Ex-London Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie was always Rupert Murdoch’s favourite. Cheeky, funny and outrageous, he propelled the tabloid’s circulation to 4 million at its peak. And yesterday, at the Leveson inquiry into the “culture and ethics” of Britain’s media, he did his master proud.
Mackenzie’s general line was you can’t blame the press and you certainly can’t blame Rupert for anything wrong with the media, because it’s all the politicians’ fault.
The problem, according to Mackenzie, was simply that successive prime ministers engaged in “obsessive arse-kissing over the years of Rupert Murdoch. Tony Blair was pretty good, as was Brown. But Cameron was the Daddy. Such was his obsession with what newspapers said about him … that as party leader he issued all his senior colleagues … with knee pads in order to protect their blue trousers when they genuflected.”
“There was never a party, a breakfast, a lunch, a cuppa or a drink,” said Mackenzie, “that Cameron & Co would not turn up to in force if The Great Man or his handmaiden Rebekah Brooks was there. There was always a queue to kiss their rings.”
Later, Mackenzie expanded on this theme: “Rupert told me ‘there is nothing more gut-wrenching than a room full of politicians’. They queued up like the bloody seven dwarves to kiss his rear end.”
“How can you blame Rupert?” he continued. “If I’m in business and think I can get some preferment you go to the end of the world for it. You don’t blame him, you blame the politicians.”
The other highlight of Mackenzie’s evidence to what he called “this bloody inquiry” was his admission that he never checked stories run byThe Sun, however much trouble they were going to cause:
“To be frank, I didn’t bother during my 13 years, with one important exception. With this particular story I got in the news editor, the legal director, the two reporters covering it and the source himself on a Friday afternoon. We spent two hours going through the story and I decided that it was true and we should publish it on Monday. It caused a worldwide sensation. And four months later The Sun was forced to pay out a record £1 million libel damages to Elton John for wholly untrue rent boy allegations.”
“So much for checking a story,” Mackenzie harrumphed. “I never did it again. Basically my view was that if it sounded right it was probably right and therefore we should lob it in.”
So was there any hint of shame in this admission? Not at all. “The point of my anecdotes,” said Mackenzie, “is to show that this inquiry should decide there is nothing wrong with the press.”
Apart from the fact, perhaps, that some of its editors and proprietors are monumentally arrogant and extremely powerful.
Mackenzie’s audience (and several commentators on Twitter) appear to have felt he made the opposite point, as he did with this anecdote about a spat between Murdoch and Britain’s then prime minister, Gordon Brown:
“Rupert told me an incredible story. He was in his New York office on the day that The Sun decided to endorse Cameron for the next election. That day was important to Brown, as his speech to the party faithful at the Labour Party conference would have been heavily reported in the papers. Of course, the endorsement blew Brown’s speech off the front page. That night a furious Brown called Murdoch and in Rupert’s words, ‘Roared at me for 20 minutes.’ At the end Brown said, ‘You are trying to destroy me and my party. I will destroy you and your company.'”