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Jill Kirby

Jill Kirby: Why has Keith Vaz rushed into the prank phone-call tragedy?

Leicester MP Keith Vaz has called for an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Jacintha Saldanha. Mr Vaz is not the family's MP and it's not entirely clear why he is acting as their spokesman at this difficult time. I hope they did not want to grieve in peace, because Mr Vaz's intervention, his decision to be photographed embracing the bereaved husband and son, and his TV statements about their distress, have left them little choice but to share their grief with the public.

Until this tragedy propelled them into the limelight, Jacintha Saldanha's family is unlikely to have had any experience of the mass media. Whatever their reservations about exposing their distress to the public gaze, they will presumably have placed their trust in Mr Vaz as an experienced public figure and savvy media operator. Perhaps he has advised them that the best way to obtain a full picture of the events preceding the death is to generate as much publicity as possible, thereby applying pressure on the King Edward VII Hospital.

Given the description of the late Ms Saldanha as a shy and private person, however, joining the media circus seems a high price for her family to pay in order to obtain the answers they seek. Surely it would have been preferable for them to have their representative — whether Mr Vaz or perhaps their own MP — speak privately to the hospital about their concerns? Nor is it at all clear that the hospital has, as Mr Vaz implies, been dragging its feet. Ms Saldanha only died last Friday. There will in due course be an inquest; it is surely premature to be demanding an inquiry in the meantime. There is no suggestion that the hospital has declined to talk to her family, or to cooperate with them, nor has it been critical of Ms Saldanha — quite the contrary. No one should be rushing to judgement on the hospital's conduct at this stage.

The King Edward VII has long been the hospital of choice for senior members of the Royal Family. For any hospital, patient confidentiality is (or should be) of the utmost importance; for this particular institution, given the level of media interest in its patients, a lapse in such confidentiality can — as we have seen — have global consequences. The hospital's reputation for discretion has taken a very hard knock; it is to be expected that any investigations taking place in the immediate aftermath of this tragic death should be kept out of the spotlight. The media should not expect a running commentary and nor should Mr Vaz be instrumental in feeding the frenzy.

So why has the Leicester MP rushed in? He says that he feels Mel Greig and Michael Christian, the Australian talk show hosts who carried out their prank, have received more support than the nurse's family, who should have been given counselling by the hospital. It is not clear whether such counselling was sought by the family prior to Mr Vaz's intervention; yet again, it seems inappropriate for Mr Vaz to be demanding this so soon after Ms Saldanha's death. And is nothing to be left to the private sphere? If Mr Vaz really felt that the family needed urgent bereavement support at this point, could he not have arranged it for them without telling the Daily Mail?

This tragedy began with a reckless and irresponsible attempt by a couple of DJs to invade the personal privacy of a young woman whose every move attracts media attention, but who might have expected to be safe in hospital. The dreadful consequences have reached far beyond the prank's initial target. Yet the spectacle of Greig and Christian making their tearful apology to television audiences was almost as tasteless as their original hoax call. It would surely have been more fitting for them to have issued a written apology and statement of unqualified regret, and kept off the airwaves for the time being.

Watching them trying to engage public sympathy by sobbing their contrition was to feel manipulated by their own expressions of grief. Yet in dragging Jacintha Saldanha's family in front of the cameras, however noble and generous his motives, Mr Vaz is surely attempting his own form of manipulation, which to many will seem almost equally distasteful.

MPs, or indeed any public figures, who take to the stage in the aftermath of tragedy should tread very carefully indeed. There is always the risk they will seem to be milking the grief of others in order to burnish their own compassionate credentials. In order to avoid such risks, they might be wisest to exercise their compassion quietly, away from the TV cameras.


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