The best tribute to Jo Cox MP? A resumed EU referendum campaign without the venom and vitriol
"MP dead after attack by Brexit gunman" screamed the splash headline in the (pro-Brexit, pro UKIP) Daily Star. It wasn't just surprising, but way OTT in the wake of the savage, senseless, shocking shooting and stabbing murder of Labour MP Jo Cox.
But also, in its way, it symbolised the very real dilemma that faced Britain's national press as they confronted the challenge of both covering a massive story, considering its impact on the rest of the EU referendum campaign and, perhaps, considering how much the venom and vitriol levels that have scarred the Brexit debate – and that includes much of the newspapers' own coverage – might have contributed to Jo Cox's horrific murder.
Down the road, I suspect IPSO, the industry's regulator, could well be called upon to adjudicate on that Daily Star front page. But the rest of the newspapers' coverage today resembles a tightrope walk between respectful restraint and a legitimate refusal to totally follow MPs into suspending campaigning (for 24 hours).
Of course, the front pages are dominated by the graphic details of 41-year-old Jo Cox's brutal death at the hands of a 52-year-old man, apparently shouting 'Put Britain First' outside her West Yorkshire constituency surgery at a local library; the grief of her family and political friends; the tributes to her campaigning personality in parliament; and emerging evidence that her accused assassin has both a history of mental illness and a longstanding affinity with certain far right, white supremacist 'movements' in the US and Southern Africa.
By lunchtime today the London Evening Standard was firmy asserting in a huge front page banner headline: "Neo-Nazi links of MP Jo's killer."
The leader columns posed a trickier test. The Sun, for example, paid tribute under the headline, “Her life was a lesson to us all”. It began: “Jo Cox's murder is beyond comprehension. Her family has a lost a wonderful wife and mother. Our democracy has been robbed of a new MP of great talent and potential.”
The leader went on: “We do not yet know if Jo's killing was linked to the fever pitch in which this Brexit referendum is being conducted. But it seems too much of a coincidence for there to be no connection to the nationwide outpouring of hate from both sides. Indeed some opportunists who should know better wasted no time exploiting the tragedy yesterday to tarnish their opponents and even to say it had clinched their vote.”
The Sun makes a valid point. Although total honesty would also have acknowledged that the tone of much of the media coverage – including the pro-Brexit Sun – has also contributed to that “outpouring of hate”. To the paper's credit, however, the leader does walk the tightrope with some skill by arguing: “Sensible, moderate, intelligent people with real fears for their communities are smeared as moronic, easily-led, racist Little Englanders....But it is given credence by the extreme rhetoric from Leave's far-right flank.”
As yet, of course, we don't know whether arrested suspect Thomas Mair's reported shouts of 'Britain First' indicate any direct link to the far right political party of that name whose London Mayoral candidate turned his back on Sadiq Khan when he was declared the first Muslim mayor. The party have denied knowing Mair.
What has become clear, however, is that the suspect deliberately waited outside Jo Cox's surgery, armed with a gun and a foot-long knife, and that the MPs strong pro-Remain campaigning and her high-profile support for Syrian refugees, immigrants and abused women everywhere was no secret to the extreme right.
The Times’ front page lead focused on the chilling revelation that Jo Cox had faced a string of sinister threats during recent months and police were poised to put extra security around her and the Thames houseboat home she shared with her husband Brendan, like her a former international aid worker, and their two young children.
In its leader column, headlined simply, “Jo Cox RIP”, the paper declared: “The murder of a respected MP in broad daylight has put the referendum on hold, and in perspective. It is a reminder of the sacrifices made each day for democracy.” It also reflected: “Whatever led to this terrible crime, its context is a new and vicious mood of public discourse that can quickly turn extreme, especially on social media”. And the paper echoed the call of another Labour Yorkshire MP Barry Sheerman to “moderate our language and conduct our politics on a slightly higher level”.
Inevitably, the murder of Jo Cox sparked a social media tsunami of reaction and comment. For once, much of it was not only emotional but also compassionate and balanced. The extreme troll tendency was swamped... although it was still out there. And, inevitably, perhaps there were those posting simplistic arguments as to why such an appalling crime settles the debate in favour of Remain or Brexit.
I didn't know Jo Cox personally, although I do know people who have worked with her, and admire her immensely, from the international charity sector. And I've witnessed and admired her performances in little more than a year on the green benches of Westminster and thought that here was a major Labour frontbencher and potential future cabinet minister emerging.
Quite rightly, politicians on all sides suspended referendum campaigning for 24 hours out of respect for Jo. There is also talk of suspending it further, but that does worry me when the future of the UK, inside or outside the EU, is such a momentous decision and clearly one that Jo Cox passionately cared about herself.
Surely, the finest tribute to the memory of a decent, dedicated MP – the first to be murdered in Britain for more than a quarter of a century – would be to resume the campaign but WITHOUT the same toxic level of venom, vendetta, vitriol and viciousness that has marked it so far. It's an argument that we, in the media, might do well to consider in the court of public opinion. Although, like Jo Cox, I'm strongly pro-Remain, it's not a result I want to see decided by the actions of a (probably) deranged and murderous loner on a normally quiet Yorkshire street.
Perhaps the final paragraph of the Guardian leader (headline “An attack on humanity, decency and democracy”, sums it up best: “The idealism of Jo Cox was the very antithesis of brutal cynicism. Honour her memory. Because the values and the commitment that she embodied are all that we have to keep barbarism at bay.”
It's a fitting epitaph and, either way, well worth bearing in mind when you step into that polling booth on 23 June.
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster and former editor Sunday Mirror and deputy editor Daily Mirror and co-author 'After Leveson'