Instead, they only played Saldanha’s exchange of a few seconds, as if this was a disgraceful act in itself.
The point is not whether individual members of the royal family should feel shame – and it is certainly not to question the medical condition of a plainly ill person.
But if it were David Cameron in that hospital bed, or even David Beckham, it is unlikely it would have come to this. Media, and public opinion as a result, elevates the royal family to a superhuman status. Never mind what the Australian DJs will have to “live with for the rest of their lives” – Saldanha was probably thinking about what she would have to live with for the rest of her life. She was made out as breaching the sanctity of the untouchable, even though she had only made a silly mistake.
In a constitutional monarchy, divine elevation of the royal family is a hierarchy that does not even serve its historic (and obviously wrongful) function of governance. But there is no escaping it – unless we do away with the royals altogether. If there is anything that demonstrates the absurdity of royalty, it is this.
Meanwhile, perhaps we should step back from the media obsession with finding a culprit for everything – this was a tragic act, but undoubtedly an irrational one.