The hospital had been quiet that early Tuesday morning. That one of the most famous women in the world, the Duchess of Cambridge, was resting upstairs, recovering from acute morning sickness was not unusual; the hospital had been treating royalty since 1899. Elizabeth, the queen mother, underwent treatment here many times: In November 1982, a fish bone was extracted from her throat during surgery. The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip, was hospitalized here for five nights with a bladder infection in June 2012. There was no reason for the skeleton staff on the night shift to expect anything out of the ordinary.
On the other side of the world, in Sydney, Australia, two radio announcers at 2Day FM were recording a bit for their nightly program. Michael "MC" Christian, 25, had only that week begun hosting the summer edition of the Hot 30 Countdown
program, broadcast nationally through Southern Cross Austereo's Today Network each weeknight from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m., alongside 30-year-old Mel Greig. The show mixed pop hits with softball celebrity interviews and gossip items and, as such, attracted some of the country's biggest advertisers. It also launched the careers of a few now-famous Australian radio personalities such as "Ugly Phil" O'Neil, Kyle Sandilands, and "Jackie O" Henderson.
"Here's the thing," Christian said at the beginning of the segment
. "We've been handed a phone number. We've been told that this phone number is the hospital where Kate Middleton is currently staying. We thought we'd give it a call. We don't want to cause any trouble, we don't want to stress her out. But I reckon we could maybe get her on the radio tonight."
"Look, I don't know," Greig faux-cautioned. "I mean, everybody would be trying this."
"Well, this is why I've thought of a plan," Christian replied. "We can't just ring up and go, 'Hi, it's MC and Mel from the Summer 30
, can we chat to Kate?' Hang up. Not gonna happen. You are going to be the queen..."
"This is awesome!" whispered Greig, a former Amazing Race Australia
contestant. She affected an upper-class British accent. "Hello, I'm the queen."
"I'm going to be Prince Charles." Christian gestured through the glass to his producers, Emily Mills, 26, and Ben Hamley, 21. "Ben and Em, you're involved in this as well. We thought that maybe you could be the royal corgis, if you're OK with that?"
The pair made enthusiastic barking sounds. "Sure, we'll pop on in, in a sec," replied Mills.
"This is fun!" Greig said. "I mean…" She readopted the posh British accent. "…this is fun
Christian gave his best attempt at imitating a British man nearly 40 years his senior. "Hello. Prince Charles over here, mummy!"
"Oh, you're Prince Charles," Greig-as-queen said. "I like your ears."
Shortly after 5 a.m., a telephone rang at the hospital's front desk. Answering the phone wasn't really Saldanha's job, but since the reception switchboard wasn't staffed overnight, she must have felt obliged to pick up after three rings.
"Hello, good morning, King Edward the Seventh Hospital," she said.
A haughty, straining British accent replied, "Yes, hello, I'd like to speak to my granddaughter, Kate."
Saldanha recognized the voice immediately, though if she was taken aback by this request, she didn't show it. "Oh, yes, just hold on, ma'am," she said.
Gentle strings and a tinkling piano played while the pair held the line.
"Are they putting us through?" asked Christian, dropping the Charles facade.
"Yes!" Greig replied. They both laughed.
Christian lowered his voice. "If this has worked, it's the easiest prank call we have ever made." He turned to his co-host. "Your accent sucked, by the way, I just want you to know." More laughter.
"I'm not used to playing old 80-year-olds!" Greig responded.
Saldanha transferred Greig to another phone upstairs, where Middleton was being treated in a private ward. Another nurse picked up the phone.
"Kate, my darling, are you there?"
"Um, good morning, ma'am, this is the nurse speaking. How may I help you?"
"Hello, I'm just after my granddaughter Kate. I wanted to see how her little tummy bug is going."
"She's sleeping at the moment and has had an uneventful night," said the nurse, who sounded decidedly more nervous than Saldanha had. "Sleep is good for her. She's been given some fluids to rehydrate her, because she was quite dehydrated when she came in. Um, but she's stable at the moment."
"OK," replied Grieg, before making a quip about feeding "my little corgis" while dogs yapped in the background. An indistinguishable male voice lurked nearby. "So when is a good time to come and visit her? Because I'm the queen, so I'll need a lift down there. Prince…Charles!" she exclaimed away from the mouthpiece. "When can you take me to the hospital, Charles?"
The hoarse, older male voice suddenly entered the conversation. "When will it be all right to come down and see her? Maybe in the morning or something, if that's OK?"
"I would suggest that any time after 9 would be suitable," the nurse said. "The doctor will be in in the morning, and we'll just be getting her freshened up."
"Wonderful. Is Wills still there, or has he gone home?" asked Christian. "I haven't spoken to him yet!"
"He went home at about 9 last night."
He seemed pleased by this. "OK, lovely." All of a sudden, he too required reassurance. "But they're all OK, everything's all right?"
"Yes, she's quite stable at the moment," replied the nurse. "She hasn't had any retching with me since I've been on duty, and she has been sleeping on and off."
"Wonderful!" replied the supposed grandfather-to-be.
The nurse added, "I think it's difficult sleeping in a strange bed, as well."
"Yes, of course!" said Christian. "It's hardly the palace, is it!"
Greig found this funny too. "It's nothing like the palace is it, Charles?" The dogs began yapping nearby again. "Oh, when are you going to walk those bloody corgis?"
"Mumsy, I'll go and take the dogs outside," he answered.
"I need to go and visit Kate in the morning," said Greig, who then addressed the helpful nurse directly. "My dear, thank you so much."
"You're very welcome."
The pair said good-bye and hung up. That was it.
And yet nine months later, shrouded in unexpected and inexplicable tragedy, this innocuous, banal prank call continues to disrupt layers of British and Australian society. The show was canceled and its hosts sent death threats. Greig is suing her employer and the station's broadcasting license may be lost — meaning thousands of jobs hang in the balance. Meanwhile Scotland Yard will begin a coroner's inquest of Saldanha's death in September. At the heart of the matter is essentially a schoolyard quandary played out on an international stage: When does a joke — even a bad joke — go too far?