Books: The bollocking of a lifetime

L!ve TV: Telly Brats and Topless Darts by Chris Horrie and Adam Nathan Simon & Schuster pounds 16.99
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A ny story with media monsters Kelvin MacKenzie and Janet Street- Porter as its principal characters is unlikely to be dull. And sure enough, this account of the difficult birth of the Mirror Group's cable channel L!ve TV is both engrossing and at times achingly funny.

Before autumn 1994, MacKenzie - the loud-mouthed, coarse, sexist former editor of the Sun - and Street-Porter - the loud-mouthed, coarse, feminist former BBC executive - had probably rubbed shoulders only in each other's nightmares. Yet both were hired by Mirror Group chief executive David Montgomery, who might more harmoniously have locked a rottweiler and a pitbull in a room with only one bone.

Theirs is the most unlikely collaboration in a story of unlikely collaborations. When Montgomery edited the News of the World, and MacKenzie the Sun, they were bitter rivals for the approval of their boss, Rupert Murdoch. MacKenzie delighted in pinching stories that Monty had lined up as Sunday exclusives, and a furious Monty once retaliated by feeding MacKenzie a dud story.

He didn't reveal the hoax until 100,000 copies of the Sun had been printed, then made sure that Murdoch found out. MacKenzie duly got a terrific lambasting, but apparently has always taken some pleasure in detailing his verbal lashings from Murdoch, recalling them, as Horrie and Nathan engagingly put it, like a connoisseur remembering the taste of a particularly fine brandy. "It was foul-mouthed, it was witty, it was intelligent, it was demeaning, yep..." - shakes his head in awestruck admiration - "... it was the bollocking of a lifetime."

The authors have unearthed many such nuggets while researching the backgrounds of MacKenzie, Montgomery and Street-Porter, and how their careers briefly but spectacularly collided. All three, incidentally, refused to be interviewed for the book, which is perhaps why their sensibilities, if they have any, are not spared. Still, MacKenzie and Street-Porter at least emerge as barmy but oddly lovable. The portrayal of Montgomery, by contrast, makes Hannibal Lecter look cuddly.

It was Montgomery, inspired by his old boss Murdoch, who initiated the Mirror Group's interest in cable television. He realised that there were serious profits to be made, and that it made good business sense for a newspaper company to diversify into television. He admired Street-Porter, and she was fed up with the BBC, having failed to become controller of BBC2. Monty put her in charge of L!ve TV. But to her fury, she soon found she was answerable to MacKenzie, who had left the Sun to become managing director of Sky, and was then brought in by his old sparring partner to be MD of Mirror Television.

The ensuing back-stabbing, and indeed front-stabbing, was chronicled by an entertaining BBC documentary called Nightmare at Canary Wharf, which in turn inspired this book. MacKenzie was by no means above ridiculing Street-Porter in her presence. In fact, when the Mirror Group was planning its bid for the Channel 5 franchise, and she was talking earnestly to the assembled accountants and advertising folk, he would tiptoe into the room and stand behind her miming her words, while sticking out his teeth.

When L!ve TV finally launched in May 1995, in predictably chaotic circumstances, the programming was almost as idiotic as the shenanigans off screen. A book-of-the-day slot, recommending a book so lightweight you could read it on the toilet, was called A Book at Bogtime. With this kind of thing on screen, imagine what was rejected. When Street-Porter demanded more coverage of gay themes, one underling suggested "Cottage Watch" with a camera positioned outside a public lavatory in the style of Badger Watch. You don't have to be Mary Whitehouse to recall the words of Lord Reith, to the effect that if broadcasting were ever to appeal to the lowest instincts in man, rather than the highest, then the nation would have sunk very low indeed.

In September 1995, Street-Porter went on holiday and never returned. MacKenzie then took over the day-to-day running of L!ve TV, sacking people willy-nilly, and making innovations such as the notorious News Bunny, topless darts, not to mention weather forecasts by trampolining dwarfs, an idea later considered too daft, so modified to weather forecasts in Norwegian.

Despite all this nonsense, of course, MacKenzie was still a newsman of genius, and his indignation when L!ve TV failed to give proper coverage to the IRA Docklands bomb, which exploded half a mile away during a L!ve TV news bulletin, is priceless. "Now I've seen everything," he thundered. "They put a bomb under the office and we miss the story. Fucking brilliant!"

Horrie and Nathan, by contrast, have done great justice to their story. They are perhaps guilty of over-parodying the voice of Janet Street-Porter, which is already a parody of itself. And referring twice in two pages to Montgomery's "thick Ulster accent" reeks either of snobbery or of bad editing. But these are tiny quibbles. It is a hilarious tale, expertly told, and I recommend the book unreservedly. L!ve TV, meanwhile, in the turbulent wake of both Street-Porter and MacKenzie, is still on the air and heading for profitability. It looks like Montgomery will be proved right - as well as Lord Reith.