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My mentor died a broken man after Keir Starmer’s groundless prosecution

·6-min read
 (AFP/Getty Images)
(AFP/Getty Images)

This is a story about a tabloid journalist called John Kay. You may not have heard of him, but you’ll know the stories he broke. It’s also about Sir Keir Starmer, and how he broke John Kay.

Now, I’m aware that only the world’s smallest violin ever plays in sympathy for red top journalists (I was proud to be one for 20 odd years). But I’ll tell you the story anyway.

John Kay was The Sun’s Chief Reporter for 21 years. He was a Fleet Street legend for even longer, winning Reporter of the Year twice, a feat nobody else has managed. He broke some massive stories. Prince Edward quitting the Royal Marines, Roman Abramovich buying Chelsea, and publishing the entire “annus horribilis” Queen’s Christmas speech in advance to name three.

John’s theatrical routine, which I observed many times, went like this: he’d slam down his phone and loudly march up to the news desk to declare: “Right. I’ve got a Triple Belter. Where’s the editor?” Proud, and boastful at times, Johnners was also a very sensitive man with a troubled past. He was also kind to a fault. He mentored many young journalists, including me.

As Director of Public Prosecutions in 2012, Keir Starmer decided John and 32 other red top journalists should face criminal charges for paying public officials for information.

They were arrested in their homes in dawn raids, despite it being wholly unclear for months what the criminal offence was, and with none of them ever having any idea they had even committed one. All languished on police bail for three years, unable to work. All bar one were eventually acquitted at the Old Bailey of conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office - the offence, which dates back to the 13th century offence with which the CPS had finally charged them. And the one journalist who was convicted later quashed it on appeal.

Why? Because there had been no crime. You may find paying for stories immoral (I don’t if it’s for the greater public good). But what is now without any doubt is it wasn’t criminal. As the Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas put it, during a caustic later ruling against the CPS: “Did you at any point consider the freedom of the Press?”

John was a free man, but the horrendous ordeal had broken him. He never came back to work, and his health rapidly deteriorated. He was admitted to a nursing home after his beloved wife Mercedes died, and became a virtual recluse. Last Friday, John died, aged 77.

How did he ever find himself facing such a perverse predicament? The answer is political pressure. When the phone hacking scandal broke in 2011, then Labour leader Ed Miliband threw the kitchen sink at trying to bring down Rupert Murdoch’s News International.

Starmer — who was Miliband’s protégé — came under pressure to investigate and prosecute News International journalists for pretty much anything. It was a colossal and catastrophic failure of judgment by Keir Starmer, and John Kay paid the price.

Just after he was elected to Parliament in 2015, two senior Sun executives offered Keir lunch in Westminster to suggest a truce. Starmer willingly agreed. It was suggested to him that he might like to apologise to the journalists whose lives he’d unlawfully turned upside down. Starmer said he would consider it. The apology never came.

How is all this relevant to the misery that the Labour Party faces today? Far be it from me, as a neutral commentator, to pronounce on whether Labour has the right leader. But some might say this sad story betrays something important about Keir Starmer that we see again and again.

Starmer is essentially well meaning and honest, and can put on a neat turn at the Despatch Box. But he has no sound judgment, because he appears to have no firm moorings. Instead, he is blown all over Westminster’s seas by the political winds.

Instead of executing his vision, some might say he just does what’s in vogue, from taking the knee to opposing vaccine passports, from an ill-fated local election campaign on “Tory sleaze”, to his hapless reshuffle last weekend. He didn’t even have the staying power to demote his deputy Angela Rayner, and after 24 hours lavishly promoted her into three new jobs instead. If he is not a leader, he will never attain power. So, some might say, Labour should cut their losses and dispose of their transitional caretaker while they can.

You want to know the biggest irony of all? John Kay was a passionate Labour voter all his life.

Boris job offer is turned down by a second old Telegraph pal

A SECOND old friend from Boris Johnson’s past has turned down a plea to become his new director of communications, I can reveal.

A few weeks ago, this column told you former Today Programme editor Sarah Sands had refused the PM’s entreaties to come to No 10. Johnson and Sands became close when she was his deputy editor at the Daily Telegraph.

But it emerges that the first call the PM made was in fact to Neil Darbyshire, another ex-deputy at the paper. Darbyshire, who is 66 and enjoys a comfortable life as the Daily Mail’s chief leader writer, also politely declined. The PM then settled on his trusted and able deputy director of comms Jack Doyle, and promoted him.

What is it about Boris’s old Telegraph friends? I’m told it’s the “old” bit. The PM is ever more aware that he’s “about the oldest person in Downing Street now that Eddie Lister has left”, says one familiar with his thinking. He craves the confidence of a calm grey beard who he trusts.

It reveals another thing about Johnson — just how hard he has always found it to trust new people.

Might NHS boss end up in the Cabinet?

SIMON Stevens has announced he is retiring as chief executive of NHS England after seven years. In gratitude, the PM is making Stevens a life peer, an honour not afforded to his two predecessors.

The Old Etonian Tory leader and the comprehensive-educated former Labour councillor go way back — to Balliol College, Oxford, where they were students together. Both were Oxford Union presidents, and they spent the summer of 1986 together on a US debating trip.

Might the PM have further uses yet for Stevens, 54, left, in the summer reshuffle? Health Secretaries can serve from the House of Lords.

Tom Newton Dunn is a presenter and chief political commentator on Times Radio

The Evening Standard wishes to make clear that in 1977 John Kay was convicted of the manslaughter of his first wife, Harue, on the grounds of diminished responsibility. He was subsequently admitted to a psychiatric hospital for treatment.

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