MacKenzie’s editorship was from a different era to that of Brooks, who edited The Sun as well as the doomed News of the World on her way up. His relationship with senior politicians was, by and large, conducted on the end of a phone and often in fractious circumstances, rather than at the poolside parties attended by David Cameron, Tony Blair, and other politicians at the homes of Murdoch family members or executives. Famously in 1992, the then-Conservative prime minister, a rather gray character called John Major, phoned MacKenzie tentatively to ask how he was thinking of covering an unfolding financial crisis. MacKenzie responded: “Well prime minister…let me put it this way. I have a large bucket of shit sitting on my desk, and tomorrow morning I am going to pour it all over your head.” In MacKenzie’s retelling of the story there is a pause at the other end of the phone before Major responds, weakly: “Oh Kelvin, you are a wag.”

MacKenzie’s act at the Leveson seminar was reminiscent of the uncle at the wedding who loses all social inhibition after a few drinks, relating shortcomings and secrets to a shocked but prurient audience. However, it contained the necessary grain of truth that nourishes great spectacle.

The British press is on trial in some respects at the Leveson Inquiry, which starts in earnest in November. It potentially stands to lose some of its most precious attributes, such as the ability to self-regulate. But it is worth noting that what put it there were acts already covered by criminal law which went unchecked by both a political system and police force who were too occupied as MacKenzie put it with, “kissing arses rather than kicking arses.” Press failure might be part, but is by no means the whole of the story.
The unfolding of the Leveson Inquiry ought to be followed by everyone who has an interest in the future of a free press, although one cannot imagine all the forty-six editors, celebrities, public figures, and hacking victims scheduled to appear will share Kelvin MacKenzie’s gift for creating sensational headlines.

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Emily Bell is director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a member of CJR's Board of Overseers.