The Sun is endangering its own future by indulging Kelvin MacKenzie

Sean O'Grady
MacKenzie was suspended from the newspaper following remarks made in a column about Everton footballer Ross Barkley: Getty Images

Sometimes I want to feel sorry for Kelvin MacKenzie, not that he needs any condescension out of me. I'd like to think he feels genuine remorse over his notorious Sun front page about the Hillsborough tragedy – "the truth", as he saw it as an editor – was based, as it turned out, on lies. I'd also fondly imagine that he'd want to stop digging his hole and having a go at Liverpool and its people, who never did him any harm and who, before April 1989, bought and read The Sun in profitable volumes.

In other words, we should all feel some capacity for forgiveness and the possibility of redemption for hurt caused even if, in Kelvin’s case, the evidence of remorse is patchy. Is MacKenzie now just such a hate figure that even innocent mistakes are held against him unfairly? A fair question.

When he wrote his now infamous column about Ross Barkley, I cannot know what went through his mind. The defensive spin was that he didn't know about his heritage. I think a lot of us didn’t. Is saying Barkley looks a bit like a gorilla more racist than saying Jamie Vardy looks a bit rat-like (adore Jamie as I do)? The mayor of Liverpool plainly said so and successfully punished The Sun for its latest sin against Merseyside and, indeed, decency.

Yet that only works of MacKenzie and/or his Sun editors and subs knew about Barkley’s heritage. I cannot prove that, but the fact that Mackenzie chose to write about football and this particular Everton player does suggest some interest and knowledge.

The more disturbing question is how it came to be that all the various editors, subeditors and maybe lawyers through whose hands this in any case offensive article went appear not to have raised a query. Usually with ex-editor's columns there is a lower risk because of their own experience, so maybe Kelvin got a light touch. Maybe no one thought twice about it. All media organisations make mistakes. I’d note in passing that The Sun condemned the article they’d just published as “unfunny”, which hardly seems relevant when it has been referred to the police.

Anyhow, Everton are right to ban The Sun's hacks. It is no denial of a free press – they can talk or not talk to whoever they wish, same as the rest of us, and The Sun had no divine right to be in anyone's press conference. The people of Merseyside are justified in boycotting The Sun, and that boycott may spread.

Should The Sun sack Kelvin? Yes, on commercial and editorial grounds. MacKenzie represents the golden era of The Sun, the time when it believed it could make or break governments and opposition parties, and did its best to do so. It could call gay people “pooftahs”, glory in the agonising deaths of “Argies” and, as I recall, inform its more credulous readers that Stalin wanted Neil Kinnock to win the 1987 general election.

In due course it has been alleged that phones were hacked, but invasion of privacy was already a way of life: the principle that anyone – actor, royal, sportsman or woman, politician, vicar – vaguely in the public domain had no right to a private life was absolute, and persists in too many places in journalism today.

As more dramatically In the case of the News of the World, The Sun is endangering its own future by indulging the likes of Kelvin MacKenzie, though, as with so much other risible British journalism, I admit such excesses would not be there if the unlicensed didn’t buy or click on them.

Kelvin MacKenzie is a symbol of a bygone age, and his lingering presence in The Sun is possibly the product of some misplaced sentimentality on the part of News UK. Like any pity from me, he doesn't need News UK's sentimentalism, and, more to the point, they really don't need him writing for them. Or maybe, as when I sometimes look up at the windows of News UK’s flash HQ the “baby Shard” at London Bridge station on my way home, it is a case of the lights being on but there is definitely nobody at home.