Opinion: MacKenzie's Merseyside madness - Press Gazette

Opinion: MacKenzie's Merseyside madness

AS SEQUELS go, last week's was a stunner: The Madness of King Kelvin (Part Two), a remarkable repeat of the gigantic clanger that lost The Sun 50,000 readers on Merseyside and is estimated to have cost Rupert Murdoch £100 million over succeeding years.

WHAT? He did it again?

You bet he did. Not content with his original, morning-after attack on a city grieving for the 96 Liverpool football supporters killed in the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster, the most famous mouth in the media drove a final nail into the coffin of 17 years of News International apologies for the calumny.

"I was not sorry then and I'm not sorry now," growled former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie. "I only went on The World at One the next day and apologised because Rupert Murdoch told me to." The man who published "THE TRUTH!" — a quickly discredited story alleging that drunken Liverpool fans caused the stadium stampede then urinated upon and looted the bodies of victims — apparently did not realise that among the 100 or so guests at a closed-door business lunch in Newcastle Upon Tyne was a journalist from the Northeast's leading regional daily, The Journal. Worse still, The Journal is owned by Trinity Mirror, sworn enemy of The Sun and all things Murdoch. And so is the Liverpool Daily Post. As a result, within hours Merseyside was treated to a front-page verbatim report of Kelvin's outspoken and devastating rejection of an apology which was publicly reiterated only two years ago when The Sun described its "false allegations [as] the most terrible mistake in our history."

Trinity Mirror's perfectly proper collusion in the matter is, and must remain, merely a reasonable conjecture on my part. I have, you see, several interests to declare: I am a former editor of the Daily Mirror (with all the schadenfreude at Kelvin's discomfort that that implies) and coincidentally, I now live part of my life in the Northeast and write a weekly column for The Journal. I am not, however, privy to the wider workings of the company.

I am also an admirer and, I hope, still a close friend of the one-time Beast of Bouverie Street. Ironically, as the controversy swirled about us last weekend, I was with MacKenzie and News International chief executive Les Hinton (does Kelvin even realise that Hinton was born in Bootle?) at a 60th birthday party for Wireless Group MD Bill Ridley. Embarrassingly, with the fallout still settling on Monday, my face stared out of The Independent's media section where I was recording gushing gratitude to my mentor… er, one Kelvin MacKenzie.

But to return to the wider picture: I am only too aware that editors — former or otherwise — are just as likely as Joe Soap to fall into the on-or-off-the-record trap. Thirteen years ago, when I published clandestine pictures of the Princess of Wales in a gymnasium, an indiscreet remark to a reporter in Australia bounced its way back across the world within the hour to splash in the Evening Standard (‘I'm a Ratbag, Says Di Editor!').

This is not the first such difficulty Britain's best tabloid marketeer has created for himself with his slick grasp of sensation and almost criminal power of invective. Remember him snubbing the Queen's "invitation" to editors to enjoy a cup of tea at the Palace in order that she might lecture them on the unwelcome attention paid by the press to her daughter-in-law, Diana? Or his reply when Prime Minister John Major telephoned to nervously inquire how he planned to treat coverage of the Black Wednesday monetary fiasco — "I'm going to tip a bucket of shit all over you!"?

Amazingly, he lives to tell the tale and grow the legend. While party guests at Ridley's 60th hissed to one another (behind their hands) "Why does he keep doing it?" most publicly agreed that MacFrenzy was still a power in the media land. So where does that leave the central players in this never-ending saga?

RUPERT MURDOCH will rage, impotently for once, at his one-time favourite lieutenant's ghastly gaffe, following so close on the heels of the similarly costly OJ Simpson fiasco in the US. Apart from costing his company money, the misnamed Dirty Digger is forever and unfairly still identified with his protégé's dirty digging.

THE SUN will haemorrhage even more copies on Merseyside, adding to the discomfort of current editor Rebekah Wade and further diminishing the coffers of News International for decades to come, as a result tarnishing the achievements of CEO Les Hinton. LIVERPOOL and its soccer-mad supporters from opposing ends of Stanley Park (Everton's ground is only a penalty kick from Anfield) will never forgive the publisher, the newspaper or — especially — the former editor. Liverpool FC, strangely, is another matter: perhaps with one eye on its lucrative relationship with Sky Sports, the club shamefully moaned only that the comments were "totally inappropriate and hugely disappointing".

AND KELVIN? Don't expect him to change any time soon. He's an instinct journalist, at once the best and the worst of his profession. He defends by attacking, and will not take a backward step. After all, Ben Bradlee's immortally defiant endorsement of the work of Woodward and Bernstein — "We stand by our story" — earned the Washington Post editor lifelong fame. MacKenzie, however improbably, is similarly confident of his case.

But his renewed one-man jihad against the horrified, maligned and outraged people of a city withholding an enormous ransom of lost circulation from the redtops' market leader might just have cost him his part-time but highly profitable job by the time you read this.

Oh, didn't I mention that he is currently the sassiest, lippiest, most insulting columnist in Britain?

For The Sun, of course…



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