Read all about it. Kelvin MacKenzie is no man of the people | Barbara Ellen

Barbara Ellen
Columnist Kelvin MacKenzie, suspended by the ‘Sun’. Photograph: Lewis Whyld/PA

Last year, I was nominated for an award (Yeah, yeah, falling industry standards, and all that). In the unlikely event that I won, I was going to say: “The people I’d like to share the blame for my column are…” A joke, but then again not a joke. Any journalist knows that, before publication, anything they write is going to be subjected to rigorous, sustained scrutiny, from sub-editors, deputy editors, lawyers, all the way through to where the buck finally stops – the editors and publishers themselves.

How was it deemed acceptable for MacKenzie to write about Liverpool?

This is standard editorial procedure, and something any media professional would have been mindful of when Kelvin MacKenzie was recently suspended from the Sun for writing his now-notorious column about Everton football player, Ross Barkley. The column likened Barkley (a mixed-race player) to a gorilla, and suggested that anyone in Liverpool with money must be a drug dealer. Never mind that this was written, why wasn’t it caught by the Sun’s team, led by its experienced, respected, reputedly hands-on editor, Tony Gallagher?

Even those of us who’re furiously protective of media freedoms have to ask how, in a situation where editorial responsibility was paramount, it was nowhere to be seen? How was it deemed acceptable for MacKenzie to write about Liverpool, when his toxic relationship with the city dates back to the late 1980s, when the Sun, under his editorship, published grotesque, untrue allegations about how Liverpool fans had caused the Hillsborough disaster? A story that led to a boycott of the paper in Liverpool, and elsewhere, that continues to this day (and is now joined by Everton). The Barkley column ran practically on the anniversary of the tragedy.

It’s fair to say that Barkley’s heritage (his grandfather was Nigerian) isn’t immediately apparent. However, MacKenzie presents himself as someone immersed in British football culture, who’d presumably make it his business to know a bit about players, especially if he was writing about them. Moreover, if such a loaded term as “gorilla” must (“must”?) be used, then again what happened to rudimentary fact-checking?

In a wider sense, while MacKenzie has “form”, something about all this whiffs of the recent widespread anti-PC emboldening, a kind of glorifying of “martyrs to plain speaking (just saying what ordinary people think)”. The enduring fallacy that dated, inherently prejudiced dross is only reflective of how “common folk” talk to each other “dahn the pub”, in their white vans, or any other Proles-R-Us stereotype that people care to fling about.

MacKenzie has been getting away with this because he’s from working-class stock – but (guess what, Kelvin) so am I, and I’ve long found this depiction of working-class attitudes as lazy and inaccurate as it is offensive.

When you think about it, the working classes have long mixed with other cultures – precisely because they’ve traditionally lived in areas with high immigrant populations. So while this might lead to more disagreements, tensions, and, yes, sometimes racism, it also leads to more of the good stuff – understanding, tolerance, friendships, relationships, marriages, babies…

Surely the working classes are the most integrated, least prejudiced social group of all?

With these dynamics, surely the working classes are the most integrated, least prejudiced social group of all? Yet these are the same people who are expected to snicker at jokes about gorillas, and to mock Liverpool at the time of a painful anniversary.

If self-styled “plain-speaking” media martyrs such as MacKenzie are to write high-profile newspaper columns, let’s be clear that it’s not as the authentic voice of the working classes, not least because “the working classes” are far from the generic, easily stereotyped group of media legend. In this instance, MacKenzie wrote only on behalf of himself, at most echoing a noisy, worrying fringe element. Most importantly, as a former newspaper editor such as MacKenzie would know, when anyone writes, they require editing, managing and sometimes stopping – otherwise, the buck stops … where?

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