Many non-Sun readers previously unfamiliar with the work of John Kay must now be, if not exactly regretting their subscription oversight, aware of countless triumphs missed.
This “brilliant Sun chief reporter famed for his scoops, exposés and effortless mastery of tabloid-speak” (as the Daily Telegraph titled its obituary) was someone, we have learned since his death on 7 May, above the common run of hacks, “an elegant, dapper ex-public schoolboy renowned for his kindness and generosity to rivals and reporters, whom he mentored and encouraged…”
The Evening Standard’s tribute was more in the spirit of J’Accuse: “My mentor died a broken man after Starmer’s groundless prosecution,” wrote Tom Newton Dunn, a presenter on Times Radio. Kay the “Fleet Street legend” was also, it emerged, a victim, being among the Sun martyrs cleared in 2015 after a prosecution (for paying officials for stories) brought when Sir Keir Starmer was director of public prosecutions. One of Kay’s sources went to prison.
The UK Press Gazette dwelt on Kay’s peerless contributions to the culture depicted in Stick it up Your Punter! The Uncut Story of the Sun Newspaper, James Graham’s Ink and, less cheerfully, the Leveson inquiry. His proudest moment was when, in 1992, he broke the contents of the Queen’s speech. To one former editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, he was “the greatest Fleet Street story-getter of all time”. “In many ways, he was the Sun newsroom,” said another colleague.
No telling detail was too small for the Sun’s own tribute. Kay always, the paper marvelled, “carried a neatly ironed handkerchief, which he used to dry the apple he washed with bottled water and ate every morning before phoning his father Ernest in Cambridge”.
Well, almost no detail. Omitted, for instance, was Kay’s notorious made-up “interview” with the widow of a Falklands hero, during MacKenzie’s editorship. The Press Council called it a “deplorable, insensitive deception on the public”.
In this more sensitive era, there are presumably good reasons why anyone new to Kay will have finished the prominent Sun and Evening Standard pieces unaware of the existence of Kay’s first wife, Harue, whom he killed in 1977.
Without wishing to distort his story, the relevant editors must have considered it superfluous that, prior to being tragically victimised by Starmer, Kay was convicted of Harue’s manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. He was depressed, a court heard, due to professional anxieties. According to a contemporaneous Guardian report (“‘Torment’ of reporter who killed wife”): “He, thinking it would be better to end it all, pushed her head under the water. Naturally she struggled, but by tightening the hold he held her down by the throat.”
With the Sun paying for an eminent barrister and promising to take Kay back, the sentence was psychiatric treatment. Once restored, the greatest wife-drowning journalist of his generation did not shrink from exposing imperfections in others. Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie recorded the reaction of a TV producer whose privacy Kay invaded: “All he’d done was leave his wife, yet the story had been written by a man who had killed his.” That killing, they write in Stick it up your Punter!, “officially became a taboo subject”.
And so the subject has demonstrably remained, even amid greater awareness of women’s deaths from domestic violence and even in places not owned by Rupert Murdoch. Is this exemplary tact, some partner-killers must be wondering, something reserved for hapless senior journalists or can we expect to see, say, Oscar Pistorius routinely described as an Olympic legend who, before falling victim to his demons, was always kind to a fault? Similarly, in a spirit of fairness, their supporters await the posthumous rehabilitation of Louis Althusser (“Brilliant Paris philosopher famed for his effortless mastery of Marxist-speak”), of the only occasionally femicidal Phil Spector (“Died a broken man”), of the tormented but always exquisitely accessorised Lord Lucan (“Swashbuckling peer engulfed by personal catastrophe”).
As for women, tributes whose selectivity compounds the original obliteration of Harue Kay can’t but confirm the very provisional nature, in some powerful parts of the UK media, of respect for their sex. What’s one drowned and strangled 27-year-old woman when there are old men’s scoops to memorialise? Wasn’t it more important to hear about that time Kay discovered Princess Beatrice was going to be called Beatrice? There are terminally disgraced journalists who must wish, for their part, that they had only drowned and strangled someone weaker than themselves instead of doing something professionally unforgivable, such as plagiarism or persuading Diana to do an interview.
That both the Sun and the Standard only mentioned the manslaughter of Harue Kay in tardy, post-publication additions should not, of course, be taken to signal total indifference to male violence against women. After a more recent strangler, Anthony Williams, was found guilty of manslaughter not murder of his wife, Ruth – lockdown depression made him do it – he said he “snapped” after she told him to “get over it” – the Sun quoted David Challen, an impressive campaigner for justice in domestic abuse: “An appalling verdict.”
Like the Standard, it covered the campaign by We Can’t Consent To This for legislation that will finally prohibit use of the “rough sex” defence by men who claim to have killed partners inadvertently.
It’s in this semi-enlightened context – and one in which far greater writers of fiction than John Kay are understood to have been, at the same time, extreme misogynists – that indifference towards the killing is possibly more disturbing than in the 70s, when even the naming of domestic violence was a novelty. Now the Refuge website asks, of a domestic abuser’s mental illness defence: “Why is it that he only abuses his partner – not his colleagues, strangers or friends?”
How many women did Kay need to kill before his current admirers thought it worth a mention or paused before writing, like ex-colleague Trevor Kavanagh: “He was the man every other journalist on the Sun wanted to emulate.” Or to put it more simply: Outrage: “killer-obsessed” Sun men spark concern.
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist