Kelvin MacKenzie: 'The idea of me working for anyone else is preposterous'

Get Kelvin MacKenzie denying a link-up with Richard Desmond and he's Mr Polite. But mention the BBC ...
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The Independent Online

It seems incredible but Kelvin MacKenzie once aimed to set up a counselling website called Therapystreet.com. The former editor of The Sun registered as a director last year although the project hasn't survived the dot-com fall-out. "It was a ridiculous idea," he says. "Basically the idea was that if you're feeling a bit depressed give us a call."

According to Fleet Street myth, he is more a ruthless, energetic tyrant than a budding Samaritan. He admits it wasn't a move towards a caring, compassionate outlook on life. "The idea was to make some money."

His dot-com ambitions may have been thwarted but his focus is on radio. For nearly three years he has run The Wireless Group, which owns radio station Talksport, plus several small local radio stations, and is involved in the development of digital radio.

In his offices in south London, not far from where he grew up in Camberwell, he still displays the charm for which he is known. He's abrupt at times but his quick wit makes him good company. Yet the pleasant MacKenzie still gives way to the less accommodating, temperamental beast of old. When the Independent on Sunday's photographer phoned, MacKenzie twice refused to be snapped.

But face-to-face he seems a quieter, more serious chap than one would expect. As he was chatting the day after the attacks on New York and Washington, it could have been the emotion of the time rather than a change in character. On the Tuesday of the attacks, even Talksport – which, as it name suggests, is devoted to sports coverage – pulled the scheduled programmes and broadcast the news as it happened.

MacKenzie was desperate to find out the latest on the US. At one point during the interview, he leapt towards the TV in his office and asked if he could turn it on. He gives the impression that he'd love to be back in The Sun newsroom, ordering reporters to chase after suspected terrorists and writing patriotic editorials.

Perhaps it is behaviour like this that has led to speculation he's about join the nascent press baron Richard Desmond, who recently acquired the Express and Star newspapers. MacKenzie would make a good appointment: he was a successful editor who learnt from the most formidable of press barons, Rupert Murdoch.

But this is out of the question, according to MacKenzie. "First of all, number one, I don't work for other people; people work for me. I have no interest whatsoever in creating wealth for other people," he says. "The idea of me working for anyone else is preposterous."

Gossips have also noted that former Capital Radio executive Richard Park has joined Desmond's empire and it is no secret he would like to expand into radio. At the current value of £50m, The Wireless Group might be a good and relatively cheap purchase. But MacKenzie denies that a bid is looming, and says he hasn't even spoken to Desmond since he bought the newspapers.

"If Richard comes along to me and says 'Kelvin my son, I'll give you 300p a share', I would say we should meet and talk about it," he quips – well aware that at the current price of around 70p this is highly unlikely.

The share price is a dramatic fall from the summer of last year, when it was nearly 300p. The drop is due in part to the worsening economic conditions but also to problems at the company.

It has just got through a cash crunch. Barclays wanted to reduce the amount it was lending to the group and demanded money, fast. But MacKenzie managed to squeeze through the tight spot, selling Scottish radio station Scot FM for £25.5m, well above the price originally paid. The company has said it intends to break even by the end of 2002. If it does meet the targets, says MacKenzie, it won't have to raise any more cash.

However, some are sceptical. "It is very unlikely to break even in 2002. I would expect it is going to lose about £10m next year," says Paul Bates, an analyst at investment bank Granville Baird. This could mean it will have to come up with more cash. "I think it is certainly going to have to sell stations. I think it will be hard-pushed to raise money from anyone but its two main shareholders [News Corp and Liberty Media], and I don't think either of them will be rushing to give more money to The Wireless Group at the moment."

But MacKenzie says business is booming, and that this year's sales figures will be higher than last year's. "Our revenues are up, we expect even September to be flat year on year. In the light of what's just happened in the US, and general trading, I think it's been pretty good. "We'll definitely see a growth in our audience over the next three seasons. He seems to embrace the challenge of a recession, which is "a pretty good test for a company".

Sentiment was already pessimistic in the media sector, and the heightened fears of a recession mean the future is very hard to predict. This could curb one of MacKenzie's ambitions: to go back into the world of print. "I would love to start a sports magazine of some kind. Whether right now is the right time to do it, I'm not sure," he says. "You have to decide whether to stick your resources, both management and cash, into a new project when everyone around you is comparatively gloomy."

One plus point for a magazine launch is that it probably wouldn't have to compete with the BBC. The state-funded corporation runs Radio 5, which recently beat Talksport in the bidding for commentary rights to Premiership football matches for the next three years. The £45m it offered was way more than Talksport could pay. That the BBC can use licence-payers' money to bid against a commercial enterprise makes MacKenzie hopping mad.

"It's got nothing to do with the commercial world. It is unreasonable. It couldn't happen in the US. Something should be done about it. I'm unsure, very unsure, whether Tessa Jowell [the Culture Secretary] understands any of these issues. I don't know whether she's ever been involved in commercial work, I don't know whether she's ever tried to win a contract and failed, whether some bet that she made in a business sense worked or didn't work."

This topic of conversation heralds a huge change in demeanour. The surprisingly sedate Dr Jekyll transforms into the loud, swearing Mr Hyde more in keeping with his image. He bangs the table at every point he makes, and starts railing against the Government.

"What worries me about this Government, and regulation generally, is that they've never had the pain of losing like I have against a state-funded body. They probably think that state funding is the answer. The state never solved anything. All the state should do is get out. And why on earth it should be involved in making TV and radio is beyond me," he says.

He correctly predicted that the BBC's new digital radio services, which include extended sports coverage, would be given the go-ahead by the Government. He also predicted that Gavyn Davies would get the chairmanship of the BBC. "The Labour Government getting their chums in ... the BBC is an extension of the bloody Government."

Once he's started, he can't stop. He gives details of his manifesto should he become leader of the Opposition. He would reduce taxes, sell the BBC and scrap the licence fee, and use lottery money to build state services. "I wouldn't give any [lottery] money to bizarre, one-legged scout movements and all that stuff. I would knock down every hospital in this country more than 25 years old and I'd build new hospitals, so we wouldn't have these disgusting bloody eyesores treating people poorly all over the country."

Once upon a time, a Labour Government would have feared these words when written in a Sun editorial. It must be thanking the heavens that MacKenzie is tucked safely away in a small radio company rather than directing the UK's most-read newspaper.

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