Amusing though it was to watch, Channel 4’s doorstepping of former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie added little to the debate about the mistakes made at Hillsborough and the way it was reported.
If you need the key to Kelvin Mackenzie’s attitude to news, the best document I know of is his speech to the Leveson inquiry in October 2011. It is entertaining, combative stuff, full of the usual bluster – I would recommend reading the whole thing, media recruitment tips it does not offer, quite the opposite really. It contains this passage about a story he ran in 1987 – two years before Hillsborough:
“Question seven basically wanted to know if an editor knew the sources of many of the stories. To be frank, I didn’t bother during my 13 years with one important exception. With this particular story I got in the news editor, the legal director, the two reporters covering it and the source himself on a Friday afternoon.
“We spent two hours going through the story and I decided that it was true and we should publish it on Monday. It caused a worldwide sensation. And four months later The Sun was forced to pay out a record £1m libel damages to Elton John for wholly untrue rent boy allegations. So much for checking a story. I never did it again. Basically my view was that if it sounded right it was probably right and therefore we should lob it in.”
Those last three sentences might be his epitaph.
The Hillsborough story, as Channel 4 confirmed, was sourced. But it didn’t sound right to other newspaper editors who were offered it, and (on the whole) they didn’t run it. The reporter, Harry Arnold, claims that he wrote a balanced and nuanced piece: MacKenzie chose the dramatic headline “The Truth” with the infamous three subhead accusations. In doing so, he served the interests of the South Yorkshire police who were trying to cover their own tracks, and became, in the resonant phrase attributed to Lenin, “a useful idiot.” It is not a position that a good journalist who asks the right questions should find themselves in.
An apology – and a £1m pay-off – might suffice in the case of Elton John. But MacKenzie’s poor judgement has added untold grief to the families of the 96, and the communities beyond. More than apologising, he must emphasise that his “lob it in” news philosophy has no place in responsible journalism. Because whether he likes it or not – if it is to survive Leveson – good journalism must be responsible above all else.