Hack explanations: John Kay's obits show Fleet Street's grubbiness and make the woman he killed a footnote

Whether it's fiddling expenses, flinging money at public officials, or killing their wives, journalists find ways to excuse their own.

1. The Sun’s killer obit: Fleet Street’s most hypocritical paper spins its former chief reporter’s ‘legendary’ career
2. Scoop! The excuses journalists make for our profession's crimes are vile...
3. Hey! Look over Keir! His mentor was a killer but Tom Newton Dunn wants to talk about Starmer...

Content warning: This edition contains frank discussion of violence against women and mentions of suicide. Feel free to skip this one. The Samaritans are accessible 24 hours a day on 116 123 or jo@samaritans.org

Harue Kay was killed by her husband John Kay in September 1977. Born Harue Nonaka in 1950, she was just 27 when her life was taken from her. She received no extensive obituaries. Her picture was not included in most of the brief news reports on her killer’s crime.

Sebastian Dobson, a historian with a particular interest in Japan, sent me a piece that has not featured in the previous editions of this series or the newspaper obituaries. It’s the report on Kay’s trial from the paper that first employed him, The Newcastle Journal:

The piece begins, as you’d expect from a paper sympathetic to its former employee, with a gut-wrenching opening paragraph:

Top Fleet Street reporter John Kay was ‘a soul in torment’ when he drowned the Japanese wife he loved as they took a bath together.

From the first few words, Harue is othered and Kay’s actions are explained away. What love was there in his actions?

The story goes on in the next paragraph to detail the methods of Kay’s six attempts to take his own life, something it repeats under a later subhead. It then moves on to a description of the events in court…

He was cracking up at the prospect of taking over as The Sun’s industrial editor — a job he did not feel able to hold down, said Mr Daniel Hollis Q.C. prosecuting.

Kay later told police: ‘My mind seemed to be taken over by voices. I seemed possessed. It was an utter nightmare.’

After the prosecution at St Alban’s Crown Court accepted a plea of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, the judge ordered that Kay (34) be admitted to mental hospital for treatment.

Kay had denied a charge of murder.

Kay — a former industrial correspondent of The Journal — of Aston Road, Barnet sat pale and still as Mr Hollis described the nightmare day in September when he killed his 27 year old wife Harue by strangling and drowning her — and then repeatedly tried to kill himself.

The Sun paid for John Kay’s defence in court and it welcomed him back to the newsroom after his brief period in Friern Barnet psychiatric hospital. He married his second wife, Mercedes, just two years later in 1979. They were married until she died of cancer in 2017.

John Kay had a further 44 years after Harue’s death to have a second life and to succeed in his career as a tabloid muckraker.

Harue survives only as a footnote to his life, a smudged marriage picture in the cuttings of one regional newspaper, and as the ‘unfortunate incident’ in otherwise laudatory obituaries from the nationals.

The Sun had to be chided by charities to include a reference to Kay’s crime at the bottom of its tribute to him. The luxurious coverage of his triumphs went out in print with no mention of Harue or the manner of her death. Kay’s crime was a taboo topic in The Sun newsroom and Fleet Street colluded in perpetuating that silence more widely.

When he sent me The Newcastle Journal clipping, Sebastian Dobson also sent me some thoughts on the story Kay’s defence told in court and the widely accepted assertion that Harue had been ‘disowned’ by her family. I think they’re worth including here:

I am not sure about her being disowned after marrying Kay, but she would certainly have been removed from her family register (koseki) on marriage and, if her husband had been Japanese, she would have been placed on his.

Marrying a foreigner is a different story. Harue would have been obliged to start her own family register if she planned to maintain her connection with Japan, but it is also likely that she had decided to spend the rest of her life in the UK.

One reason I’m sceptical about the ‘family disowning her’ defence is that as a Japanese woman who was still unmarried at 26 and who was living abroad, she may already have distanced herself from her family.

It is easy to forget how conservative Japan was in the 1970s, and the pressure for women to marry before the age of 25 was pretty intense back then. Choosing to live abroad would also have been a source of family friction.

While the prosecution was willing to accept Kay’s defence and vague claims of a suicide pact because Harue would have been “alone in the world”, we are under no obligation to believe that story. And I don’t.

But The Times — which back in 1977, when it was yet to be taken over by Rupert Murdoch, referred to the Kay case only in a News In Brief piece reporting his arrest in September of that year — repeated that argument in its obituary.

After a sub-deck in which the words “as well as” are almost ripped apart with the weight they have to bear — “Chief reporter on The Sun known for his string of scoops as well as for killing his wife while suffering a nervous breakdown” — The Times takes 10 paragraphs before it discusses Harue’s killing. It says:

Back home he told his Japanese wife Harue (née Nonaka), whom he had married the previous year, that the pressure of the job was too much. He could not resign, because that would end his progress up the career ladder; instead, he would kill himself. Harue, who had been disowned by her family after marrying a westerner, said that she would be left alone in the world.

We don’t know what Harue said that day. We only know what Kay said she said and how that account was presented to the court. But the so-called ‘paper of record’ accepts that assertion with no caveat, even as it quotes from Stick It Up Your Punter, Peter Chippendale and Chris Horrie’s history of The Sun, in the next paragraph, which says:

Kay, by this time temporarily deranged, saw the depth of her problem and decided that it would be better if she died with him.

Unlike The Sun and Press Gazette before it which had to update their obits to, respectively, add any reference to Harue and call her by her name, The Times at least names her and includes her maiden name.

But you still have to wade through paragraphs of praise about his great tabloid triumphs before the killing is mentioned and even then a woman’s death is effectively presented as an unfortunate speed bump in a triumphant career.

Commenters on The Times website noticed this. Tauheed Khan wrote:

I thought obituaries in The Times were reserved for men and women who have led remarkable lives and contributed to something greater than their ambition or their own pockets.

Whatever contribution this chap made (questionable, tabloid tittle-tattle scribbler) is completely overshadowed by the murder of his wife, the poor women… if this obituary was designed to provoke, it certainly has — I must say I’m baffled as to why this merited a write up at all.

And a correspondent going by the nom-de-comment-section ‘wise old trout’ claimed:

He once telephoned me and offered me, I think, a thousand pounds if I could get an off-duty, illicit photo of Captain Tim Lawrence, whom he thought I knew. His telephone manner was seedy, insinuating and cheapening… posts below that refer to him as a charmer of the old school are incredible to me.

Of course, the trout’s claims cannot be verified but at the time of writing the comment is the most upvoted beneath the obituary.

Among the cynical and critical comments left by readers, I noticed a ‘staff’ comment left by Michael Evans, The Times’ former Pentagon correspondent, who wrote:

A formidable, brilliant, delightful reporter of the old school.

So using only passages from The Times obituary in this case let’s look at what leads people like Evans to class Kay as “brilliant”.

It opens with a nugget lifted straight from Stick It Up Your Punter:

John Kay’s party trick was to pick up a broadsheet newspaper and read out the front-page story in the style of The Sun, translating its literary eloquence into tabloidese as he went along.

Avoiding getting stuck on the dubious claim that British broadsheet prose can be described as “literary eloquence”, let’s continue:

As the paper’s chief reporter he became known for his breathtaking exclusives, or ‘belters’ as he called them…

… ah, so now we’re getting somewhere, surely Kay must have broken something like Watergate or the Pentagon Papers, right?

His biggest scoop came in 1992, when he acquired an advance recording of the Queen’s ‘annus horribilis’ Christmas speech covering the fire at Windsor Castle and the collapse of three of her children’s marriages.

Oh. His ‘biggest scoop’ was having a speech played down the phone to him slightly ahead of it being broadcast on television. That’s it. That’s the scoop. It boils down to “reporter gets a preview of monarch moaning” — a single fact story that changed nothing and shook the foundations of power not one bit.

Maybe the other stories that The Times flags up will change my view of Kay’s ‘legendary’ status…

Other stories that Kay broke included a “weeping” Prince Edward dropping out of the Royal Marines after four months to the embarrassment of the Duke of Edinburgh, their honorary captain-general, and pictures of Myra Hindley, the Moors murderer, 40 years after she had last been seen in public. He revealed the names that the Duke and Duchess of York had chosen for Princess Beatrice, that Stella Rimington was writing a memoir of her time running the security service MI5, and that Roman Abramovich was to buy “Chelski” football club, rivals to his own team, Arsenal.

No. They’re the same clutch of single-fact flops that every other obit of Kay has used to justify his award-winning reputation:

  • Prince quits rough PE lesson early

  • Old murderer pictured looking older than she did when she was young

  • Monarchy’s most objectionable couple name children

  • Woman writes book

  • Russian man buys football club

Every single one of those stories was dropped into his lap by a source — sources who were no doubt aware that The Sun pays. Other stories mentioned in The Times piece include two Royal Navy officers having an affair — less public interest and more pruriently interesting to the public — and another military story that led to questions in Parliament, according to that ever-reliable witness, sewer pipe turned into a man by a malevolent sorcerer, Kelvin Mackenzie:

… Kay’s former editor at The Sun, told Press Gazette how one of his splashes had “gone off like a rocket. Questions in the House, a major inquiry at the MoD, not to mention bed-wetters in the management.” Kay was relaxed about the uproar, reassuring Mackenzie an investigation would go nowhere because it was being run by “the chap who gave me the story in the first place”.

Ah, corruption — it’s such a lark.

You’re deep into the obit before the writers get round to times he “went too far” — with his 1983 reprimand from the Press Council for cobbling together a fake world exclusive interview with the widow of a Falklands VC and his arrest as part of Operation Elveden still coming before the ‘small’ matter of him killing Harue.

Of the Op Eleveden arrest — a charge on which he was acquitted in court — The Times writes:

A day of reckoning came in 2012 when Kay was arrested as part of Operation Elveden, the inquiry into allegations of inappropriate payments to police officers and civil servants in exchange for stories. He was charged with paying £100,000 over seven years to a senior civil servant for stories about the army. He claimed to have had no idea that the offence of conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office existed.

Kay’s source, Bettina Jordan-Barber, didn’t benefit from ignorance defence or the expensive ministrations of News UK’s legal team. She was jailed for a year.

Curiously The Times fails to mention that its parent company and proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, gave police details on Jordan-Barber, or that Kay accused the company of “breaking the first rule of journalism” when he spoke after his acquittal. John Hardy, a former soldier who was also acquitted in the case, echoed Kay, accusing The Sun’s management of “selling out the lower people”.

There’s an interesting detail in The Times obit that suggests Kay may have benefitted from not being one of “the lower people” back in 1977. Discussing his background, it says:

John Michael Kay was born in Golders Green, north London, in 1943, the son of Ernest Kay, managing editor of The Evening News, and his wife, Martha (née Pilkington); one of his godfathers was Harold Wilson, the future prime minister. He was educated at St Peter’s School, York, and read science at Hatfield College, Durham, toying with becoming a vet.

This is not a man who scrabbled his way onto the ladder of journalism and the fact that his godfather had been Prime Minister up until just a year before his crime is at the very least interesting.

Finally, there are two anecdotes — one from his time as a student journalist, the other from his professional career — which are far more telling than the superlatives and also illustrate a lot of what’s wrong with the mindset of British journalism in general.

The first shows that Kay was destined to be a tabloid made man from the start and also that journalists are still too admiring of ‘getting away with it’:

During Michaelmas term 1963 [Kay] was editor of Palatinate, [Durham’s] student newspaper, making his mark by misrepresenting the paper’s profit to the student council when it had in fact made a loss, though he was later cleared of doing so deliberately. On another occasion, he published a two-page exposé of black-magic ceremonies accompanied by photographs of naked women.

The second says a lot about Kay’s morality but also about Fleet Street’s ugly nostalgia for a time when many reporters were pilfering drunks on the make:

After his acquittal in 2015 Kay severed all links with his former paper, dismayed that his source had been revealed.

Although he had hoped to fall back into a lifestyle of generous expense accounts and boozy lunches, that world had vanished. No longer could he berate fledgling reporters for not claiming sufficient expenses by complaining: “You’re making the rest of us look like thieves.”

“You're making the rest of us look like thieves…” You see, whether it’s killing or conniving to fiddle expenses, in the tabloid mindset it’s only a crime when other people do it. When hacks turn their hand to crime, it’s ‘character’, a ‘perk’ of the job or simply ‘all part of the trade’.

John Kay’s photo is in the National Portrait Gallery’s “Newspaper Hall of Fame”. The only picture of Harue that is publicly available is that smudgy newsprint image of her wedding day. But we can choose to remember her, no matter how many words are dedicated to Kay’s illustrious career and denied to her