In dredging up Ben Stokes’ family history The Sun have made a serious misjudgement
Nothing good will come from The Sun’s unnecessary exhumation of England cricket hero Ben Stokes’ tragic family history.
Recent research by mental health charity Mind shows that journalists are now potentially more influential than politicians in starting conversations about mental health, with 28% of respondents reporting that news stories had influenced them to open up. Serious issues, reported by serious journalists can have a huge, innately positive impact on society. That’s one side of the coin.
On the other, there are incidents like today’s Sun front page, in which a public figure’s unspeakably tragic and intensely private family history was dredged up and slapped on the front page – the salvaged wreckage of the kind of proto-clickbait tabloid sensationalism that has appeared for many year to be dwindling towards extinction.
The Sun has misjudged this one on multiple fronts. Journalistically, a tragic historic event of this nature is not of interest to their readers. They’ve also played fast and loose with the boundaries of privacy and intrusion by (according to Stokes’ eloquent and excoriating statement) employing the kind of door-stepping tactics Leveson should have crushed into history. And this is before we consider the devastating psychological impact this could have on Stokes and his family – we once again refer to Mind’s findings on how media impacts mental health, presumably multiplied drastically when the story is about your own family.
And it will do them no good commercially or reputationally. At time of writing, #dontbuythesun, #boycottthesun and ‘The Scum’ are all trending. Comment on social channels and in media chatter is universally negative. The reaction to the Guardian’s incredibly hurtful and mean-spirited comments about David Cameron over the weekend was tame in comparison.
No amount of sales or attention boost – which will be minimal anyway – will compensate for this level of negativity. It’s at the point where pressure groups like Stop Funding Hate will be putting extra pressure on The Sun’s advertisers to pull out and, such is the level of toxicity, some may well do so.
So what should Ben Stokes do? The Sun clearly believes his life is a matter of public interest and he does not enjoy the best relations with the tabloid media – the fact that other papers have followed this story up despite his disavowal is evidence of both. Stokes has the ability to channel his thoughts via his channels but this will not stop the tabloids gunning for him: The Sun needs scoops and there are suggestions that they had been tipped off by someone close to Stokes about this morning’s story. Against such a challenging backdrop it’s difficult to bury such stories and occasionally better to air them through a trusted channel and interlocutor. In short, there’s an argument that Stokes should recognise that it’s important to keep your enemies close.
We talk a lot about how in the hypersensitised age of instant reaction, 360-degree scrutiny and 24-hour commentary, media needs to evolve. This will be a harsh lesson for The Sun in what happens to outlets who fail to keep up with the times.