Many of today’s front pages - but not the Murdoch Sun, with which his brand had been so closely linked - feature a photo circulated by the perpetually thirsty Paul Staines, alleging that cricketer Ben Stokes “choked” his wife. The problem for all those papers, and especially for Staines himself, is that the story is a complete crock of crap.
The Media Guido Twitter feed signposted the upcoming “exclusive” yesterday afternoon, proclaiming “STAY TUNED … JAW DROPPING STORY COMING”. This was soon followed by “EXCLUSIVE … England Cricketing Hero Ben Stokes Choked His Wife”. Thus the first problem for Staines: that is not a choke hold.
So whatever Stokes was doing, he was not choking his wife. But Staines then went further. “Witnessed by sports hacks, they have covered up the incident which happened on Wednesday in public at the Professional Cricketers’ Association Awards Fiftieth Anniversary party”. Perhaps that’s because it wasn’t what Staines claimed it was?
On went Staines. “These pictures have been offered around Fleet Street with no takers. After the Ashes Ben Stokes is in line for a knighthood and is favourite to win BBC Sports Personality of the Year”. Perhaps, er, see above? But then came the main event.
And that was on the Guido Fawkes blog, where the claim was made “Ben Stokes Chokes His Wife”. That is probably actionable. But do go on. “Guido has long argued that the Lobby are self-serving and protect their sources from negative stories getting out, a point Guido demonstrated a decade ago with the exposure of Damian McBride”.
Ri-i-i-ight. Let’s take this one nice and slowly, shall we? That the emails that did for McBride were genuine was never in doubt; how Staines had come about them, given that he never came clean about it, was. The impression of impropriety was hardly dispelled when Staines later destroyed a hard disk drive.
But back to the Stokes attack. “The Lobby it has to be said have nothing on Sports hacks, who are all about access, promoting their personal ‘brand’, some of them with popular Twitter followings miles beyond their own title’s circulation. They cover for the subjects they write about, hoping to ghostwrite biographies of the sportsman they cover. Their ‘client journalism’ is as unhealthy and bordering on corrupt as the Lobby was decades ago”.
All of which would be an interesting starting point for a discussion, except that this supposed closeness of hacks to sportspeople did not stop the Murdoch Sun going after Gareth Thomas, or Wayne Rooney, or indeed Stokes himself. If there was a story going that might flog more papers, the tabloids would run it, closeness or no.
So what of the alleged incident? “The evening began happily enough for the couple … Then something happens and Clare tells Ben she doesn’t want to hear it, speak to the hand. They go off to a side room and a row starts, anyone at the event couldn’t be unaware of something going on. All of sudden Stokes grabs his wife Clare in a chokehold and then she either falls back, pulls away or is pushed back by him”.
And to that I call bullshit. As already told, it isn’t a chokehold. Staines is maliciously exaggerating in order to make his story more marketable. He then trowels on his claim about sports hacks. “The cowardice of sports hacks is one of the great unspoken press scandals. They are terrified of upsetting their clients, so sex scandals and drunken misbehaviour go unreported”. That’s why it’s in the papers so often. Which it is.
The Great Guido ends with another whopper: “Sports journalists are protecting their client… Charles Saatchi accepted a police caution for throat grabbing Nigella”. One, Saatchi actually did have Nigella in a chokehold. And Two, she made a complaint, hence the Police caution. Stokes’ wife is making no such complaint. So Staines is bust.
In fact, she later posted a photo of her doing the same to Stokes, adding “Unbelievable what nonsense these people will make up! Me and Ben messing about squishing up each other’s faces cos that’s how we show affection and some pap tries to twist it in to a crazy story! And all before we then have a romantic McDonalds 20 mins later!”
Staines, by now, was fully invested in his own hype. “Crisis PR Comms in action” he claimed, but Matt Chorley of Times Red Box had seen enough. “Guido's criticism of lobby being too cosy [with] sources would carry more weight if they hadn't ignored cops being called to the home of [the] soon-to-be PM + his girlfriend for 3 days, and only then to describe them as ‘political equivalent of Burton and Taylor’”. Quite.
BBC News’ sports editor Dan Roan had more bad news. “ECB: ‘We have spoken with Clare & Ben & others in attendance who all clarified the innocent context behind the photos taken at the PCA Awards. Whilst it is not the case here, we recognise that for millions impacted by domestic violence, this is a very real and serious issue’”. That’s the cricketing authorities, not sports hacks. And they say case closed.
One possible reason for the Fawkes smear - because that is the most charitable interpretation that can be places upon it - is that it is payback for something. And lo and behold, look who Ben Stokes has been defending. “And rightly so … does the word PRIVATE mean anything to certain people this kind of thing has to stop” he said in defence or Prince Harry. Done to impress the Murdoch mafiosi? Penance, perhaps?
There are other possibilities: maybe Staines and the Murdochs have had a falling out. Maybe he put a few notes on Dina Asher-Smith to win SPOTY, and knocking Stokes off the favourite spot may help that cause. The Sun’s report is eyebrow-raising.
It makes no mention of the Fawkes blog, and includes several photos Staines managed to miss out - which suggest all was not as The Great Guido claimed.
Paul Staines got his cod story on to several front pages - but the story was already effectively dead. It could even end up with him having to say sorry. Another fine mess.
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