SubScribe: April 2017 Google+

Saturday 15 April 2017

Kelvin MacKenzie the fall guy?

Kelvin Mackenzie column 14-04-17

How did it get in the paper? And on this Hillsborough anniversary weekend?

1: Because, after the Ipso rulings on cockroaches and hijabs, the Sun believes that it can be as obnoxious as it pleases?
2: Because no sub or backbencher dares question star columnists?
3: Because there are no subs left?
4: Because comparing a man to a gorilla is a mild insult by Mackenzie's standards?
5: Because no one in Liverpool reads the Sun, so they wouldn't notice?
6: Because the editor is incompetent?

Why has Mackenzie been suspended?

1: Because he wrote something offensive?
2: Because the Merseyside police are investigating something that he wrote?
3: Because the Mayor of Liverpool objected to something he wrote?
4: Because of the Sky takeover bid?

Last July, Kelvin MacKenzie managed to insult an entire religion with a few ill-chosen words. More than 800 people complained to Ipso after he criticised Channel 4 for allowing Fatima Manji to appear on screen in a hijab in reporting the terrorist murders in Nice.
Did The Sun or News UK retract? Not a bit of it. The article was cleared as "fair comment" by the regulator's complaints committee, Mackenzie crowed about his victory, and Trevor Kavanagh - who sits on the Ipso board - injudiciously weighed in with another pop at Manji in his Monday column.

Last Friday, MacKenzie managed to insult an entire city with a few ill-chosen words. Hundreds of people complained on Twitter after he likened the Everton footballer Ross Barkley to a gorilla and said that drug dealers were the only people in Liverpool to earn his sort of salary.
This time the Sun's initial bullish response that its columnists were known for their robust opinions was swiftly overtaken by a statement from parent company News UK saying that MacKenzie had been suspended over his "wrong and unfunny column". As in the past, it also noted that the columnist's opinion did not reflect the "view of the paper".

Ross Barkley note

Which brings us to the first question: how did such a piece get into print?
Did no one look at it?
Of course they did. But tinkering with top writers' copy tends to be a dangerous strategy on virtually any title (Giles Coren wrecked a Times sub's career over a two-letter word), and Sun subs are probably inured to MacKenzie's personal offensiveness.
An insider says that the procedure for Mackenzie's golden prose is for it to be sent to both features and news backbenches (features to get it into the paper, news for cross-reference purposes). It is then subbed, revised on the middle bench and lawyered before returning to the backbench for the final revise. The editor sees the column at the beginning and end of this process.

Unlike the attack on Manji, MacKenzie's note was not overtly racist. Could he have been expected to know that Barkley's grandfather was born in Nigeria? Even if he did, he didn't allude to his race at all; he was simply rude about the footballer, questioning his looks and his intelligence. And being rude about people's appearance and intellect is stock in trade for tabloid columnists (take a bow, Sarah Vine). Editors believe that is what sells papers.
Nor was there anything particularly nasty about the page layout, matching two pairs of eyes in line with the start of the piece. (The web version was far more egregious, with picture researchers digging out a photograph of Barkley in "gorilla" pose with a side-splittingly witty "missing link" caption.)

Online version of Mackenzie comment

The real problem was not that he insulted Barkley, but that he insulted the whole of Liverpool. Again.

Can there be anyone on the paper who doesn't understand the problems involved in even straight reporting of the city, let alone the perils of publishing a gratuitous - and demonstrably unjustified - swipe at its people?
Why did no one in the extensive chain of command question it? Well, in spite of all the executive assessment of the material, it is entirely possible that the first person to read the column properly was the sub.  They may have just ticked it up without thinking - if the paper can traduce all Muslims and all migrants with impunity, why not all Liverpudlians?
Or they may have dared to ask someone higher up: "Do we think this is ok?" and been told to get on with it and stop asking awkward questions.

And where in all this was Tony Gallagher? Editors may not read every word in their papers (though Andrew Neil did at the multi-supplemented Sunday Times), but any editor worth his salt makes sure that he sees certain pages: the leader, the splash, the big columns. With a loose cannon like MacKenzie on the staff, Gallagher would be a fool not to keep a close watch on what he was writing, even when on holiday - which he may well have been, given that it's Easter.
(Remember Rebekah Brooks's phone hacking trial testimony about how she kept tabs on what was going in the paper while she was away? Every editor I have ever worked for has been exactly the same. Control freakery is part of the job description.)
So Gallagher was either negligent in not checking on his columnist or incompetent in not recognising that the note was beyond the pale.
Unless he wanted rid of the man occupying a rather splendid top-floor office at the Baby Shard, courtesy of his friend Rebekah, and deliberately allowed him the rope to hang himself. But that would be a dangerous strategy, since whatever any contributor writes, it is the editor's choice - or judgment - whether to publish and, if it comes to it, be damned. It is, after all, the editor, not the reporter, who carries the can when a libellous story appears in print.

Which brings us to the second question: why the suspension and the statement disowning MacKenzie as though no one else had anything to do with publishing the offending article?

The Sun page 2, 15-04-17

The News UK statement, reported on page 2 of the Sun on Saturday, says that the matter will be "fully investigated" when MacKenzie returns from holiday, but what is there to be investigated that requires his return? Imagine the conversation:

"Why did you write such a horrible piece?"
"Because that's what you pay me for."
"But it was really nasty."
"So why did you put it in the paper? Writers write, editors are supposed to edit. I didn't choose that gorilla picture on the website."

News UK knows that the Sun will never be accepted in Liverpool. The suspension and apology will change nothing. A paper that has made clear its scepticism about "race crime" incidents  is unlikely to have been influenced by the mayor's complaint or a police investigation. Brazening it out is always the default position in the face of such challenges.

Except that, just at the moment, it is important for its parent company to be seen as a responsible news organisation. The O'Reilly furore at Fox News in America and Europe questioning Murdoch's suitability to take full control of the TV network he founded are making life quite difficult enough, thank you.
It is hard not to conclude that, just as an entire newspaper and its staff were sacrificed in a doomed attempt to save the Sky takeover after the hacking scandal in 2011, this time it is MacKenzie who is being tossed to the wolves.

Welcome to the post-Truth world, Kelvin.

The Sun's Hillsborough slur

PS: News UK may have suspended MacKenzie, but it still ran a full-page ad for his comparison website in Sunday's paper.

A Spokesman Said advert 16-04-17

A Spokesman Said website
The advertisement in Sunday's paper, left, and the
"about us" page  of the A Spokesman Said website