Kelvin MacKenzie on Murdoch, Charlie Hebdo, The Sun and the “big fierce debate” | Video
News is a business but what is more important, truth or profits? How much mainstream British press misses The Sun's colourful former editor
Kelvin MacKenzie – the man behind the headlines ‘Freddie Star ate my hamster’ and ‘Gotcha’ – speaks to European CEO on his sensational career.
European CEO: Well Kelvin, really your approach to business is perhaps you could say selling sensation?
Kelvin MacKenzie: I don’t really agree with that. I mean, if you’re talking about the newspaper business, well the newspaper business has changed a lot, it’s a very tough business to be in right now I think, and we were a tabloid newspaper. The bottom line on a tabloid newspaper is it has big headlines.
Kelvin MacKenzie CV
Alleyn’s School, Dulwich
1978-81: Managing Editor of the New York Post
1978-94: Editor of The Sun
European CEO: So what were your hopes for The Sun when you took it on, and looking back would you have done anything differently?
Kelvin MacKenzie: I think the very element of the tabloid newspaper business was basically showbusiness, revelatory sexual antics and all the like, most of which appears, I regret to say, to have gone out of the newspaper business. But there’s no issue about money, I don’t know why anybody would think that money lay at the heart of journalism.
European CEO: So you don’t think news is fundamentally entertainment for a large majority of people?
Kelvin MacKenzie: Actually I think the news business I think is a very difficult business, and become more difficult today. I sometimes think that people are trying to get out of the way of news. Things like Channel 4 News, which takes a kind of centre-left slant, their audience has fallen 20-25 percent in the last four or five years. All news providers are struggling.
I’m not saying that you’re not interested in news or I’m not, but actually if you ask the regular person, they’re trying not to find it. What is the definition of news? Is news some terrible atrocity in Nigeria? Or is it Katie Price and Katie Hopkins having a massive row on Celebrity Big Brother?
European CEO: So I want to ask your opinion on Page 3, doesn’t sex sell anymore?
Kelvin MacKenzie: One of my jobs when I edited the paper was to choose the Page 3 girl. But I never felt there was anything sexual about it. If you wanted topless women, you don’t go to The Sun do you. You go to Bournemouth on a 28 degree celsius day.
European CEO: How seriously do you think The Sun’s taking this, because if you look at it they’ve only had around 300,000 signatures against it, but yet the circulation of The Sun is huge, so why are they even concerned with such a small amount of complaints?
Kelvin MacKenzie: Rupert Murdoch felt that it had run its course. And actually, when you look now, I don’t know if you’ve ever looked, I’m sure you haven’t, at Mail Online, those pictures down the right are not done because of the brains of the women involved. Those pictures have not been chose for IQ reasons have they, they’ve been chose for a completely different reason, which is how much is being exposed. But they don’t seem to run into any headwinds.
I often wonder whether, really, this is politically inspired and it’s an anti Rupert Murdoch offering.
European CEO: Well Charlie Hebdo made headlines obviously a few weeks back. If you were still the editor of The Sun would you have published those images knowing it probably would have raised profits but would have caused a backlash?
Kelvin MacKenzie: I wouldn’t worry about the profits side. It’s quite an interesting moment, that had you published that, you were probably putting yourself, your family, and your staff on some kind of hit-list. Are you likely to have done that? So that’s a simple cartoon, and really you have to say that it’s not your job to endanger other people through your own decisions.
There is an argument that says your job is not to insult to the point of murder, and I do understand that. I must say that people getting so caught up that they would reach for a gun in order to silence: honestly, those magazines, they didn’t sell many, it was of no account, and the guy running it had a real issue about Islam. Almost certainly I would have never run it.
If you wanted topless women, you don’t go to The Sun do you. You go to Bournemouth on a 28 degree celsius day
European CEO: Well finally the media industry is really changing, and newspapers are almost a dying breed. I know a lot of TV stations are even losing money. So where do you see the future of the media?
Kelvin MacKenzie: In the end, if people don’t want it, then that is absolutely where it is. It’s the people who are deciding that they don’t want this. Papers, you’re quite right, are in big scale decline. But what about local papers? They’re literally being wiped out.
European CEO: But is it a case of the newspapers and media is dying out because people don’t want it, or is more a case that they can get it for free on the internet so they’re not buying it, so news is going to die out because of that?
Kelvin MacKenzie: I agree with you, that is a good point, but it is not the local point. In the national point, I totally agree. On Twitter: ‘Rolf Harris Gets Seven Years.’ The following day in the papers: thousands of miles of coverage. But actually, you probably know enough. You say ‘Seven Years,’ you’ve got in 140 characters, that’s it.
Fox News, for instance: ‘Three Die in Crash.’ A Senator says something Washington. On comes a guy with comment, bang, a right wing comment. Massive spike. That’s what people want. They want big, fierce debate, either right or left, not collectively together, just right or left. I think that is the future of news, so they take the points.
But I do agree with you. The news business is changing very quickly, and it’s very hard to know where the commercial imperative is.