Why I left journalism – as Stokes and Thomas found out the hard way

By David Alexander

I wanted to be a journalist from an early age – the thought of writing about sport and bringing my experience of a match to the imagination of readers was the only job I wanted to do.

“Don’t write because you want to, write because you have to” was a mantra I heard and followed for much of my younger life.

I was fortunate – I could write reasonably well and had the tenacity and drive to make opportunities for myself on local papers even when I was still studying.

I sharpened my news sense and new how to build relationships with key contacts.

At journalism college, before mobile phones or the internet, I learnt about death knocks, of young reporters being sent to interview the bereaved and of occasions when they arrived before the relations even knew that their loved-one had died.

I knew I never wanted to be in that position just as much as I knew I wanted to use the power of sport to inspire people, rather than focus on turmoil and controversy.

The first warning signs that journalism may not always be the career for me came when I was at my second local newspaper.

These were the days before clickbait, when local newspapers featured multiple sections akin to the largest Sunday nationals, and my new editor wanted me to embarrass the wife of a new manager after she had previously expressed reluctance to move to southern England.

I refused to do it, because I felt it would set a bad precedent for my relationship with the manager, because I didn’t believe in its editorial value and because I wanted to write positive stories, especially since he had just arrived.

I got my way on that occasion, but there were times when I was railroaded into awkward situations that filled me with fear and humiliation.

When I moved into PR, I went from poacher to gamekeeper, advising sports organisations and individuals how to promote themselves and how to protect their reputations when things went wrong.

So I’ve watched with interest this week as two major British sporting stars have been thrust onto the front pages for stories which have no relevance to their sporting careers.

We’ve written previously about cricketer Ben Stokes, whose altercation outside a nightclub stifled his England career and had many doubting whether he had the mentality for the top level of the game.

This summer, Stokes has put all those doubts to bed, almost single-handedly winning the Cricket World Cup final against New Zealand and then somehow batting England to victory in the Third Ashes Test against Australia.

With the Ashes just concluded, The Sun decided to run a story about Stokes’ half brother and half-sister, who were killed by his mother’s ex-partner.

Stokes did not hesitate in issuing a statement in which he criticised the paper for running the story, which shone the spotlight on his family and creates distress for all those concerned.

The newspaper defended itself and said that the story was in the public domain already and added that when Stokes was contacted for his comment, at no point did he or his representatives ask for the story to be stopped.

In my experience, journalists or media organisations don’t take kindly to asking for stories to be stopped unless there is a legal or security reason for doing so, but Stokes certainly did the right thing in responding swiftly.

And that’s the dichotomy at the heart of journalism.

One man’s privacy is another’s gossip, and that is what makes news, particularly in this day and age where the lines between private and public life have blurred beyond recognition.

Journalists absolutely have the right to call people to account, particularly politicians who claim one thing and then do the opposite.

The power of the Fourth Estate is a vital check and balance which must be maintained – and many argue that social media now liberates individuals to call public figures to account when mainstream media fail to take them to task or adhere to specific agendas that lack balance.

But having run other stories that have caused national outrage, such as the erroneous Hillsborough reporting around the tragic semi-final where 96 Liverpool fans died, perhaps the Sun could have realised that a short burst in sales may lead to more bad feeling as well as giving critics reason to promote #BoycottTheSun on social channels.

Even the England and Wales Cricket Board said that they were disgusted and appalled at The Sun’s reporting.

But another story also made the front pages this week, with former British Lions captain Gareth Thomas admitting to the Sunday Mirror that he was HIV positive.

Thomas was lauded a few years ago for admitting that he was gay and becoming one of the first openly gay male sports stars in Britain.

I sensed at the time, and have read with interest since that Thomas only made the admission after being threatened with exposure by a journalist – and he was not even given the opportunity to tell his parents before the reporter told them.

Thomas said: "I've been living in fear of it being published. The tabloids will create their own law.

"You'll send them a letter and all they'll do is ignore it. I haven't got the money to be able to fight a giant tabloid in court.

"When they do it they'll somehow find justification for doing it. They'll say it's ok, a family member told us something."

Thomas will use the situation to promote a campaign for the Terence Higgins Trust, which supports those affected by HIV and AIDS.

His admission earned the praise of Prince Harry, but the fact that both he and Stokes had the decision to keep their stories private or publicise them taken away from them underlines one of the main challenges facing people in the public eye.

For journalists, the challenge of balancing the demands of their editors for a story with the ethical challenge of respecting privacy remains just as difficult.

For communications specialists, our task to support clients remains the same.

Confidentiality and privacy remain paramount for organisations and individuals when sensitive issues arise.

Providing swift, open and honest responses when stories are exposed is usually the best approach – because everyone has their own story to tell and “no comment” denies any control that the media has already wrenched away.

Calacus helps a wide range of organisations and individuals, preparing them for challenging media scenarios and supporting them with crises when they occur.

If you need some support, please get in touch.