The dangerous thoughts of Kelvin MacKenzie
There's outrage in Parliament and they daren't print him in Scotland, but the former 'Sun' editor is in his element writing for his old paper
Sunday 09 July 2006
It is Thursday morning, and on a tranquil Weybridge estate described by its residents as "straight out of Footballers' Wives", The Sun's latest celebrity signing is contemplating his weekly column. "I'm nowhere near as vile about people as I actually feel," he remarks cheerfully.
It's worrying, then, that at the very same moment across town, MPs in Parliament are demanding a debate on the subject of Kelvin MacKenzie's "irresponsible and dangerous journalism". In particular, according to the outraged Labour MP Jim Sheridan, "his recent comments describing Scots as 'tartan tosspots', [saying] the answer to the West Lothian question was to build Hadrian's Wall higher, and even more worrying, celebrating the fact that Scots are dying younger than their English counterparts."
The serene, suburban setting in which the former Sun editor now relaxes contrasts sharply with his aggression in print. He may be approaching 60, charming, funny and urbane, but the man once described by Murdoch as "my little Hitler" shows few signs of mellowing with age. His suggestions for the Scots came after a man was attacked in Lanarkshire for displaying an England flag.
The Sun omits MacKenzie's column from its Scottish editions, but there were still fears last week that a boycott of the paper could be sparked north of the border.
"The Scots should find a sense of humour and broader shoulders," shrugs MacKenzie. "They've been attacking England for hundreds of years - it's practically a subject matter at school. If they don't publish me in Scotland because people get too upset, they really ought to grow up. This feeling about the Scots is a pub issue and I'm just reflecting it."
He has been writing the column only since May but the tartan tosspot incident is not the first to raise blood pressures. A few weeks ago a white space appeared on his page after Rebekah Wade declined to publish MacKenzie's rude remarks about Tesco's PR, which is masterminded by his successor as Sun editor, David Yelland.
"We agreed I'm always likely to write something that may cause the company a problem, so I said that's fine, just leave it out and put a line in saying the editor has declined to publish this article. Which considering some of the stuff I do write that is really quite vile and disgraceful, I'm surprised there's not white spaces all over the bloody place."
Fortunately for MacKenzie, Rupert Murdoch, with whom he remains in regular contact, has signalled enthusiasm for the column. "I had dinner with Rupert the other day and he sent me an email saying he liked the column, and I thought, 'how fantastic'. I'm not an important employee of News International and he finds the time to send an email. Rupert has an obsession with creativity. I'd like to know the last time Sue Carroll had an email from Sly Bailey [the Mirror Group boss] saying she enjoyed the column."
Despite all the parliamentary fuss, MacKenzie firmly believes the broadcast media is increasingly receptive to the views of right-wing provocateurs like himself. "What I now notice is that people actually ask you to come on, they'll ask for the position of the centre right and you're not treated like some three-headed dim-witted bloody fool. And, to be honest, I like doing all that stuff."
The BBC - an old pet hate for its licence fee and alleged lefty bias - has in his view changed dramatically since the Hutton report. "If you looked at the BBC pre-Hutton, in a way it felt it was part of a political party and its natural constituents would be left of centre. But post-Hutton, they said, actually we can have arguments from the right as well as the left. The arguments of the right are the most interesting now, and Newsnight in particular has started putting the dialectic of the right on air."
MacKenzie has a lot of time for Tony Blair, whom he believes is both a Tory and "entirely correct on the Muslim issue", but perhaps to the relief of shire Tories, he has few personal ambitions in Conservative politics. Or as he puts it: "The other day Francis Maude said to me, 'Do you want to be our Alastair Campbell?' - it was only party chatter - but I said I'd rather saw my dick off with a nail file. I always thought Campbell was overrated. If he'd ever called me up I'd have told him to go fuck himself."
As we talk, commentators on Sky TV come and go, talking of John Prescott and media conspiracies - a concept which drives MacKenzie to even greater heights of derision. "The idea that there is a media conspiracy against Prescott is utterly ridiculous. Newspapers hate each other much more than they dislike politicians. Politicians use newspapers, they put the boot in to get even, and newspapers like all this stuff, though my experience on The Sun was that if you stuck politics on the front page you could expect the sales to go down 2 per cent."
Having said this, he does have his own little media conspiracy going on in the form of his forthcoming book The John Prescott Kama Sutra. It's billed as "a modern interpretation of the ancient guide to love-making from the office of the Deputy Prime Minister" with illustrations reminiscent of The Joy of Sex, but featuring the corpulent person of Mr Prescott instead. He plans to launch it at the Labour conference and is hiring a bodyguard in case Prescott decks him.
"It's interesting to see at how many shags he has to go," he ponders. "At two shags that's fine, but if he starts being known as seven shags ... I mean men do not discover their libido at 67, I can exclusively reveal to your readers. The real victim in all this is Mrs Prescott, who is probably sick and tired of her women friends calling up and saying, 'Its shocking isn't it? Can I be of any help?'"
On Rupert Murdoch's potential part in Labour's downfall, MacKenzie is ambiguous.
"There are two issues for Rupert. One, he doesn't have to make a decision now and, second, things don't last for ever. I can see The Sun supporting Cameron but I can't see them not supporting one or the other. Though if Cameron is not prepared to reveal his policies, how can Rupert make decisions about whether he's the real deal? I mean, the idea that Bromley became marginal in a by-election. It's ridiculous."
For someone approaching his seventh decade, MacKenzie shows no intention of retiring to his Côte d'Azur villa. "I'm 60 in October and I'm not in denial. I'm drinking slightly less Sancerre and playing slightly more tennis." Since retiring from The Sun in 1993, and then from BSkyB, the Mirror Group and Live TV, he has let loose his entrepreneurial instincts with mixed results. He emerged bruised from a bid to turn round the debt-laden magazine publishers Highbury House - "bloody painful for me to lose £1.4m" - but is proud of his success at the Wireless Group, where he took over an ailing Talk Radio and turned it into the hugely successful TalkSport, even if a management buyout failed when it was sold to Ulster TV.
"This year it will probably make more money than any other radio station in the country. I didn't want to sell it, but Rupert wanted to sell and I'm delighted now because if it had been sold now and not last June, the price would have been 30 per cent down. As it was it went for just south of £100m."
Radio has become a real passion. "I love radio: the only thing people want over 50 is the microphone. You just want to tell everybody your bloody views, whether they're worth hearing or not." He is about to start his own online radio station with Mike Franklin, the former managing director of TalkSport, and will apply for a speech licence in Manchester.
For a man broiling with invective and hatred, Kelvin's irrepressible cheer is hard to convey. Take the column. "It's very hard. It's an absolute bloody nightmare, in fact, but then jokes come to me from my mates on the text and if it's really politically incorrect, basically disgraceful, they know it'll get published. If it makes them laugh and me laugh I know the readers will laugh."
But will it make Rebekah laugh? Is Rupert still chuckling?
"If Rebekah said she didn't want me any more, or that I was not good enough for The Sun, then nowhere else would be good enough for me. The Sun is part of my life. I'd never work anywhere else."
"They should find a sense of humour and broader shoulders"
"He has an obsession with creativity"
"Entirely correct on the Muslim issue"
"I always thought Campbell was overrated"
"Men do not discover their libido at 67, I can exclusively reveal"
"It is part of my life. I'd never work anywhere else"
At Wapping, plans for the capital's new freesheet are advancing faster than the Mayor of London's Underground contract bids. News International is already hiring staff. Dominic Midgley, who only last week was coyly refusing to name his new job, has been poached from City AM to be the paper's number three. Also involved are Lottie Moggach as arts editor and Bridget Harrison, formerly of the New York Post, who has torn herself away from Sex and the City-style dating books to get stuck into "Project Gold" as the newspaper is known in Wapping. The rumour is that Rupert Murdoch wants to launch this free rival to the Eve-ning Standard without waiting for the nod from Ken Livingstone.
... and going soon?
Meanwhile, over at Associated Newspapers, there are some pre-holiday worries to compound concern about possible rival freesheets. Staff at the Standard talk of little but changes in the upper echelons. "We are just waiting for several axes to fall," says one trembling staffer, who predicts the reshuffle will happen on the last Friday in July, just before editor Veronica Wadley goes on her summer holidays.
Richard, Judy and Abi
Oh, how shaky is the moral high ground. Two years ago Abi Titmuss, former girlfriend of John Leslie and girl-about-tabloids, gave up her nursing career for a job as a roving reporter for Channel 4's Richard and Judy show. A week afterwards the News of the World splashed with a story about her and Leslie having a four-in-the-bed orgy. A couple of days later, the cosy tea-time chatshow politely informed Titmuss that her services would no longer be required. However, the moralistic posturing seems to have been forgotten and Titmuss is now back on the roving reporter roster. Last week she opened the Richard and Judy bookclub with a literary review filmed in Turkey. However, Channel 4 appears a little less eager to commit long term to her this time round. "It's not a big comeback," says a spokesman for the show. "We probably wouldn't comment on whether we will be using her again."
Wallace's hot ticket
Hats off to Daily Mirror editor Richard Wallace, who has been invited by British Airways on a corporate junket to the World Cup final in Berlin. All future coverage of the BA price-fixing allegations in the Mirror will be read with great interest.
The Sun's football-mad Whitehall editor, David Wooding, went along to a pub in Westminster to watch the second-round game between France and Spain. It turned out the barman was French. Wooding, who is a Liverpool fan, cheered heartily for Spain (presumably because of the two Spaniards who play for Liverpool). The barman objected. Wooding's colleagues explained it was because he was from Liverpool. But this only made the barman accuse him and all other Liverpudlians of being thieves and declare that he would therefore hide his wallet. Wooding then responded with a stereotype of his own, pretending to spray air freshener around the room to get rid of the smell of garlic. At this point there was talk of evictions, but Wooding's colleagues (with not a bubble perm in sight) managed to persuade the barman to let them watch the end of the game.
Late running to Victoria
The long-running saga of Project Victoria, the move by the Telegraph group from its Canary Wharf offices in London's Docklands back into town, has stalled again. The much-mooted relocation was scheduled for this summer, but the date keeps getting put back. One humble toiler says he received an email telling him staff will be informed of the plans for the move in May next year.
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