On her first day as editor of The Sun Rebekah Brooks addressed the newsroom floor. She said: “The first phone call I intend to make in this job is to the Roslin Institute [the creators of Dolly the sheep] because I want them to tell me how to clone John Kay.”
Kay, who died last week at 77, was a genius reporter.
His many scoops included Roman Abramovich buying Chelsea Football Club and the first picture of Myra Hindley outside prison.
I did not know Kay at all well, but his desk was the one nearest mine when I did shifts at The Sun in the 2000s.
To a young-ish hack it could be an intimidating atmosphere. I assumed the journalists would be monsters of tabloid folklore.
They were there, but the person who really stood out was Kay, mostly because he was unfailingly polite to everyone and kind to those of us just passing through.
Some of us observed the hollering across the office, and then looked back to Kay and thought: That’s the way to do it.
Sometimes he could be truly mercurial. Overhearing him tease the truth from someone who didn’t want to tell him anything, but then told him everything, was quite something.
You’d watch and think, I kind of get how he did that….but not really.
His kindness extended to at least some of the flak trade.
There are quite a few senior people in the PR industry who Kay helped out over the years – by, for example, ensuring that a fairly innocuous story that they were pushing got into the paper. By building favours in this way he often landed much bigger scoops further down the line.
Ian King of Sky, who knew him well, said: “Like all the best reporters he was always in need of reassurance. A typical conversation would go: ‘Great splash this morning, Johnners.’ ‘Really, Kingy, did you think so? I was a bit nervous about it being the splash, to be honest, but thank you.’”
King adds: “A lunch or a drink with Johnners was always a treat because you never knew who would turn up – a retired bigwig from the MoD, someone from the Yard, or someone who you couldn’t really be sure what they did but whom Johnners obviously felt he owed a drink.”
It is tempting to think that Kay belongs to a lost age of journalism. If young hacks can’t see him in action, how can they learn to copy him?