MacKenzie's own-goal, Murdoch's game plan

10 May 2017  |  Raymond Snoddy 
MacKenzie's own-goal, Murdoch's game plan

As Kelvin MacKenzie leaves the Sun, does this signal an end to the excessively rude in popular British journalism - or is Murdoch simply having a clean-up ahead of Ofcom's decision on 21st Century Fox's Sky bid? Raymond Snoddy investigates

Kelvin MacKenzie, the former editor of The Sun, has finally run out of road. It has been a long time coming and it is Liverpool, as both editor and columnist, that has got him in the end.

Of all his misjudged front pages, both the outrageous, the tasteless and the outrageously funny, his coverage of the Hillsborough disaster will be his journalistic memorial.

Under the headline The Truth, MacKenzie notoriously laid out the explosive front page falsely accusing some Liverpool fans of picking pockets of victims, urinating on police and even beating up a PC who had been giving the kiss of life.

The Sun editor had been fed the material by some of those trying to cover their tracks but at the very least there was a reckless lack of checking and the result has dogged his career ever since, despite the apologies.

As a columnist MacKenzie has summed up his approach very well.

“I want to get the Lonsdale Belt for vile and be personally rude to as many people as possible,” said MacKenzie who has undoubtedly succeeded in his ambition.

Yet even for someone who obviously lacks a restraint button, or an internal voice that warns ‘hold on a minute,’ you would have thought that he would have the sense to stay away from the topics of Liverpool and football.

There are so many other people and places to be vile and rude about it is difficult to understand why a kerfuffle involving Everton footballer Ross Barkley in a Liverpool bar should have so attracted his attention.

Was MacKenzie chuckling to himself as he wrote that what was going on in Barkley’s eyes resembled that of a gorilla in the zoo? Did the smile get even wider as he decided to spread the smear Citywide by suggesting that the only other people in Liverpool who earned as much as footballers like Barkley were drug dealers?

MacKenzie and The Sun can probably be cleared of racism in that they deny knowing that Barkley had a Nigerian grandfather - although something might have stirred in the exceptional MacKenzie sub-conscience.

Crude abusive animal or insect comparisons to people rarely enhance the reputation of columnists, as Katie Hopkins has probably found out after likening migrants to cockroaches.

But it was the generalised abuse of Liverpudlians the day before the anniversary of Hillsborough that would have prompted Rupert Murdoch to remove Mackenzie permanently as a Sun columnist - if that is indeed what has now happened.

Is time finally up for the vile and the excessively rude in popular British journalism or, more likely, is it simply a matter of having a bit of a sweep ahead of the Ofcom decision on 21st Century Fox’s bid to take over the 61 per cent of Sky it does not already own.

There is a view that “Kelvin is Kelvin.” The persistent allegations of sexual and racial harassment at Murdoch’s Fox News in the US, which has led to a number of high profile departures and accusations of multimillion compensation payments, are much more serious.

Murdoch clearly doesn’t think so - at least in public. When door-stepped by the BBC Murdoch insisted nothing was going on at Fox other than the channel was winning record ratings post Trump.

At the very least it must be inconvenient to have women who allege sexual harassment at the channel turning up on Ofcom’s doorstep with lawyers arguing that Murdoch is not “a fit and proper” person to own Sky.

The clear link was made to a previous News International scandal with references to “phone-hacking part two.”

More visitors from Fox News are expected to make their case at Ofcom this week - a case that will and should be taken seriously by the regulator along with all the other submissions.

Opponents of Rupert Murdoch will stir Kelvin MacKenzie, phone-hacking and racial and sexual harassment allegations at a channel that helped to elect Donald Trump into a beguiling corporate casserole.

The issues need a little bit of unpicking.

News International management did not cover themselves in glory in the way they tackled the phone-hacking scandal - a scandal that was not limited to Murdoch titles.

Post-Leveson the matter has, or is, in the final process of being dealt with.

It is very difficult to imagine circumstances in the UK where journalists will ever again illegally hack the phones of their fellow citizens.

Kelvin has almost certainly been dealt with after first being suspended - although no formal statement has yet been issued.

The Fox situation has a long way to run and management does not appear to have covered itself in glory, despite departures protesting their innocence as they go.

The most important question is what any of this has to do with Sky and what if anything would change if 21st Century Fox took over entirely, instead of merely controlling the business as it already does?

Sky was never implicated in the phone-hacking misdeeds of the News of the World in any way.

Is there any evidence of sexual or racial harassment at Sky?

Kelvin MacKenzie did indeed work briefly at Sky a long time ago and was neither vile nor rude though the world of television was hardly set alight.

Is there any evidence that Sky News is anything other than an impartial 24-hour hour news channel, and it is surely implausible that it would suddenly turn into a British version of Fox News following a £11 billion deal.

If in doubt you could build in additional protection guaranteeing the channels editorial independence although it is already fully regulated by Ofcom.

The only serious issue is ensuring plurality of choice and whether the extra firepower a 21st Century Fox-owned Sky would have in the marketplace would endanger that plurality.

In the UK Sky already faces serious competition from both Liberty Global’s Virgin Media and BT.

BT has already out-gunned Sky on important football rights and could continue turning the screw.

And then there is the global competition from Amazon, Google, Facebook and Netflix - not to forget Twitter, which is showing increasing interest in becoming a serious player in the online television market.

Despite Kelvin, phone-hacking and Fox News it is difficult to see the formal grounds under which Ofcom would block the Sky deal, post the general election.


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