Ever since the News of The World phone-hacking scandal gathered pace in July this year, members of the UK press have been attempting in vain to capture the thoughts of one of Rupert Murdoch’s most successful former editors, Kelvin MacKenzie, a key architect of modern British tabloid culture and scourge of the politically-correct left.

This week a Parliamentary investigation in the wake of the scandal, known as the Leveson Inquiry, managed to coax him into making a statement. Or perhaps, as former Sun editor MacKenzie put it, the veiled threat of a prison sentence that accompanied his invitation helped loosen his tongue.

The Leveson “seminars,” part of an inquiry into not only the phone hacking case but press ethics and culture in the UK, are intended to give members an informed view of the workings of the press. MacKenzie’s perspective was as unvarnished as it was irreverent.

Launching a scathing attack on the British prime minister, David Cameron, and on News International executives as well, MacKenzie started his talk with a bang:

So where is David Cameron today? 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 arse kissing over the years of Rupert Murdoch. Tony Blair was pretty good, as was Brown. But Cameron was the daddy.

MacKenzie satirically suggested that the prime minister hands out knee pads to his ministers to accommodate the level of bowing and scraping to the officers of Murdoch’s News Corp. He continued:

There was never a party, a breakfast, a lunch, a cuppa or a drink that Cameron & Co would not turn up to in force if the Great Man [Murdoch] or his handmaiden Rebekah Brooks [former News International Chief Executive] was there. There was always a queue to kiss their rings. It was gut wrenching.
An American with a disdain for Britain, running a declining industry in terms of sales, profitability, and influence, was considered more important than a meeting with any captain of industry no matter how big their workforce or balance sheet.

The full text of the short speech MacKenzie gave to the inquiry is here and worth reading, not simply for its comic content and deft use of British vernacular, but also for the illuminating points it offers for News Corp. Kremlinologists. Not only did MacKenzie shovel blame on David Cameron for succumbing to the blandishments of being “in with the Murdochs” but signaled that the prime minister must have been perfectly well aware of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson’s guilt in the phone-hacking affair before hiring him into government as his senior communications adviser:

This [the Inquiry] is the way in which our prime minister is hopeful he can escape his own personal lack of judgment. He knows, and Andy knows, that he should never have been hired into the heart of government. I don’t blame Andy for taking the job. 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.

MacKenzie went on to say that both Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of Murdoch’s News International from 2009 to 2011, before resigning due to the scandal, and James Murdoch, Rupert’s son and the chairman and CEO of News Corp., were most likely the people who decided to put The Sun’s support behind David Cameron ahead of the 2010 general election. Consequently, he suggests “they should hang their heads in shame.”

As a former editor of The Sun who presided over the paper’s most rumbustious and commercially successful period from 1981 to 1994, MacKenzie is an estranged member of the Murdoch professional family. He remains unerringly loyal to his former boss, but it is informative to observe how his generation of editors views the “soft network” of power devised by the more recent incumbents of the News International boardroom with enormous distaste.

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.