What links the England cricket hero Ben Stokes to a kindly plumber who works for free? Both have been splashed across the front page of The Sun on subsequent days – and a connection seems more than likely.
Yesterday the tabloid dug up a tragedy that happened in Stokes’s family before he was born. As Stokes is 28, this is by any measure an old story. He said the article dealt with “deeply personal and traumatic events” that affected his family in New Zealand more than 30 years ago.
The England cricket hero, whose family moved to Cumbria when he was 12, called The Sun’s article “immoral and heartless”. For its part, The Sun offered a traditional newspaper defence for grubbing about in the past, telling the BBC it had received the co-operation of a family member. It also said the events described were “a matter of public record”.
Was this family member paid by the newspaper? I don’t know the answer to that, but all sorts of people come crawling out of the woodwork when a tabloid waves its chequebook.
In a statement, Stokes said the story contained “serious inaccuracies which has compounded the damage caused”.
He also said: “The decision to publish these details has grave and lifelong consequences for my mum in particular. To use my name as an excuse to shatter the privacy and private lives of – in particular – my parents is utterly disgusting.”
The Durham and England all-rounder added: “It is hard to find words that adequately describe such low and despicable behaviour, disguised as journalism.”
The story and Stokes’s robust response set the skittles falling on Twitter. A typical Tweet came from the actor Stephen McGann: “Has that newspaper got to slander you all *personally* before you stop buying the bleeding thing?”
James Mitchinson, the editor of the Yorkshire Post, tweeted a link to an opinion piece in his newspaper. In this he takes Tony Gallagher, editor-in-chief of The Sun, to task for his decision to “torture and torment the Stokes family in an incomprehensibly inhumane way”.
The Sun’s story received a day-long Twitter lashing. Twitter isn’t the only bubble in town, but the intensity of the anger raises a key question: why did The Sun think it was worth alienating so many people for the sake of one old story?
This, after all, is the newspaper whose circulation in Liverpool was almost wiped out following its shameful reporting of the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989. That boycott has stayed strong in the city.
From the outside, the story about the Stokes family tragedy seems to be an example of poor editorial judgement. Why did no one ask that simple question: is this story worth it? Some stories are worth it; some stories are worth every ounce of effort. Other stories are lazy and unkind.
Newspapers are produced in a hurry and morals can be scattered in the rush. But that is be no excuse in this case.
David Yelland, a former editor of The Sun, said in a tweet that his old newspaper had “become pointlessly cruel and callous in recent years. We all make mistakes but the Ben Stokes story is contemptuous”.
As Stephen McGann suggested in his tweet, that contempt isn’t only directed at famous sports people: it can be turned on anyone and everyone.
Google suggests that The Sun now sells around 1.3m copies a day, around one third of the circulation from its glory days, but still a substantial figure.
While many observers despair (this ledge-bound man included), it is still a popular newspaper. But isn’t there a way for a newspaper to be popular and morally engaged in what it does?
If newspapers such as The Sun feel they can only sustain themselves through outbursts of unkindness, the long slide will only continue; won’t it?
Ah, almost forgot that philanthropic plumber. James Anderson is dubbed “the UK’s kindest plumber” by The Sun today. The paper reports that Anderson has been fixing toilets and boilers for thousands of vulnerable customers without charging them.
Doesn’t that just ring of the editor shouting out: “Someone find me a story that doesn’t make me look like such a bastard”?
The headline, by the way, takes a moment to settle – “From flusher with love.”