Barkley attack is just Kelvin MacKenzie shrieking from his professional purgatory
Former Sun editor destroyed his reputation during his coverage of Hillsborough disaster
Former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie has unleashed another barrage of insults towards Liverpool. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA Wire
The mask always slips.
Who knows what inspired Kelvin MacKenzie to pen his latest vile ode, inevitably in the Sun, to the people of Liverpool? And who can say for sure whether or not he was aware that his remarks would coincide with the weekend when the city is steeling itself for the 28th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster?
There is such a deluge of poison and vitriol available now at the touch of a button that it takes a diabolical talent to insult an entire city through a few paragraphs. But MacKenzie, who was editor of the Sun during the Hillsborough disaster when the newspaper printed disgusting and unforgettable lies about the Liverpool fans caught up in the tragedy, has managed to slander and caricature the city all over again. It is genuinely incredible.
News that Everton’s Ross Barkley had been involved in some kind of nightclub altercation had been floating around this week as part of the flotsam and jetsam of the Premier League soap opera subplots. It’s a well-worn story: privileged footballer heads out for a night wanting to keep it real and at some point over the evening, there is aggro. Barkley got a punch for his troubles and Everton manager Ronald Koeman, who must be dreaming of the sun lounger at this stage, sounded rueful and heavy-hearted when reflecting on the dismaying ways of the world.
MacKenzie, though, interpreted the incidence in a paragraph which has to rank as among the most grotesque observations in the long history of English journalism.
He wrote: “Perhaps unfairly, I have always judged Ross Barkley as one of our dimmest footballers. There is something about the lack of reflection in his eyes which makes me certain that not only are the lights not on, there is definitely nobody home. I get a similar feeling when seeing a gorilla at a zoo. The physique is magnificent but it’s the eyes that tell the story.”
Leave aside the essential stupidity of MacKenzie’s metaphor – why would anyone be at home if the lights were off? And ignore the equivocating “perhaps unfairly”. Not only does it qualify a heavy-handed dismissal of someone’s intelligence, it is underlined by a comparison that would have read as heavy-handed in the era of Punch magazine.
Not that MacKenzie was done there, blithely pointing out that Barkley earned £60,000 per week in a city where the “only other men with similar pay packets are drug dealers”. His point was that the Everton and England midfielder was simply too wealthy to be hanging about in clubs where most of the patrons “have only just broken through the £7.50 an hour barrier”.
The Barkley critique wasn’t even the main item in MacKenzie’s column: it was as though he had written it almost as an aside, a kind of skittish look at the foibles of young millionaire footballers. That’s why it’s impossible not to believe that the paragraphs contain his essential view of Liverpool and its citizens as being somehow worthless – and worth less – compared to his audience or to himself.
The boycott of the Sun newspaper was one of the most eloquent and constant symbols of protest imaginable in the 27 years between the Hillsborough tragedy and last year’s report which found that the besmirched fans had not only acted without fault, most had behaved with utter valour throughout that nightmare afternoon. England and the world moved on from Hillsborough but the Justice group in the city never faltered or quit when it might have been easier to do so.
Not buying the Sun was a small, constant act of solidarity from the city at large, an unspoken way of showing that they remembered and cared and that they hadn’t forgotten. Claims by the Sun and MacKenzie that they had been given misleading information and had printed them in good faith counted for nothing. The Hillsborough families had to wait until 2012 for MacKenzie’s full apology and that came only after the Hillsborough Independent Panel report had made it clear that the victims and survivors had been terribly wronged by the Yorkshire police force tasked with their safety on that afternoon.
By then, David Cameron was referring to the “despicable untruths” printed in the Sun: the momentum was irretrievably behind the justice campaigners, leading to last year’s inquest¨ – the longest in British legal history – and the emotional scenes across a city that had reclaimed its good name.
That’s why MacKenzie’s latest barrage of casual insults is so gobsmacking.
He was the editor of the Sun during an era when the power of the printed press – and Sun in particular – was inestimable. The levels of distress and outrage and hurt caused by that page were inestimable. Most people would be crushed at the weight of knowledge that that they were responsible for inflicting so much hurt on hundreds of families already grieving and bereft. Not only has MacKenzie flung cheap, stereotypical insults at a city and specific insults at Barkley, who was born in Liverpool four years after Hillsborough, he has done so on the eve of the anniversary.
It is hardly a surprise that the mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, has called on Everton to ban the Sun from their press conferences. What that means, of course, is that the football correspondent on the northeast beat gets locked out because of MacKenzie’s disgrace against the city.
But even as the middle Saturday in April rolls around again in Liverpool, it is obvious that the person whom MacKenzie has wounded most in this is himself. He ran the Sun newspaper during a period when it sales figures were booming and its headlines – often memorable, frequently thuggish (Gotcha!) – caught the tone of England in the bullish and bleak early 1980s. He was a newspaper man from the time he left school at 17 to join the Southeast London Mercury and was editor of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post while still in his 30s: on the surface, his career was a roaring success.
But over the past two decades, his influence has waned and his legacy has slowly been distilled to that heinous newspaper headline, one of the most infamous in the history of journalism. He couldn’t have banked on the response of Liverpool as a city and community when the Sun went to print that night in 1989.
He couldn’t have guessed at the quiet, undimmed fury of subsequent decades when Liverpool froze the Sun out and held MacKenzie in withering contempt. His latest drop of poison will rightly cause renewed anger and resentment in Liverpool. But that should come with the knowledge that when it comes to Kelvin MacKenzie, they have already won the day a thousand times over. The only truth contained within that shameful headline is that it will always serve as Kelvin McKenzie’s career obituary.