On Tuesday morning, England cricket hero Ben Stokes issued a furious statement condemning the Sun newspaper for publishing “extremely painful, sensitive and personal details about events in the private lives of my family”. He also accused the newspaper of sensationalising the events, and using his fame to intrude on the private lives of his family.
“I am aware that my public profile brings with it consequences for me that I accept entirely,” he said. “But I will not allow my public profile to be used as an excuse to invade the rights of my parents, my wife, my children or other family members.
“They are entitled to a private life of their own.”
The story in question, which, in line with Stokes’ wishes to respect his family’s privacy, I am not going to repeat, is indeed clearly painful and private. The events it concerns also date back more than 30 years, to before Stokes was even born.
Should the newspaper have reported it? The story is undoubtedly of interest to the public, given its details and the fact it concerned a leading sportsman. Only three weeks ago Stokes pulled of a feat described as “miraculous” by scoring 135 runs to save an Ashes Test match.
But is digging up his family’s past beneficial to the public interest, defined as the wellbeing of the public?
Unlike the affray charge Stokes faced last year, it has no bearing on his fitness or ability to represent the country. It could, conceivably, tell us a little about the family history that has shaped Stokes. But does that greater understanding really make the public significantly better off?
There is also no doubt that the reporting will also clearly cause distress to Stokes’ mother and the rest of his family back in New Zealand, long after the mere fact of the events themselves would have been relevant – re-traumatising people who have done nothing except be related to someone famous.
I do not, as some do, believe that it should be illegal for the Sun to run this kind of story. Celebrity injunctions may seem innocuous, especially when they are over personal or trivial matters. But they are the thin end of a wedge which ends in the sort of cover-up attempted in the Trafigura case, when a large multinational tried to suppress reports of illegal waste dumping in Ivory Coast.
But I do wonder whether the Sun might have overstepped the mark this time. It has targeted a recently anointed hero to expose a painful tragedy that few could reasonably argue was relevant to his current status. The front page may sell papers today – but once readers take in the story, and Stokes’ entirely understandable reaction to it, even those with a taste for gossip may be left feeling nauseous.