Grieving for John KayWhat we Learn from the Tributes to the Sun Reporter
The sorrow of his colleagues reveals a warmth of feeling they rarely show – and which they routinely deny to others, writes Brian Cathcart
The death of veteran Sun reporter John Kay has unleashed something rarely seen: genuine sentimentality among his former colleagues, from Kelvin MacKenzie to Neil Wallis, Trevor Kavanagh and Tom Newton-Dunn.
They and others wrote about Kay as though they wanted the world to warm to the little-seen man behind the byline, whose life had just ended. With obvious affection they described his kindness, his mentoring of young reporters and the inspiration he gave to others.
Most expressed outrage that he was prosecuted in 2015 for bribing a public official, saying that, although he was cleared, it broke his spirit. And they drew a veil over the darkest moment in his life, when, in the course of a mental breakdown in the 1970s, he killed his wife, Harue, and tried to take his own life. Some mentioned this fleetingly; some not at all.
It was all obviously heartfelt and in its way touching, though a few of the mourners, being Sun or ex-Sun journalists, were unable to let the occasion pass without blaming someone – sometimes Labour Leader Keir Starmer for bringing the prosecution at the time as Director of Public Prosecutions; or occasionally Rupert Murdoch for ‘shopping’ Kay to the authorities.
All of this shows us that Murdoch’s tabloid journalists have feelings we can recognise and applaud: they feel loyalty, value kindness, can forgive the past, and empathise with a broken old man and feel anger on his behalf.
But it also begs an obvious question: what becomes of these feelings when those journalists deal with people from outside their own circle? Because, as we know well, they are capable of appalling cruelty.
Where were those humane feelings, for example, when the Sun was monstering Caroline Flack, Sienna Miller, Charlotte Church, Gareth Thomas, Ben Stokes or Meghan Markle; or the victims of the Hillsborough Disaster and the thousands of others whose lives were trashed in the pages of the Sun – in many cases on the orders of the very men now mourning Kay?
Take just one case: that of Test cricketer Ben Stokes. In September 2019, the Sun filled its front page with a story about appalling events of which Stokes’s family were victims and which occurred in New Zealand before he was born. When challenged about this gratuitous cruelty and intrusion by Stokes and many others, the newspaper said that it was right to publish the article because the events were a matter of public record. Others in the industry rushed to defend the newspaper in the same terms.
The implication was unambiguous: to the Sun and its friends, these were facts which many would find surprising, so therefore it was a big story and fair game for front-page treatment. The report was justified, in other words, simply because readers might consider it to be interesting.
Look now at how the Sun handled the death of John Kay: a glowing appreciation that did not even mention the death of his first wife – which is also a matter of public record. And, again, others in the industry defended this (very different) approach on the grounds that the killing was ancient history and not relevant.
There is a glaring double-standard here and no excuses about news values can be used to get around it. If it was just a matter of attracting readers – the justification for the Ben Stokes front-page – the Sun was perfectly placed and perfectly equipped to do a far more effective job than it did. It could have told the John Kay story Stokes-style and put it on the front-page with a headline along the lines of ‘From Wife Killer to Fleet Street Legend’. A lot more people would have bought that or clicked on it than will have read the inside-page ‘Farewell to the Sun King of Scoops’.
But the Sun did not do that (and to be clear, I am not suggesting it should have done) because, when it comes to one of the newspaper’s own, the newspaper sees it differently and different rules apply. When it’s a mate, sentiment is fine – but when it is someone outside the circle, they are no longer considered to have human feelings worth worrying about; they are simply targets.
It is a shocking disconnect; a collective, selective lack of empathy.
And it is one of the many ways in which we see that, what is practised at the Sun, is not journalism – because journalism is about honesty, about giving the public as true a picture of the world as you can manage, without fear or favour.
Put it another way: journalists have power and Sun journalists have a lot of power. When they use their power cruelly, they are abusing that power. And when they favour mates while brutalising others, they are abusing it all the more.
A similar abuse of power can be seen in the willingness of many writing about John Kay to gloss over the fact – not denied or remotely deniable – that he paid £100,000 in bribes over eight years to a Ministry of Defence official in return for stories of little or no public interest.
They are furious that he was prosecuted, for something of which he was acquitted, but they refuse to question the morality of what they know he did.
It is simple: whatever the law used to say (and it was muddled and has since been clarified), bribing public officials is – and always has been – obviously wrong. If we tolerate it, we allow rich people to do whatever they want; paying-off police officers and justice officials to avoid prosecution, corrupting prison staff, rewarding civil servants for sharing confidential information about you or me, subverting planning and safety laws, buying information relating to national security.
Journalists are not entitled to a special pass on this. They are citizens too. While there may be circumstances in which, in the public interest, it might just about be justified to pay a bribe, those circumstances are bound to be exceptionally rare and nothing Kay was up to came within a mile.
Nor is ignorance of the law an excuse. Anyone who pauses for a moment can see that bribing a public official is corruption and, remember, Sun journalists routinely set themselves up as the judges of other where wrongdoing is concerned, rarely making allowance for ignorance or any other excuse.
So John Kay did something very wrong and, if there is any surprise about the consequence of his wrongdoing, it should not be that he was prosecuted for it but that he was acquitted. Had the present Bribery Act been in force he would have gone to prison just as the person he bribed did.
However much Kay’s friends loved him, it is cynical and dishonest of them to present his prosecution as a martyrdom.
Brian Cathcart is Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London and the author of ‘The Case of Stephen Lawrence’ (1999)
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