The Hilary Clarke interview: Kelvin MacKenzie - Kelvin's steaming mad
Talk Radio has given the former editor of `The Sun' a new voice and a new pet hate
Sunday 07 February 1999
He leaves me alone for a while in his small office at Talk Radio for a start. Not that there was much to see or even snoop through. A radio, a copy of the Financial Times and a notice board with "I believe in Free Speech", Talk Radio's new catch phrase sprawled across it. And that was about it.
There are no family photos, no mementos of MacKenzie's meteoric career in journalism, no framed originals of his infamous headlines like "Gotcha!" or "Up Yours Delors". There were no pictures of news bunnies or topless girls throwing darts to remind him of L!ve TV, the television station he used to run.
What was apparent in the radio headquarters was real newsroom buzz. The youthful staff looked happy enough too, despite their cramped conditions.
I wondered if MacKenzie, famous for his "bollockings" of Sun journalists, had mellowed since his pounds 24.5m takeover of Talk Radio last November?
He has, the staff tell me, but not much. MacKenzie, 52, may now have grey hair, but he can still flare up. "The bloody establishment," he blasts as he returns for the interview. "They can go and take a hike." MacKenzie was, in his own words, "steaming mad". The object of his anger was the BBC and the European Broadcasting Union, the Geneva-based industry body.
Smaller players like him are systematically excluded from getting a cut of important and sports broadcasting rights by what he claims is a "cartel". The BBC, according to MacKenzie, is also a "cartel" because it spans all media, without the ownership restrictions placed on the private sector such as his former employer and current sponsor Rupert Murdoch.
"These guys, the BBC, they have had it all their own way for too long," he rails. "They turn up and either pay nothing for their sports rights or as little as possible. If you took sport out of Radio Five ratings no one on God's earth would listen to them. They know its true. To be honest with you it makes me sick."
The tirade continues. "We're not in the 1920s, any more. The country's not run by trade unions anymore. Right." His south London voice is getting higher and more nasal. "We are all individuals. Our advertisers make products people want and the one way they get to the public is through radio," he continues, scribbling a doodle on a note pad, then screwing it up and lobbing it into the bin. He goes on. The BBC is "tax-payer funded. They have bloody vans going round. It's called in another area of business pay-TV. It's a tax," he says, spitting out the word tax as if a large insect had just crawled into his mouth. "Is this tape going? Excellent! Jolly good! I'm steaming mad."
Point taken. Murdoch made a more measured protest about the EBU at a conference nine months ago in front of the European Commission President, Jacques Santer.
Despite his new role as chairman of TalkCo, the company he founded to buy Talk Radio, MacKenzie still conforms to the visual stereotype of a newspaper editor and behaves like a Hollywood mogul of yesteryear.
His white shirt is spattered with what I hope is red biro ink, and there is an underground ticket showing through his top pocket even though he drives a Jaguar. MacKenzie must be the only man ever to have edited a national newspaper with a single O'level as his only academic qualification, yet he is obviously quite brilliant. To some he is a working-class self- made man, to others a self-made working-class man (both his parents were journalists). He is at once entertaining, charming , warm and intimidating. His grammar is dubious (the BBC would never have hired him) yet he is wonderfully articulate.
There are numerous stories about MacKenzie's maverick, crude and frankly terrifying behaviour at The Sun when he used to bawl across the newsroom. Like the time he picked up the phone to a reader calling to complain about something and in no uncertain terms banned him from reading the paper ever again. The shaken reader rang back a few minutes later and asked if his wife was also banned.
That said, many of those who have worked with MacKenzie say his bark is worse than his bite. To me he was disappointingly pleasant, delivering none of the colourful swear words for which he is so well known.
MacKenzie began his journalistic career on the South-East London Mercury. He then worked as night editor on the Daily Express before taking charge of The Sun in 1981. He embraced the Thatcherite message that included the bitter struggle with the unions at Wapping. Many to this day blame the paper's campaigning against Neil Kinnock in the 1992 election for Labour's defeat. The Sun certainly claimed it was the paper "wot won it".
While he showed no mercy to those pilloried in the pages of The Sun, MacKenzie has remained acutely loyal to "the man who has been signing my pay cheque one way or another over the past 20 years" - Rupert Murdoch. Sky television, is, he says, "fantastic" and "stunning" even though his short stint as executive at the station was nothing short of disastrous. "Most of his [Murdoch's] critics aren't fit to polish his shoes," he snorts.
After he left Sky, MacKenzie joined the Mirror Group to work on L!ve TV where ploys such as the news bunnies and weather in Norwegian won the station publicity but not necessarily viewers. He then had a hand in helping arrest the Mirror newspaper's losses as the number two executive under David Montgomery, who was recently forced out by shareholders. MacKenzie defends Montgomery too. "He's bloody clever. When he took over they had the pension fund scandal and a whole load of other financial problems that had to be resolved. Because he was tough in resolving them all the journalists who were let go waited round the corners with their shillelaghs so that the moment he fell off the ladder they could club him to death. He basically became the Pol Pot of media. It was preposterous."
MacKenzie says the biggest mistake of his career was when The Sun printed a story by male prostitute who claimed he was pimping for Elton John. "My only regret was to believe a rent boy without checking it. That was just plain wrong. But Elton John pocketed a million quid and seems completely undamaged by it so I don't feel too bad," he says.
Despite the humiliating defeat in the courts, Murdoch stuck by his editor too. MacKenzie's spectacular swoop on Talk Radio following his unexpected resignation from the Mirror board last year was carried out with the aid of News International, which took a 20 per cent stake in the station and already supplies much its sports coverage. In a couple of months it will start start supplying the station with the news as well. MacKenzie put his own cash in too, all of his liquid assets, although he won't tell me how much.
And Talk Radio, which lost around pounds 8m last year, looks like it might just be on the up. Although the ratings slipped slightly again in the last quarter of 1998, from 1.7 to 1.6 per cent of total audience share compared with 39.1 per cent for the whole of the BBC radio network and 2.6 per cent for DJ Chris Evans' station Virgin, Talk's advertising sales have risen 170 per cent in January compared with the same period last year. "It'll be tough on the money all year. But once we get through it with a bit of luck they are going to change the licensing system and the absurd amount of cash we currently give the Government," says MacKenzie, referring to planned government regulatory changes. The pounds 5m MacKenzie estimates Talk Radio has to pay the Treasury every year will, he promises, be reinvested.
"No media company that has been successful has ever gone in for slash and burn," he says. "The great giants of our business like Rupert know that investment is the only answer." He bangs on the table. "In the media what pays you back 100 times over is investment. When you say actually the bottom line would look much better if I didn't buy the National Film Library that's true. But in two years time you won't have an audience. The City understands the investment idea but managers are scared they are going to get fired."
Needless to say, MacKenzie has done a bit of sacking himself since he arrived at Talk. Presenters Kirsty Young and Danny Boyd have already felt the blade of Mac the Knife, as have a number of senior executives and a dozen or so producers. "There have been what can loosely be described as personnel changes," says MacKenzie. His own daughter recently left the station although MacKenzie denies she was fired. All three of his children work in the media and both his brothers are journalists.
The free phone line to Talk Radio has also gone, largely explains MacKenzie to increase the calibre of those calling in. New signings include boxer Chris Eubank and cricketer Geoff Boycott. MacKenzie hasn't lost the popular touch either, devoting almost the entire output of the station to the recent debacle surrounding the ex-England football team manager, Glen Hoddle. He said the station received tens of thousands of calls.
And despite the might of the BBC, MacKenzie has outbid them for a number of key sporting events like the Lennox Lewis-Evander Holyfield boxing match next March. MacKenzie is also on the hunt for new talent. He wants to find a right-wing host like the US's Rush Limbaugh. He has also invited Tony Blair do a 15-minute "fireside" phone-in. "I don't know if he will do it, I'm sure he's got better things to do with his time," he says.
In fact MacKenzie speaks highly of Blair, who he describes as "a stunning operator in a most beguiling way". He also waxes lyrical about Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's spokesman. "He has done a fantastic job and I love the way he gets bad tempered on his boss's behalf," he says.
Last week Talk Radio surprised the industry when it announced it had formed a consortium with Chris Evans and US broadcaster Clear Channel to apply for each regional digital radio licence when it is offered. "I've got a couple ideas for some new channels and an internet radio group. It will be a good company with plenty of investment."
MacKenzie is also a great believer in the potential of the web, playing down suggestions that people are reluctant to give credit card details via e-mail.
Then he's back on his pet hate, the BBC. "[The BBC is] one of the reasons why we have been held back in this country. It's like the trade union movement, not that I've got anything against them - people should be protected from exploitation. I suspect if we decided to opt out of the EU and we operated a Taiwanese culture - constant work, looking after our family, no welfare - everything this would be a damn site richer country," he says, giving the table the hardest thump yet.
He then draws the interview to an abrupt end, but not before a playful schmooze. "Do me a favour, pour me a great big bucket load over the BBC," he says giving me an affectionate rub on the shoulder. Then he turns, claps his hands and shouts to his staff. "Come on you bloody lot, lets get on with it."
Postscript - MacKenzie calls me at the office the next day. He fears I might misinterpret his anger with the BBC. He also wanted to make sure he had been positive about Campbell and Blair. He asks me write a nice article and says he might be able to return the favour one day. When I try to point out that as a journalist I will try to be objective he lets rip. "A fucking journalist. You do me a favour and I'll do you one. That's the way it works." He pauses for breath, and then: "I already did you a favour I gave you an fucking interview. Look after yerself petal." And he hangs up.
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