Tabloids can produce great journalism. But this former Sun editor did more to corrupt political debate than anyone
The Guardian, Friday 28 September 2012 20.00 BST
Kelvin MacKenzie, the former editor of the "soaraway" Sun, is now an Ozymandias lying in a sandy pile of topless girls playing darts, and trampolining dwarves. He writes in the Spectator that he wants an apology from the South Yorkshire police, because they lied to his sources about what happened at Hillsborough, and that is why he printed his infamous headline "The Truth".
This "led to my personal vilification for decades. Where does that leave me?" he asks, the sad, small boy who is one of his fascinating selves. Does he really believe the South Yorkshire police destroyed his reputation? Read Stick It Up Your Punter! The Rise and Fall of the Sun, by Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie. It is an astonishing narrative about the Sun under MacKenzie's editorship, which is so shocking he would probably have serialised it, if it hadn't been about him. MacKenzie was misinformed about Hillsborough, it is true, but he was already heading for a crisis.
MacKenzie was the editor, and the embodiment, of the Sun when it was at its zenith, from 1981 to 1994, with sales of 4 million. He presided over a culture of fury, malice and lies. It was not journalism, designed to enlighten. It was anti-journalism, designed to obscure, and he corrupted a generation of his own journalists and political discourse generally, as he created a newspaper in his own image. He was the Sun, and retrospective self-pity does not sit well with him, even as he stews at home, and calls his lawyers.
A few MacKenzie scoops, Hillsborough aside, from Chippindale and Horrie: a five-year-old boy with septicaemia and meningitis, who has no fear of danger and so constantly hurts himself, is photographed making a fist (the photographer told him to) under the headline "The worst brat in Britain". This destroys MacKenzie's own fantasy that he was a kind of screaming Robin Hood, for the weak against the strong, a bulwark against corrupt politicians and hedonistic (that is to say, gay) celebrities. His homophobia was all-consuming. Stories included these: straight people can't get Aids; Elton John uses rent boys; Aids is a "gay plague"; Peter Tatchell goes to gay Olympics (this was splashed when Tatchell was running for Labour in the Bermondsey byelection in 1983. MacKenzie knew it wasn't true when he published it; he just put "goes to gay Olympics" in quotation marks). None of the above stories were true.
Then there was his politics. The "barmy left" narrative did not begin under MacKenzie – it was David English at the Daily Mail who created it – but he inflated it, like a wild balloon. He ran stories about children being banned from singing Baa, Baa, Black Sheep. The rights groups and the left are still tainted by the ghost of this nonsense. He employed a psychiatrist to assess Tony Benn and printed the "results": Benn was apparently "insane". In the 1987 general election campaign, mediums were employed to contact dead leaders and ask their voting preferences. The only ghost to endorse Labour was Joseph Stalin; Genghis Khan was a "don't know". MacKenzie often claimed to protect "the people" – like Charles Foster Kane, he talked of the people as if he owned them – but he did more to corrupt political debate than anyone.
There was an entire culture of dishonesty at the Sun, known in the trade as "Let's fudge it". MacKenzie told Harry Arnold, his royal reporter, to get a Monday splash about the royals, no matter what. "Don't worry if it's not true," he says in Stick It Up Your Punter, "so long as there's not too much of a fuss about it afterwards." The wealthy sued, but it usually didn't matter; the papers had already been sold. And the obscure? They couldn't afford to sue.
There was invasion into privacy too, a phenomenon that has led to Steve Coogan and Hugh Grant wandering around the Liberal Democrat conference last week, campaigning with Hacked Off for an end to press intrusion. MacKenzie published a deathbed shot of David Niven and put the victim of the Ealing vicarage rape on the front page as she went to church, with only a black bar across her eyes. "Why do it?" his colleagues asked. "Why not?" MacKenzie replied. He always pushed the line – he called it bravery.
Tabloids can, and do, produce great journalism; the schism between broadsheet (good) and tabloid (bad) is an invention, born of snobbery and ignorance, perpetrated by people who read them not at all, or far too much. MacKenzie's "soaraway" Sun was something different. MacKenzie destroyed his own reputation years before Hillsborough. That is the headline, although he would phrase it differently.
An insight in to the c**t that is Kelvin MacKenzie.