Kelvin MacKenzie on Press standards

By DAVID WOODING

KELVIN MacKenzie isn’t one to pull his punches – and was his usual knockabout self when he spoke to the Leveson inquiry on Press standards today.

Love him or loathe him, the former Sun editor knows how to get his point across in concise and often colourful language.

Mr MacKenzie revealed how:

  – HE only checked the source of one story when he was editor of The Sun and it ended up costing him £1 million in libel damages.

– A MOLE hunt launched after a major defence exclusive was chaired by the MI6 colonel  who leaked the story.

– GORDON Brown threatened to “destroy” Rupert Murdoch in a 20-minute phone tirade hours after one of his paper’s endorsed the Tories.

– DAVID Cameron hired ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson only as a gesture of political friendship to the newspaper tycoon.

Mr MacKenzie (pictured left) didn’t mince his words when asked for his assessment of what should be done to reform the British media.

“Nothing,” he declared bluntly.

He said the only new law needed is one to ban “under-talented” MPs from kissing the a**es of newspaper owners.

In a bravura performance, he gave both barrels to David Cameron and Education Secretary Michael Gove over their “gut-wrenching” crawling to Rupert Murdoch. He even tore into Lord Leveson himself.

Mr MacKenzie told how he had suggested Labour MPs should set their mobile phones ringing every time the PM stood up to talk in the Commons – in a jibe at his “potty” decision to hire ex-News of the World boss Andy Coulson as an aide.

Mr MacKenzie gazed around the room and asked: “Where is our great Prime Minister who ordered this ludicrous inquiry?

“After all, the only reason we are all here is due to one man’s action; Cameron’s obsessive a**e-kissing over the years of Rupert Murdoch. Tony Blair was pretty good, as was Brown. But Cameron was the Daddy.

“Such was his obsession with what newspapers said about him – and Rupert had three market leaders – that as party leader he issued all his senior colleagues, especially Michael Gove, with knee pads in order to protect their blue trousers when they genuflected in front of the Special Sun.

Gut-wrenching

“Cameron wanted Rupert onside as he believed, quite wrongly in my view, that The Sun’s endorsement would help him to victory. “When the paper did come out for Cameron the Sun’s sale fell by 40,000 copies that day.

“There was never a party, a breakfast, a lunch, a cuppa or a drink that Cameron and Co would not turn up to in force if The Great Man or his handmaiden Rebekah Brooks was there. There was always a queue to kiss their rings. It was gut-wrenching.”

He added: “Cameron had clearly gone quite potty. And the final proof that he was certifiable was his hiring of my friend Andy Coulson.

“I remember telling anybody who would listen that if I were Brown, every time Cameron stood up in the Commons he should arrange for mobile phones to ring on his side of the House.

“It would have killed Cameron. Nobody took me seriously. And then the phone hacking scandal erupted. Not a scandal of Rupert’s making but the order went out from Cameron: stop the a**e kissing and start the a**e kicking.”

Turning to “this bloody inquiry” chaired by Lord Leveson (pictured right), he continued: “God help me that free speech comes down to the thought process of a judge who couldn’t win when prosecuting counsel against Ken Dodd for tax evasion and more recently robbing the Christmas Island veterans of a substantial pay-off for being told simply to turn away from nuclear test blasts in the Fifties. It’s that bad.

“I have been forced by what sounds like the threat of a jail term to give a witness statement to this inquiry.

“The questions not only made me laugh through their ignorance but also that a subject as serious as free speech should be dealt with in this manner.

“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 £1 million 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.

“How will this inquiry change that? Question six also deals with sources and I disclosed another story that happened during my 13 years as editor of The Sun. That morning we had led on a Ministry of Defence story revealing some kind of secret we felt our readers should know.

“The reporter concerned came in and said there was problem. No 10 had gone nuts and an official inquiry was starting into who had leaked the story with a colonel from MI6 being drafted in to head it. The reporter told me the MoD were determined to get to the bottom of it but it was not all bad news. Why was that I asked.

“Because the colonel heading the inquiry was the bloke who gave us the story in the first place. How will this inquiry change that? Yes there was criminal cancer at the News of The World. Yes, there were editorial and management errors as the extent of the cancer began to be revealed. But why do we need an inquiry of this kind?

Roared

“There are plenty of laws to cover what went on. After all, 16 people have already been arrested and my bet is that the number may well go to 30 once police officers are rounded up. Almost certainly they will face conspiracy laws, corruption laws, false accounting laws. There are plenty of laws that may have been broken. Lord Leveson knows them all by heart.

“Supposing these arrests didn’t come from the newspaper business. Supposing they were baggage handlers at Heathrow nicking from luggage, or staff at Primark carrying out a VAT swindle, or more likely, a bunch or lawyers involved in a mortgage fraud. Would such an inquiry have ever been set up? Of course not.”

Mr MacKenzie said Mr Coulson’s appointment at Number 10 was down to the PM’s personal lack of judgment.

“I don’t blame Andy for taking the job,” he said. “I do blame Cameron for offering it.

“It was clearly a gesture of political friendship aimed over Andy’s head to Rupert Murdoch. If it wasn’t that then Cameron is a bloody idiot. A couple of phone calls from Central Office people would have told him that there was a bad smell hanging around the News of the World.

“Rupert told me an incredible story. He was in his New York office on the day that The Sun decided to endorse Cameron for the next election. That day was important to Brown as his speech to the party faithful at the Labour party conference would have been heavily reported in the papers.

“Of course the endorsement blew Brown’s speech off the front page. That night a furious Brown called Murdoch and in Rupert’s words: ‘Roared at me for 20 minutes’.

“At the end Brown said: ‘You are trying to destroy me and my party. I will destroy you and your company.’ That endorsement on that day was a terrible error.

“I can’t believe it was Rupert’s idea. Strangely, he is quite a cautious man. Whoever made that decision should hang their head in shame. I point the finger at a management mixture of Rebekah and James Murdoch.

“The point of my anecdotes is to show that this inquiry should decide there is nothing wrong with the Press, that we should enshrine free speech in Cameron’s planned Bill of Rights and accept the scandal was simply a moment in time when low-grade criminality took over a newspaper.

“If anything, the only recommendation that should be put forward by Leveson is one banning by law over- ambitious and under-talented politicians from giving house room to proprietors who are seeking commercial gain from their contacts. In tabloid terms, a**e kissing will be illegal. Should have an interesting passage through Parliament.

“Do that and you will have my blessing – and I suspect the blessing from Rupert Murdoch, too.”

See also: “Keep taking the Tabloids” – this page, October 6. 2011.

Follow me on Twitter: @davidwooding

Keep taking the tabloids

By DAVID WOODING

CURBS on newspapers in the wake of the phone hacking scandal pose a massive threat to freedom of speech, Fleet Street legend Trevor Kavanagh has warned.

In an impassioned address at the opening of the Leveson inquiry on Press standards, The Sun’s top political commentator suggested the proceedings would be “hostile” to tabloid papers bought by millions of readers each day.

My former boss and colleague challenged “disparaging” remarks made by the probe’s assessor George Jones and admitted he was gloomy about the outcome. Like the immaculate copy he produces in his weekly column, his words were powerful and direct.

Mr Kavanagh (pictured) said:  “Now, in what can only be interpreted as a further cloud over freedom of speech, we have this inquiry by Lord Leveson to examine the ‘culture, practices and ethics of the Press’. It is difficult to avoid the fear that this will conclude without further limits on freedom of speech.

“It is hard to escape the impression that it is out to ‘get’ the tabloids, implicitly seen as uncultured, malpractised and unethical.

“In the debate to follow, one question worth considering why nobody with tabloid experience, representing the overwhelming majority of readers and sales, is on this panel? Could it be that at least some of those scrutinising our activities are covertly, if not overtly, hostile to everything we stand for?

“Am I paranoid in wondering if I was invited as an acceptable face of a form of journalism which is otherwise concealed in the pale pink pages of the Financial Times, or worse from our commercial perspective, borrowed from someone else to keep up with the news millions pay to read?”

Salacious

Mr Kavanagh revealed how sanctimonious broadsheet editor’s often plant clues about “juicy” stories in their diary columns, knowing tabloids will seize on it – and they can then write about the story themselves.

He said: “The popular Press ventures where unpopular newspapers sometimes fear to tread. We don’t always play by THEIR rules.

“So, for instance one particularly high minded newspaper might plant a juicy clue in a diary item, knowing we would follow it up and do the job properly.

“Once we had checked it out and published the full story they were too timid to run, they condemned us while simultaneously reproducing every salacious word.”

He said tabloids must accept responsibility for the “shocking” practices which led to the closure of a great paper, the News of the World. But he claimed some politicians were using it as an excuse to neuter the Press, already facing the toughest libel laws in the world and increasing use of gagging orders by the courts.

Mr Kavanagh added: “The great sin of the popular Press is to be … popular. Our lighter, brighter papers are commercially successful. We have 20 million readers – perhaps 10 times as many as the heavies.

NotW: Shut down by hacking scandal in July

“To their irritation, they have been obliged to imitate our lively style in order to keep in the game.

“Our headlines are part of the vernacular. During last week’s heatwave, even the BBC Today programme was using ‘What a Scorcher’.

“We have been condemned for cheque-book journalism. Yet I understand the best story in recent years – MPs’ expenses – was bought and paid for by the Daily Telegraph, not by a tabloid.

“Would Human Rights judges have stopped it being published if MPs had got wind of it early enough? And would that have been in the public interest?”

Mr Kavanagh hailed the great campaigns run by tabloid papers, including Books for Schools to boost literacy and Help for Heroes.

He added:  “I say all this not just to blow the tabloid trumpet, but to paint a picture of a vibrant and dynamic industry which despite all its flaws is a force for good.”

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Murdoch still in MPs’ sights

By DAVID WOODING

BRITAIN’S top-selling newspaper was sacrificed to stop the toxicity from the phone hacking scandal infecting the rest of the Murdoch empire. But it is looking more likely by the day that the News of the World closure will have been in vain.

MPs now have James Murdoch clearly in their sights as they continue to dig down into details of decision-making at News International. He is almost certain to be recalled for a grilling after two senior executives openly contradicted evidence the company chairman gave to the Commons two months ago.

Former legal manager Tom Crone today told the Commons culture committee he was “certain” he told Murdoch about an email which suggested illegal interception of voicemail messages was more widespread than first thought. He was backed by ex-NotW Editor Colin Myler when he insisted he spent about 15 minutes discussing it with Murdoch. It’s now a clear case of their word against his – and the media boss is certain to be recalled to explain the conflict to MPs.

The whole focus of the scandal has now switched from the allegedly routine eaves-dropping on private phone messages (yes, we’re all pretty clear that it happened now) to whether bosses mounted a cover up. Some MPs clearly think they did after listening to evidence at today’s hearing.

It emerged that jailed Royal Editor Clive Goodman was given a pay off worth nearly £250,000 when he was sacked for his criminal activity. Former head of legal affairs Jon Chapman told MPs this was to avoid fighting an industrial tribunal at which he could make a whole range of damaging allegations about company practices.

Tory MP Philip Davies said he found it all very strange when the maximum compensation for winning a tribunal in such a case would be £60,000. “He must be the luckiest man on Earth,” he declared. Labour’s Jim Sheridan said he’d been involved in many tribunal cases and never seen anything like it.

No doubt, the 280 innocent News of the World employees who paid a heavy price for his actions will be questioning the size of their own severance terms.

Mr Chapman also admitted that the investigation into phone hacking after Mr Goodman was caught was “very narrow”. He said that 2,500 emails between Goodman and five other people whom he had implicated in the scandal were checked – but no others. Those named were spoken to but all denied being involved in any phone hacking. Mr Chapman defended the email review as a “thorough” and a “careful and diligent exercise” but admitted it was limited in its scope to Goodman’s sacking.

Labour MP Chris Bryant later told me he had detected 53 lies told by News International executives since the controversy began.

MPs still have lots more questions to ask – and then there’s a judicial inquiry and the possibility of more criminal and civil proceedings. They may have scorched the earth by razing the NotW to the ground but the fire is still burning strong.

This will run and run.

(First published on The Spectator’s Coffee House blog, September 6, 2011)

Follow me on Twitter: @davidwooding