The Kelvin touch? Not on your telly: MacKenzie went to Sky to make it like the Sun. But, says Mark Lawson, Murdoch's body-swap failed

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The Independent Online
MANY in the traditional and liberal media will have reacted to the news of Kelvin MacKenzie's resignation as managing director of BSkyB with the same one-word thought: Gotcha] - the notorious Sun headline for the sinking of the General Belgrano during the Falklands war.

For this and other journalistic flourishes, his detractors had long hoped that someone, someday, might get MacKenzie. This week it seemed to have happened, with the first serious reverse of his career; he abandoned a new job in television after only eight months, apparently in frustration at internal resistance to his attempts to make BSkyB more like the Sun.

But, if some of the excitement at MacKenzie's departure is merely malicious, a little is unexpected optimism about the state of television. Pessimists in the industry had seen a horrible logic following from the Sun editor's arrival at BSkyB in January. Having lowered the general standards of British journalism from his desk at one of Rupert Murdoch's newspapers, MacKenzie, it was feared, would now play the same trick with British television.

This doomy prognosis, however, has proved untrue, at least for the moment and at least in that way. And the fact that MacKenzie has found videotape less receptive to his fingerprints than newsprint tells us a little about him, but something also about British television and Rupert Murdoch's position in it.

The first reason for MacKenzie's unhappiness in television is to do with a lack of humility: the unwillingness of the old Rottweiler to learn new tricks, or even to believe that he needed to. The success of MacKenzie's Sun was based around a number of tricks. One was visual: naked breasts on the first right-hand news page. Another was verbal: the headline pun, such as 'Duchess of Pork', when a royal put on weight, or the headline rhyme, as in 'Up Yours, Delors]', the message sent to the EU President, or the shock-value vernacular, as in 'Gotcha]'

Behind these practicalities was a philosophy. The paper was roaringly Tory. Crucially, it also ignored much of what was commonly regarded as news. The Sun avoided foreign news almost completely, unless there was a war with British involvement, or a civilian story featuring sex or a celebrity. Finally, to replace the conventional stories thus abandoned, MacKenzie specialised in specially tailored or created tales. These could be comic, such as the famous 'Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster]' front page, but they could also be notably unfunny: an invented interview with the widow of a Falklands veteran, a malicious howler about Elton John that went for a million pounds out of court.

Unfortunately for MacKenzie, none of these talents - or habits - adapts easily to television. They are particularly useless in TV news, which is the area of BSkyB in which the former editor seems to have had the rows that led to his departure.

In television news, a snappy verbal headline is mere punctuation for the gripping pictures. The pressing need for visual illustration similarly militates against the tickled-up story at which MacKenzie specialised in newspapers. But this was not his biggest problem. The miracle of the Sun was that it created its own conventions. Through repetition and success, MacKenzie had somehow made acceptable the idea that a major national newspaper would feature on its front page not what had happened the previous day but, if it so wished, a barmy yarn about a comedian apparently dining on a rodent.

The conventions and expectations of television news are, though, much stricter, the pressure of established practice greater. Perceived to be in competition with the news-gathering power of BBC and ITV, Sky News did not chuck out and imaginatively sculpt the news as the Sun had done. Bosnia and Rwanda were covered. As numerous satires have pointed out, the approach of all news programmes is essentially the same: serious, self-important, urgent, with only minor differences of story choice. The man offered a blank canvas at the Sun was suddenly painting by numbers.

Perhaps MacKenzie believed that Murdoch wished him to reinvent television as he had the tabloid press. It seems unlikely, however, that this brief would have been given, at least with regard to Sky News. This channel is Murdoch's figleaf, his intended defence - on some terrible day of judgement from a House of Commons committee on media ownership or from a Labour government - against accusations of naked commercialism and pap. Putting Kelvin MacKenzie in charge of it was rather like contracting the Pope to head the Family Planning Council.

This raises the question of why Murdoch made the appointment, if he was not giving MacKenzie his head to plunge downmarket. As Murdoch's empire has expanded from newspapers to embrace television, cross-fertilisation has been common. At first this was financial. The papers advertised and enthused about the television stations. Then the eventual profits of the stations were used to allow the prices of the papers to be cut.

More recently, though, Murdoch has become keen on body-swaps. MacKenzie moves from the Sun to BSkyB. Andrew Neil is seconded from the Sunday Times to Murdoch's Fox network in New York. It has never been clear whether these moves are sentimental presents from the proprietor to old retainers, or whether Murdoch believes that media skills are interchangeable. If the latter, then MacKenzie's unhappy incumbency behind the screen may be giving both Murdoch and Andrew Neil pause for thought.

(Photograph omitted)

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