I can understand why Ben Stokes and his mother would rather not be reminded of the murder of the cricketer’s half-siblings by their father in New Zealand in 1988, three years before Stokes was born. His reaction, calling the Sun’s publication of the story as ‘immoral and heartless’ and ‘contemptuous to the feelings and circumstances of my family’ is way over the top. But it isn’t his reaction which bothers me, but that of those who have decided to be outraged on his behalf.
Alongside the army of Tweeters expressing their hatred of the Sun, the campaign group Hacked Off swiftly released a statement saying: ‘It is abundantly clear that nothing has changed. Some newspapers are just as incapable of abiding by principles of human decency and basic journalistic ethics as they were during the phone-hacking scandal.’
The pressure group is, not for the first time, being ridiculous. Hacking phones is illegal. Reporting on murders is not. On the contrary, it is a public service. Is Hacked Off really saying that murders should be hushed up in order to protect the families of perpetrators and victims? True, this particular crime occurred on the other side of the world 31 years ago, and would not have resurfaced in a British newspaper were it not for Stokes’ fame as an England cricketer. But how is Hacked Off suggesting the Editors’ Code be revised in order to eradicate the Sun’s story? Does it want murders to be reported anonymously, or not at all? Does it want a time-limit to be put on stories about murders? In which case would we still be able to mention Dr Crippen, for fear of upsetting members of the Crippen family? Alternatively, does it only want past murders to be reported with the blessing of family members? If so, what is its objection in this case, given that the story has clearly been put together with the help of someone who was even closer to the crime than Ben Stokes: the murderer’s other daughter?
I have an interest to declare as a Sun contributor, but it seems pretty inescapable that the primary motivation of those who have attacked the reporting of this story is a hatred of the Sun and its readers – something which has been ongoing since Rupert Murdoch’s war against the print unions in the 1980s, and has long become an article of faith on the left. Put it this way: if a biographer of a public figure had discovered during their research a past family murder, would you expect them to leave it out on the grounds it might upset someone? On the contrary, if such a detail appeared in a literary book, sold to nice middle-class people in Waterstones and discussed at the Hay Festival, it would be pulled out for Book of the Week.
A different rule seems to apply, too, when it is the family of a former Conservative MP who is convicted of a crime. Earlier this month a man named Stephen Waterson was convicted of manslaughter after crushing the son of his girlfriend with his car seat. The BBC and most papers were happy to report that Mr Waterson is the adopted son of the former Conservative minister Nigel Waterson – and I don’t recall Hacked Off being outraged by the reporting of that story.
Moreover, if it is so outrageous to mention the fact the Stokes’ half-siblings were murdered by their father, then where is the outrage against the Guardian for repeating that detail? The Mirror, too, followed up the Sun story, before deleting that version from its website and running a story about the outrage instead.
Living with a murder in the family is not easy – and there are a lot of us in that position – but it cannot be escaped by wailing at newspapers which report those facts.