Celebrating a Wife Killer

By erasing the memory of Harue Kay, the British tabloid press shows its true colours.

In 1977, John Kay, recently elevated to the position being industrial editor for The Sun, one of the United Kingdom’s largest newspapers, strangled and drowned his wife Harue, who was 27 years old. After killing her, Kay made a few half-hearted efforts to kill himself and then surrendered to the police. He claimed that the stress of the new job led to a nervous breakdown and the killing. The courts accepted his implausible and illogical account. he was sentenced to a charge of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility. After a brief spell in a psychiatric hospital, he was released and returned to The Sun, where he continued to rise in the ranks as one of the tabloids most prized and highest paid writers.

The Sun was remarkably indulgent and protective in the whole affair. When Kay was on trial, The Sun paid one of the most highly regarded lawyers in England, John Matthews QC, to defend the employee. The Sun wrote to the courts saying there would always be a job for him in newspaper.

The Sun’s pampering of Kay is all the more striking since the rightwing tabloid has a tough on crime editorial stance and has published many articles (including some from Kay) calling for harsh treatment of those who transgress the law. Perhaps John Kay deserved the mercy he received in 1977. It’s impossible to know at this point. What we do know is that The Sun and Kay had no mercy for many who didn’t share the newspaper’s tribal loyalties, particularly if they were people of color or foreigners.

Kay died last Friday, leading The Sun to publish an incredibly laudatory obituary that made no mention of Kay’s killing of Harue Kay. To judge by the obituary, Kay was a marvellous human being.

Some excerpts:

RIP John Kay – The legendary Sun reporter who broke Fleet Street’s biggest stories

KING of Page One John Kay, the reporter behind many of The Sun’s greatest exclusives, has died age 77….

The greatest journalist of his generation….

'ONE OF FLEET STREET'S FINEST OPERATORS'

A keen tennis player, John trounced David Cameron as well as playing against Tim Henman and Andy Murray, predicting that Murray would win Wimbledon because he ruthlessly smashed aces against an amateur.

John was the first journalist to win Reporter of the Year twice at the Press Awards.

Judges praised him as “one of Fleet Street’s finest operators” who “breaks agenda- setting stories again and again”….

MATE OF EVERYBODY

John went into a care home in Hertford in 2019 following a knee operation and died there on Friday evening.

Last night colleagues paid tribute to the man they knew simply as Johnners.
Sun Editor-in-Chief Victoria Newton said: “The word scoop was invented for John Kay — Fleet Street’s finest-ever reporter.

“He inspired generation after generation of young reporters with his endless enthusiasm, wisdom and incredible work ethic. Rest in peace, Johnners.”

Royal Photographer Arthur Edwards said: “John Kay treated everyone at the paper the same, whether you were a raw recruit or the Editor.

“He was kind, generous and would move heaven and earth to help”….

Although hailing Kay as the “mate of everyone” The Sun failed to mention the actual mate he drowned. Then the newspaper published this remarkable correction:

After speaking to our valued charity partners, we want to make clear
that in 1977 John Kay pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of his wife, Harue, on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

He was admitted to Friern Barnet psychiatric hospital where he received treatment for a nervous breakdown. After his release John Kay continued to work for The Sun until 2015.

Reading between the lines, it seems like some of The Sun’s advertisers or business partners (“our valued charity partners”) objected to the dishonest obituary and forced this correction. In other words: if The Sun had its own way, Harue Kay would be utterly wiped out as even a memory. They paper cosseted her killer and was eager to cover up the crime.

Aside from The Sun’s obituary other British newspaper hailed Kay as a king among men (and whitewashed his destruction of another human being). The Press Gazette headline ran: “John Kay: Swashbuckling Sun chief reporter who revealed leaked Queen's Christmas message dies aged 77.” (The headline was later corrected to reflect the manslaughter).

Countless members of the British press paid tribute to Kay, again erasing Harue Kay from memory. On Twitter there was this remarkable exchange:

It can’t be emphasized enough that the denizens of the British tabloid press praised Kay to the sky and resented any mention of Harue Kay’s life.

Was John Kay, as his loud fans insist, a great reporter? In truth, many of his fabled “scoops” rested on fabrications or him serving as a mouthpiece for powerful interests (the military and the Royal family). Collecting bits of gossip about the Queen might pass as journalism in England, but not anywhere else.

Here is a notorious example during the Falklands War:

(Source for quote above is Roy Greenslade’s 2004 book Press Gang: How Newspapers Make Profits from Propaganda).

Like many of the sleazy characters employed by Rupert Murdoch, Kay routinely bribed government officials. His killing of Harue Kay was not the only time he evaded justice. In 2012 Kay was arrested on bribery charges. He was acquitted but Bettina Jordan-Barber, a Ministry of Defense strategist, was jailed for taking money from Kay. Since bribery involves two parties, it is impossible to see Kay as being exonerated in this matter. (As a friend notes, in the bribery case many Sun reporters felt that Rupert Murdoch let Kay and other journalists hang to dry in order to escape his own culpability. In other words, Murdoch broke the Fleet Street code of loyalty. Kay, by this light, was a loyal soldier who should be honored for remaining faithful to the creed. This is a factor in Kay becoming a hero to his fellow hacks).

Harue Kay was of Japanese descent. She was an outsider, with no one to advocate for her memory. She didn’t belong to The Sun’s network of loyalty (the newspaper is notoriously racist). No wonder The Sun, and indeed much of the world of English journalism, is happy to pretend she never existed.

I already had a low opinion of the English tabloid press. The coverage of Kay’s life has done something I would have said was impossible: make me have even more contempt for Fleet Street.

Many of the celebrations of John Kay treat him as a loveable scamp, an “operator” who could outwit the system. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the Kay fanbase loved him not despite the fact he killed his wife but because he killed her.

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