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Once a newspaperman

The true legacy of John Kay

Artillery Row

For a profession supposedly staffed mainly by venal backbiters, journalism still has some tried and tested codes of honour. It is a tradition, for instance, that long-standing newspaper editors and writers should be “banged out” by their peers as they depart their place of work, usually with a mocked-up front page testifying to their great successes and the major stories that they have brought in. And there is a whole iconography based around the “good old days” of Fleet Street, of three-bottle lunches at El Vino’s, of staggering back to produce flawless copy and the sheer joy of watching the next day’s paper come “off stone”. The industry has been immortalised in numerous books, most notably Michael Frayn’s classic Towards The End of the Morning, and it is the greatest honour in many a hack’s life to merit the epithet “Once a newspaperman, always a newspaperman.”

The only discordant note in Newton Dunn’s praise was his allusion to Kay’s “troubled past”

There were few newspapermen more committed to their trade than John Kay, the Sun reporter who has died aged 77. Named by none other than Press Gazette as the sixteenth most influential British journalist in post-war times, Kay owes his significant reputation to the number of scoops that he brought in during his decades-long career at his newspaper. These included breaking stories about Roman Abramovich buying Chelsea FC (at a time before such things were de rigueur), Myra Hindley on day release from prison and the scoop that he was proudest of, leaking the entirety of the Queen’s Christmas speech in 1992, in which she memorably referred to the year as an annus horribilis. As a former colleague of his admiringly described it, it was “a right royal triple belter”.

After his death, other journalists – or hacks, as men of a certain generation might prefer to be called – queued up to pay tribute to Kay. The former Sun news editor and managing editor Graham Dudman called him “a class act…in many ways, he was the Sun newsroom”, and lamented that ‘he has left us far too soon.’ His old newspaper did him proud, calling him “Fleet Street’s finest ever reporter” and “king of scoops”, and the former Sun political editor Tom Newton Dunn wrote an Evening Standard column in which he described him as “a very sensitive man…kind to a fault…he mentored many young journalists, including me.” Once a newspaperman, always a newspaperman.

The only discordant note in Newton Dunn’s praise was his allusion to Kay’s “troubled past”. It does not take very long to discover something of such jaw-dropping enormity that it puts the fulsomeness of the praise for the late journalist into perspective. In 1977, while still a relatively young man, he was promoted to the role of industrial editor at The Sun, at a time where strikes and union action were an everyday occurrence. Kay found it difficult to cope with the pressure that he was under, and he underwent a mental breakdown. He described it thus: “My mind seemed to be taken over by voices. I seemed possessed.” The voices inside his head instructed him to kill himself, but first to murder his young wife Hirue, on the grounds that, if he was dead, she would not have anyone to look after her, as she had been disowned by her family upon marrying him. He drowned her in the bath, before attempting and failing to kill himself several different ways. The police eventually arrested him while naked and covered in blood.

People undergo mental disturbances and do horrendous things. In many cases, the acts that they commit should not be punished with imprisonment, but with confinement in a psychiatric hospital. At Kay’s trial, where his defence was paid for by The Sun, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, but with a particular refinement. He was considered such an essential part of the newsroom that the paper pledged that, should he be released from his confinement, he would be welcomed back at his former place of work. Outrageous though this might seem to any present-day idea of decency, to say nothing of his dead wife’s family, the judge was happy to acquiesce. After a period at Friern Barnet psychiatric hospital, Kay rejoined The Sun, where he remained until the end of his career, bringing in his triple-belter scoops and bathing in the respect of his peers.

If – and this seems a stretch – this was the full extent of Kay’s “troubled past”, then it would be extraordinary enough, but perhaps people do deserve a second chance, even after committing such a terrible act. Yet the thrust of Newton Dunn’s column was not to praise his mentor, but to criticise the beleaguered Keir Starmer, in his former capacity as Director of Public Prosecutions. He wrote emotively of Starmer’s prosecutions of journalists at News International for phone hacking offences as “a colossal and catastrophic failure of judgement” that ruined the life of Kay, and others, and then spun this out into a general attack on Starmer as possessing “no sound judgment…no firm moorings.” Newton Dunn, a self-described “neutral commentator”, concluded that “If he is not a leader, he will never attain power”, before ending on the glib little irony that Kay was a “passionate” Labour voter all his life.

I cannot help but agree with the journalist Rachel Cooke, whose reaction to Newton Dunn’s apologia was to write “I’ve worked in newspapers for a long time (30 years this year), but I’ve rarely been so horrified by anything as Tom Newton Dunn’s column about his “mentor” John Kay and Keir Starmer in the Evening Standard today. It’s just disgusting.” The glibness with which Kay’s actions were excused, combined with the opportunism of the attack on Starmer, beggared belief. And a further irony comes in the fact that Kay was hardly an innocent victim of a politically motivated witch hunt.

The person who I keep thinking of instead is his terrified young wife, being violently drowned by a stronger and bigger man in the grip of psychosis

As Private Eye’s latest issue reveals, it was his bosses at the Sun who volunteered details of informants to the police, including Bettina Jordan-Baker, a civil servant at the Ministry of Defence. She was paid £100,000 by Kay, and the newspaper, for her help with information for scoops, before ending up serving a 12-month jail sentence for taking money illegally while in public office. Newton Dunn’s crowing that Kay and other journalists were acquitted on charges of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office therefore omits the salient detail that Jordan-Baker and 30 other non-journalists did indeed receive criminal convictions. This makes Starmer’s actions as DPP seem less like the crusade against The Sun that Newton Dunn paints them as, and more a series of decisions taken place within the public interest. The newspaper’s complicity in the prosecutions has not been remarked upon by its former employees, many of whom remain within the wider News UK organisation.

This story can be dismissed as little more than tittle-tattle, only relevant to the lives of those who were either convicted or acquitted of offences. And there is, perhaps, some compassion that can be bestowed on a man with clear mental health issues who could not work again following “three years of absolute hell”. Yet somehow I find myself unable to feel any great sympathy for John Kay. The person who I keep thinking of instead is his terrified young wife, being violently drowned by a stronger and bigger man in the grip of psychosis, and what must have gone through her mind in the last, agonising moments that she was alive. But, after all, once a newspaperman, always a newspaperman. Ain’t that the thing.

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