Powerful, feared, ill-tempered: Kelvin MacKenzie was one of Fleet Street’s most notorious, rapier-tongued figures. But rumour has it the ex-editor of The Sun has mellowed. Rosanna Greenstreet visits him at home in Surrey to find out
Over the years I have interviewed many famous people and, when I’ve met the likes of Bruce Willis and Dame Helen Mirren, have often felt nervous. But on my way to see Kelvin MacKenzie – the famously short-fused ex-newspaper boss turned TV pundit, who made Weybridge his home seven years ago – my anxiety levels have never been higher.
To add to my stress, he doesn’t seem to have remembered our appointment. I ring the doorbell but nobody answers. I know I’m in the right place because I recognise the house from the YouTube clip of Channel 4 News doorstepping Kelvin last September about The Sun’s coverage of the Hillsborough disaster. After half an hour I phone Kelvin’s agent. “He forgot you were coming,” she says.
When Kelvin and his wife Sarah eventually swing into the drive, I want to turn and run. You see, I know precisely how volatile he can be because, in 1989, I worked at The Sun for six months. In those days, Kelvin was probably the most feared and most powerful editor on Fleet Street. Except Fleet Street as such, didn’t really exist. When Murdoch broke the unions, he shipped his empire, News International, to what became known as Fortress Wapping. The Sun occupied the sixth floor, where a surreal atmosphere pervaded due to the fact that there were no windows to the outside world. There was also a horrible culture of sexism. At my interview for the post of secretary to the Promotions Manager, an executive actually asked: “What would you do if Kelvin MacKenzie called you a c***?”
As it happens, he never did. But then, I wasn’t in the firing line. I would hear him shouting in his office and pounding down the corridor to yell at the news desk or Piers Morgan, who then ran the showbiz column, Bizarre. And there was the memorable time he printed the deputy editor’s private line and invited readers to phone and abuse him.
Today he is full of apology.
“I am so sorry,” says Kelvin, jumping out of his four wheel drive in shorts, trainers and polo shirt. “Come on in.”
Now 66 and married for the second time, he helps his wife to a sofa (she is recovering from a knee operation) and gets me a glass of water.
“All right my love, are you okay?” he asks me kindly. Phew, so far so good.
Kelvin edited The Sun between 1981 and 1994, when it was the British newspaper with the highest circulation. He was responsible for infamous front page splashes such as ‘Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster’ and ‘Gotcha’, about the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War. Both front pages were framed and proudly displayed in the Sun newsroom. However, the story about Starr was untrue and ‘Gotcha’ caused a storm of protest, as commentators thought The Sun was glorifying death.
It was also Kelvin who chose to run the unpalatable gossip that Liverpool fans caused the Hillsborough disaster, under the headline ‘The Truth’. The decision led to a boycott of The Sun on Merseyside, and it remains a blot on Kelvin’s career. Following publication of the official report into the disaster last year, Kelvin issued a profuse apology saying that he wished he had written the headline ‘The Lies’, rather than ‘The Truth’. But for many, it was too little too late.
I’m not here to discuss Hillsborough; I am interested in whether or not Kelvin’s legendary temper has improved since he vacated the editor’s chair.
“It’s mellowed from bad temper to irritability. The graph is heading in the right direction,” he laughs, adding: “I know it sounds bizarre but in those newspaper editing jobs, you can be bad-tempered every minute of every day. The competitor’s too good, your staff are not up to it, the paper isn’t right, the story was poorly researched, the headlines aren’t good enough. There is a whole series of reasons that, if you have that kind of personality, you can spend your entire time being irate.”
I tell him what the executive asked me back in 1989. Kelvin looks abashed: “Oh no – oh dear. Now you wouldn’t, you couldn’t, do anything like that. There is a massive change, and a correct change. People don’t come to work to be pushed around in the way that they were in my time. That day is over. It was a form of bullying.”
Kelvin may claim to be mellowing, but his still bombastic style makes him a sought-after talking head on TV and radio. Later he will be on Sky News discussing tomorrow’s newspapers and, as we talk, his phone beeps with requests from another TV station for him to comment on Lord Patten’s questioning by a Commons select committee about exorbitant pay-offs to former BBC employees. And who can blame them? Kelvin is an outspoken media expert who enjoys being controversial.
Of the Leveson Inquiry he says: “I was massively hostile to Leveson. It was set up as a knee-jerk reaction to phone hacking by a poor prime minister. Cameron – courteous guy, nice fella. But you don’t necessarily want nice people to run the country, you want people who can get things done. I don’t mind him describing himself as the chairman of a board, but I didn’t think the idea was that he should be a non-executive chairman!”
He is no less scathing about the protest group Hacked Off, which includes both Hugh Grant and Max Mosley amongst its number, and I’m not sure I can quote him in a family magazine!
“So,” Kelvin continues, warming to his theme, “Leveson produces a report which he knew from day one was designed to hobble the press. Now, the thing about the press is that their main job actually is to cause trouble; to discover things that are going on. And how on earth are you supposed to do that, if you are not prepared to pay?
“Say you are a nurse at Mid Staffordshire. You ring up and say: ‘I think about 1500 people died over the last three or four years through medical malpractice, and I’ve written it all down and I’ve got all the goods on these people, and I want £1000.’ Me, the editor, says: ‘I tell you what, make it £10,000.’ But the nurse would get done, the editor would get done and the reporter would get done. And the effect of that is that nobody calls up – and, by the way, if they did, nobody wants to answer the phone.”
Towards the end of our interview, I ask what has been his greatest regret. Hillsborough springs to mind, but he doesn’t miss a beat.
“My greatest regret is that I didn’t stop editing sooner. I worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week. There was no paper on Saturday, but that didn’t stop you being on the phone all day. To do those jobs has a massively damaging effect on your life. The editors of today are by and large cleverer and their work/life balance more in sync. Of course, newspaper sales are in steep decline and one of the ways that you used to measure yourself, ludicrously, was against the sale of the paper. So your personal ego was linked to whether the (daily) sale was 4.2m or 4m, and if it went down, you were plunged into despair. If you look at what’s happening to paper sales today, all the editors would be found hanging under the bridge at Blackfriars!”
Finally, I ask if Kelvin has any advice for me in my new role as editor of Kingston & Elmbridge Lifestyle.
“Watching Alan Sugar on The Apprentice makes me laugh because he reminds me of a throwback to the 80s. But, in this world, fierce won’t fly. You must rely more on charm,” he says.
"If you are vile like I used to be, you won’t last two seconds.”
So, there we have it: Kelvin MacKenzie’s editing style is consigned to a bygone era by its biggest exponent. As for the man himself, he may have softened since his heyday, but by golly, he has not lost the sting in his tail.