Kelvin MacKenzie: The pitbull unleashed

Wanted: publicity-seeking bully to humiliate prospective candidates for Parliament in new primetime reality game show. ITV couldn't have written a better job description for the man set to become the Simon Cowell of pop politics. But is he prepared to unleash the beast that terrorised Fleet Street in his gory years as editor of 'The Sun'?
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It's a wonder Kelvin MacKenzie agreed to take her call. He was at the height of his powers as the most notorious tabloid editor of his generation. The Sun, under his despotic rule, was at its nastiest best: antagonising "poofs", immigrants and lefties, and bringing in sackloads of money. And inside the building MacKenzie was doing what he does best: terrorising his employees. But on the phone was the mother of one of his executives. She was pleading with MacKenzie to leave her boy alone. The bullying had to stop. Amazingly, the conversation ended with the editor agreeing to treat his colleague with more respect.

Only the most mean-spirited of cynics might conclude that MacKenzie's acquiescence had anything to do with the identity of the complainant - Kelvin's own mother - or of the victim in question: his brother, Craig, who had the misfortune to work in the same office as the Sun king. Until that point, Kelvin had been an equal opportunity bully. Even his own family was not immune.

Two decades later, and Kelvin - like Madonna, Prince and Jesus, the first name is enough to identify him - is about to put his cruelty on public view for the first time. From tomorrow and every night this week, he will be a judge on ITV1's latest reality show, Vote for Me. A Pop Idol for the political masses, the contest will, by Friday, have selected an ordinary member of the public who will, the producers hope, then go on to win a seat in Parliament and show professional MPs how to do the job properly.

Kelvin's job, like Simon Cowell's in Pop Idol, is to be vile to the wannabe MPs for the amusement of the rest of us. "He tears into them. It is just fantastic," says the show's presenter Jonathan Maitland, who witnessed MacKenzie at work in the auditions. "His views are very straightforward, extreme and easily translatable into telly."

MacKenzie, 58, grew up in south-east London, the son of journalists. The background was privileged: he attended a fee-paying school, Alleyn's, in Dulwich, the establishment which educated the writers CS Forester and VS Pritchett, and was to go on to teach Jude Law. With one O-level to his name, he moved into newspaper reporting, joining a local news agency and then a local paper. He went on to the Daily Express, moving to The Sun as editor in 1981. After leaving the paper, there were spells at British Sky Broadcasting and at the Mirror Group. At the latter he worked in both newspapers and on the ill-fated L!ve TV (where famously he fell out with Janet Street-Porter), but neither was an ultimately happy experience. Subsequently he moved into radio - he is now chairman and chief executive of The Wireless Group, owner of the TalkSport phone-in station - where he has been much more fruitful. And equally combative: last month, for example, he was hit with a £700,000 legal bill after a bitter court fight with the radio establishment.

His reign at the Currant Bun, as he loved to call Rupert Murdoch's red-top daily, lasted 13 years, coinciding almost with Margaret Thatcher's. It was a brutal regime, both in print - "Gotcha", "Pulpit pooftahs" - and in the office, as a queue of former executives point out. One recalls MacKenzie calling him into the editor's office. The big man had a ticking-off to deliver to the paper's New York correspondent, and he could not bear the thought of not having an audience for one of his great performances. So, unknown to the victim, the dressing-down was carried out on speaker phone. The executive recalls: "After he had put the phone down, Kelvin said to me: 'The thing about that reporter is that he is paranoid about losing his job. Well, I will tell you what I do. I feed his paranoia with great big, fucking, cream cakes of fear. That's how I get him to perform'." MacKenzie's technique was "standard playground bully stuff: find someone's most vulnerable point, and go for it".

Sex was a good battleground. Upon hearing that a member of staff was having an illicit affair with a close colleague of Kelvin's, he strode into the newsroom to bellow his views on the matter, at the top of the voice: "Oi," he told the miscreant, "I don't want my staff dipping their pens in the company ink." On another occasion a few years before, MacKenzie learnt that one of his sub-editors was having an affair with the wife of another. This time he did not say anything. He merely had the office desks moved around so that the men were forced to sit all day facing each other.

But he could take knocks as well as give them. In 1993, the man who had spent a career exposing others' private lives came face to face with an inquisitive hack from The Mail on Sunday while on a beach in the Caribbean. The woman with whom the then-editor was holidaying was not his wife, from whom he was separated, but a secretary from News International's Wapping HQ. To his credit, MacKenzie delivered an unequivocal surrender, even posing for pictures and graciously admitting: "This is absolutely great journalism. But how did you find me? Even my boss [Rupert Murdoch] doesn't know where I am."

But the cruelty was pretty constant - except when he was trying to recruit staff. Job interviews with him are "all charm, he is the perfect gent, enormously flattering and fired up with vision", reports one journalist on the receiving end recently. "It is only when you get the job and turn up for work that the Kelvin of legend arrives. He considers that you are a fuckwit for having been taken in by him."

Sometimes MacKenzie's verdict on his senior staff was presented to the public. Famously, he devoted a news page one day to "Higgy, the human sponge - he can't live without a tongue lashing", and published the hapless man's telephone number so that readers could call him with their whinges and insults. Higgy was Stuart Higgins, MacKenzie's own deputy. On another occasion, readers were asked: "Can you beat our quick quitter?" and told of the executive who walked out on The Sun after surviving just 19 hours of Kelvin's regime. (The quitter in question had arrived on his first day to find someone else already doing his job.)

On Vote for Me, a bowdlerised version of this thuggery will be demanded of him. He will have no problem with delivery. On the first programme, he tells a doctor who works in a hospital casualty department that instead of treating drunken "scum" on Friday nights, the medic should "give them a good kicking, throw them out and hope they die".

His political philosophy owes much to his hero, Thatcher: "If we decided to opt out of the European Union and we operated a Taiwanese culture - constant work, looking after our family, no welfare - this would be a damn site richer country," says MacKenzie.

Reading these tales of his excess, MacKenzie will feel a sense of pride. But there are also signals that a little part of him craves respectability. A short while ago, he thought of launching a smart, upmarket football magazine - a Spectator for the terraces, with long reads and no pictures - but the plans came to nothing. Nowadays, he is left to revel in his notoriety and the fact that the recipients of his rage still remember their hurt many years on. A fortnight ago, MacKenzie bemoaned the fact that he has had to become a nicer human being: "Do I still bully the staff? Nah. I couldn't get away with that stuff on The Sun now, never mind Talk Sport. I'd be up in front of an industrial tribunal."

Nonetheless, the door of MacKenzie's office at The Wireless Group carries a plaque. It reads: "Anger management course (failed)".