MacKenzie’s unwanted intervention the last thing Stephen Kenny needs

At worst video reportedly shown to players before England friendly was a naive mistake

 Kelvin MacKenzie, the former editor of the Sun newspaper. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Kelvin MacKenzie, the former editor of the Sun newspaper. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

 

‘The former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie will not return to the paper after being suspended for writing a column comparing Everton footballer Ross Barkley, who is mixed race, to a gorilla and writing disparaging comments about the city of Liverpool.’

- The Guardian. May 9th 2017.

On Friday morning, Kelvin MacKenzie took to twitter to repeat his view that the Ireland football manager Stephen Kenny should be “fired for the anti-English video he showed ahead of their game against us”.

It has been such a bizarre few months for Irish football that it should have been no real surprise that MacKenzie, a figure who represents in pop culture a throwback to the more lurid moments of Spitting Image and new 80s Toryism, should ’ave his say.

MacKenzie declares himself the ‘Most Successful Editor of the Sun’ on his twitter handle. He was, without question, a force of nature, ascending to that position while still in his 30s and running a slimy trail of misery across the national imagination through the front page sensations and provocations. And his papers sold like hot cakes.

You’d imagine that having made it one of the most powerful roles in British media life, you’d hope to end your association with the publication in something other than disgrace. But so it goes.

The reasons why MacKenzie is so despised by the entire city of Liverpool are well documented and he is, of course, well aware of them: a city-wide boycott on the Sun has been sustained since the despicable front page appeared four days after the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989. It will always stand as his epitaph in journalism and in life. He was allowed, because he was editor of the Sun, to shock and form opinion before the advent of the internet diluted its power. And although he stepped down as editor of the Sun in 1994, he remains emblematic of a kind of bleak and dangerous voice; a genuine influencer before that daft term was invented.

And there were echoes of it at play this week. On Wednesday, it was reported that Stephen Kenny had shown his players a short video including footage of the 1916 rising and a compilation of goals against England. It was an odd thing for Kenny to do given that a young inexperienced Irish team were about to play England in a low-key fixture in a deserted Wembley. At worst, it was a naive mistake by a new manager who may be trying too hard.

And for the many hoping that Kenny is given a reasonable chance to settle into the post, it is disappointing; there’s a whiff of desperation about something as retro and unimaginative as a film designed to stir the blood. That the video was leaked into the public sphere and the subsequent statement that the FAI would carry out an investigation has all the appearance of another adventure in parody.

But the unexpected intervention of MacKenzie pushes the episode into the macabre. There’s a fair chance that when Stephen Kenny took the Irish job on, he knew that someone would be calling for his sacking before too long. And with no wins and one goal scored after eight games in charge, the opening chapter has been hugely challenging despite his perseverance with the belief that Irish teams can and should play expressive football.

Dismal fool

But never in his wildest dreams could Kenny have imagined that Kelvin Mackenzie would be calling for his head – and for a dressing room inspiration gimmick rather than the on-field performance of his team.

But the Sun’s all-time greatest editor was deeply offended by the video – which he hasn’t seen. And he was adamant that Kenny needs to go.

“Or we could do the same,” he warned via Twitter.

“A video of the Birmingham pub bombing, the callous murder of Mountbatten. We lost 1,700 to the IRA scum. And the Irish lost 3-0. Good.’

In cold print, it reads like any one of a thousand slogans daubed on walls in the violent decades: dull and reductive and stupid. The effect, of course, was to revive long dormant feelings of antipathy towards the Sun chief here in Ireland.

He warmed to the social media response, invoking Charles Henry Bewley, the disgraced Ireland ambassador in Berlin during World War Two. ‘Pro Nazi, anti-Semitic, Anglophobic. That’s what you need to get on in Irish politics.’

It’s easy to dismiss all of this as just the ranting of another dismal fool sounding off on twitter. But MacKenzie’s prominence for two decades and the streak of print journalism poison he unleashed on mainstream British society, which caused so much lasting damage and hurt, was not insignificant.

MacKenzie was born in 1946 and grew up during a wave of intense emigration from Ireland to England in the 1950s. He was editor of the Sun during another wave, in the 1980s. Tens of thousands of Irish were welcomed into English cities in those decades and have thrived there. The relationship between the two countries has always been complex and familial. But the best of it, as represented by Steve Coogan or Johnny Marr or Peter Kay or Kate Bush, is uniquely rich and warm and nuanced: literally the best of both worlds.

It’s the opposite to whatever it is that Kelvin MacKenzie has stood for during his career as an opinion shaper: a kind of hollow, hateful, gleeful feasting on the misfortune of others; a gloating over those shamed in his exposes, a startling lack of empathy for anything or anyone and a deeply misguided understanding of the very nation for whom he wrote his headlines.

And this sad footnote, inferring Anglophobia from an unseen video montage in an Irish football team dressing room, is the latest reminder of how unalterably narrow and bleak the world view was behind that decade of sometimes notorious Sun front pages.

No avail

One of the footnotes of the Hillsborough front page that appeared in the Sun newspaper concerns the journalist who wrote the story. He was Harry Arnold, an old school tabloid journalist and a former Royal correspondent then well into a distinguished career in which ethics mattered. He was in the office on the day the news agency story concerning the alleged behaviour of fans was filed.

He rewrote it carefully, emphasizing that nothing was proven and was horrified by the shocking accusations the Sun presented under the headline The Truth – a headline that will go down as one of the most scurrilous lies in the history of journalism; a permanent stain on the trade.

Arnold was appalled and says he protested to MacKenzie before the paper went to print. But to no avail. Shortly afterwards, he left the Sun to work for Roy Greenslade in the Mirror.

In 2014, Greenslade revealed that he had received an email from Arnold shortly before he died. Greenslade was among the many who tipped a hat to Arnold as one of the last of those mythical figures: the bona fide Fleet Street legend. But Arnold was still bothered by the Hillsborough story in the last years of his life. In his email, he thanked Greenslade for “removing me from the misery of Kelvin’s clutches.”

Of his former editor, he wrote: “I regard him as the nastiest man I ever met in my 40- year career.”

The truth hurts.