Instead of becoming another Jeremy Clarkson, Kelvin MacKenzie is turning into a British version of Homer Simpson. In these dangerous Leveson times, he should sit down in a darkened room and have a rest for a few years
Delighted as we all are for his thoughtful contributions to the national discourse, there are moments when I long for someone to put a sock in the smug, droning, self-affirming motormouth of Kelvin MacKenzie. It’s been a long wait and I’d almost given up hope but then at last a candidate hoved into view.
Yes, it was Lord Leveson.
It is yet another strand of the multifarious services the judge is performing for the good of the nation. A lot of his impact is entirely incidental to his central mission but, for me, he is becoming a bit of a superhero.
At its very least Lord Leveson’s inquiry into press standards is offering five star entertainment and, although that is not its primary purpose, there is a medieval pleasure to see him poking the most ferocious bears of old Fleet Street with a sharp stick.
As the best-known old bear, Kelvin has been rather slow in grasping the agenda but, in between his bar-rattling rages, he may be getting the point at last.
He is in a cage and he is wounded and at bay, just as the tabloid press is wounded and at bay. His ritualistic fury only confirms his impotence, that he is an exhibit whose life force is bleeding away in public in parallel with that of the journalism of which he was a progenitor.
He was put on display on the BBC’s Politics Show last week. He thought he was there for his insights. The rest of us know he was an exhibit.
Roll up, roll up, see us bait the Great Bear Kelvin!
His temporary keeper was Andrew Neil, the presenter, and his tormentor, in Lord Leveson’s absence, was Chris Bryant, MP.
Neil fed his hubris by referring to him as the ‘red top legend’, with an irony in his voice which went straight over it’s subject’s head.
Then Kelvin was invited to comment on various topics and did so with his customary compassion.
Referring to illegal immigrants, he recommended that the government should announce ‘we are going to send armed guards over to Lille and actually we are going to shoot them’.
It was his bid for a Clarkson moment.
Bryant, an old target of the red-tops, had prepared well and now mentioned the presentation which Kelvin had made to Lord Leveson some weeks earlier. Not only had he insulted the judge (and quickly apologised in the Daily Mail) but he had made some unwise boasts about his editing - well, his lack of it - during his reign at The Sun.
Bryant said to him: ‘I think you’ve owned up now, haven’t you, that you hardly ever checked whether any stories were true because frankly that was irrelevant...’
Kelvin was unusually silent.
Bryant continued: ‘And also you spent a great deal of time pooh-poohing the whole idea of any hacking at the News of the World, and I remember going on many programmes with you when you said quite categorically that it didn’t happen, you could not believe that it had possibly happened, that nobody senior would know about it, and anyway even if it did, it didn’t really matter. You said it was a socialist conspiracy...’
The Bear continued to slumber
In full flow Bryant continued: ‘...And then you found out that your phone was hacked and suddenly you were upset and thought it awful. Why should anyone listen to a word you say?’
Bryant continued to poke him with a sharp stick, knowing it wouldn’t take much longer to elicit a response.
Bryant: ‘All I want journalism to do is return to its old fashioned thing of bringing the truth to light but doing it within the law and not doing it on the basis of deception...
At that moment the Bear became roused.
Bryant: ‘...Not running headlines about Hillsborough ... just lies.’
Now Kelvin started jabbing fingers at him like the sublimated fists of a boxer, yelling: ‘This has got nothing to do with Hillsborough.’
Bryant: ‘It’s about lying...
If you look at the TV recording, you can see that Bryant is smiling, almost chuckling, enjoying the baiting. In contrast Kelvin looks like a man on the edge. He’s losing it. Was it approaching a Lebedev moment? Not quiet.
Kelvin merely saw red.
He said: ‘That story came from a Liverpool news agency and Liverpool journalists.’
Whoops! (It didn’t - and two hours later he withdrew his allegation and apologised.)
The arguing continued, Bryant won, and eventually Andrew Neil restored order in the manner of kindly gent coming to the aid of the wounded old bear. But if Kelvin expected respite, he was disappointed. Neil had his own Leveson-style agenda. It was his turn to pick up the sharp stick and do some poking.
He said to Kelvin: ‘I’ve got a broader question. Do you have any regrets or remorse about some of the things you did as a tabloid editor?’
It was a long pause. You could see his mind whirring behind eyes which had blanked. Whatever he replied, he would not just be addressing Neil and Bryant. There was a ghostly spectre hovering in the studio, Leveson himself. Anything he said could be used against him when he was called to testify at the inquiry.
So which way should he go? Point blank denial - or candid confession to regrets or remorse?
Kelvin: ‘Errrrm...probably. Yes. I do.’
I mean, it was like watching Homer Simpson. He’d done it again, just like at the seminar. Foot in mouth. Hostage to fortune. Dig dig dig. He should have smacked his forehead to make the impersonation complete.
You could picture Leveson sitting on the other side of the TV screen, framing a future question now on the lines of: ‘Mr MacKenzie, do you recall your appearance on the Daily Politics Show?
MacKenzie: (feeble squeak): Yeth.
Leveson: ‘You admitted to ‘regrets or remorse’, did you not? Could you explain what you regretted and what caused you remorse?’
Back in the studio, Kelvin tried to mitigate the damage, saying that he wished he had covered Hillsborough differently. But Leveson is unlikely to confine the questions to that subject alone. Kelvin is a very significant figure in the decline of the British red top from popular and proud to popular and shameless. His influence, his self-admitted lowering of standards, remains at the root of its crisis.
Is he losing his touch?
First he has had to apologise to the judge himself. Then he has had to apologise to Liverpool journalists. And still he keeps saying things which will make him even more vulnerable for Leveson’s Day of Reckoning.
He thinks he can wing it with a virtuoso performance in the witness box, cracking some third rate jokes from The Sun book of 1980s headlines. But Leveson, although a humorous man privately, does not do humour during evidence. Neither does his lead counsel, Robert Jay, QC, who has yet to smile, never mind chuckle, and has a seriousness of visage which makes Mr Spock look like Les Dawson on laughing gas.
If Kelvin takes that approach he will die faster than if he were tarred and feathered at the gates of Anfield Stadium.
Some say this is a man on the Hubris Express who won’t disembark until it reaches Station Nemesis.
But I do wonder. Surely he must notice that he has turned himself into an easy target, inviting Homer Simpson moments every time he puts his head above the parapet.
I am glad he enjoys freedom of speech. I will defend his right to do so. But if he retains any of the commonsense he likes to boast about he would enter a state of self-imposed purdah.
Kelvin, just go home, draw the curtains, sit in a darkened room, retire from the national discourse and give everyone’s ears a rest. Wait for the call from Leveson. You can have your say there
Can you do it? Maybe, maybe not.
But if you do, a grateful nation will surely thank Lord Leveson.
LATE COMMENT FROM TWITTER: 'Actually Homer says many wise and profound truths! Can't say the same for MacKenzie'.