CAN THERE be anything more dispiriting for a columnist than the inability to know his or her own mind? My thoughts go out today to Kelvin MacKenzie, whose weekly effort in The Sun is such a perpetual delight to lovers of gags about Heather Mills McCartney's limb shortage, but who still cannot decide what he thinks about his fabled coverage of the Hillsborough disaster when editing the paper nearly 18 years ago.
When Kelvin appeared on last Thursday's Question Time on BBC1, his recent resurrection of this issue was raised: a while ago, addressing businessmen in what he thought was private (isn't the naive belief of these dreamy types in the notion of privacy oddly touching?), he said he stood by the front page on which, beneath the headline "The Truth", he revealed that Liverpool fans peed on and attacked police, and pickpocketed victims.
It was, according to Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie in Stick It Up Your Punter, the history of The Sun, "a classic smear", as Lord Taylor's report confirmed. Five years later, Kelvin had come to accept this, telling a Commons select committee in 1993: "I regret Hillsborough. It was a fundamental mistake." And now he's all over the shop, one minute telling those men of commerce that he was right all along; the next, on Question Time, blaming his sources (an unnamed Tory MP and a policeman), refusing to apologise, and portraying himself as a convenient scapegoat for angry Liverpudlians.
Kelvin must be desperately confused - after all, it's not as if a man of his stature would have brazenly lied to a parliamentary committee, that would verge on perjury - in a way that would raise concerns, were he a decade older, about Alzheimer's. Will nobody come to his aid?
FREE FROM Kelvin's tortured self-doubt is his Sun colleague Jon Gaunt, who has also dwelt on the behaviour of football fans at (or travelling to) an FA Cup tie. On a train journey to a game at Bristol City, Gaunty was distressed by the bad language of teenage Coventry City fans, one of whom was insolent when ordered to turn off his iPod, while later it turned out that the boys didn't have first-class tickets like Gaunty after all!
"My mate and I exchanged glances," reports Gaunty, "and we wondered who these feral kids' parents were." Leaving aside the glib answer ("Sun readers"), the point is that, yet again, Gaunty opens our eyes to something new and unexpected - that the manners and language of young, male football fans can tend toward the crude - through the magical prism of riveting personal experience. He never fails to shock and amaze, which is why he remains my favourite columnist. Well done Gaunty!
RICHLY INTRIGUING are the minutes from the meeting at which the BBC governors decided to jettison Greg Dyke as director-general. If Dyke was deluded when he later asked for reinstatement, this is doubtless because he didn't realise he was a victim of one of those elegant fixes that make the British establishment so lovable. Clearly, he didn't know about acting BBC chairman Richard Ryder's secret meeting with Tessa Jowell, at which we may presume his fate was decided. Precisely how this powwow ties in with the chairman's duty to safeguard the BBC's independence from government pressure is hard to be certain, but if there's ever been a more nauseating act of cowardice in broadcasting than sacking Dyke, when within hours it became clear that public opinion was rigidly behind him, I'd love to hear about it.
IN ANOTHER tour de force of world-weary disdain at the grubby antics of his junior colleagues, David Aaronovitch takes issue with the "absurd hounding of Ruth Kelly". Anyone who made it to the final column may have found a possible explanation for his irritation (he has a daughter in a private school), but those with less stamina will have enjoyed the point made in the first.
Kelly's decision to educate a son privately was, he writes in The Times, "top item on the Today programme (whose presenters, you have a right to know, send their children to places like Westminster and Eton)". But is he correct and is it relevant if he is? Do you have the same right to know where a journalist with no public opinion on, and no influence over, state schooling sends their children, as a recent education secretary now responsible for social equality?
Would there be the same public interest in exposing Jim Naughtie for having his piles treated in a private hospital as in revealing that Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt did the same with hers? It's a finely balanced question, so I suggest we go away and have a think, and see if we can't crack it by next week.