You’ve got to hand it to Kelvin MacKenzie, he is a man who is supremely in touch with his time. More clear-sighted than visionary, he is not afraid to seize upon developments and take them to their logical conclusion.
As editor of The Sun, he saw which way tabloid journalism was heading, and, while others teetered on the brink of outright, no-holds-barred vulgarity, he plunged in headlong. The result was the first paper to speak in the authentic tones of the modern Brit. Coarse, jingoistic, vindictive, prurient, philistine and sex-obsessed, The Sun gloried in reflecting its readership.
Not for MacKenzie the pretensions of the Daily Mirror, which still clung to the vestiges of the old paternalistic socialist ideal of elevating the masses through self-help and education. He saw the masses as they were: ready-formed, unapologetically crude, and with an ethos all of their own – and he gave them a house journal that was not house-trained.
The result, of course, was a spectacular success, which at one time seemed capable of supporting the see-sawing Murdoch empire single-handed.
Now Mr MacKenzie has moved on. Today he is head of broadcasting at Mirror Group, which, thanks largely to his achievements at The Sun, is shorn of its earlier pretensions to quality. Though never a man to court publicity, his subversive presence has been less felt in his new job than in his tenure at The Sun. That is hardly surprising given that Live TV, the cable channel over whose fortunes he presides, has just 100,000 viewers. But it would be a terrible mistake to under-estimate his capacity for taking a medium in the direction in which market forces tug, but where the more squeamish fear to tread.
That the qualities which made MacKenzie such a potent force at The Sun still burn within him undiminished, was evidenced by his robust treatment of Miss Janet Street-Porter, who left Live TV in tears, and by his effing and blinding response to a question from the Financial Times, which, to the horror of its editor, was printed unexpurgated in earlier editions.
That same energy and ebullient life-force are moulding the future of televised broadcasting from the rough clay of Live TV. He has the remarkable ability to reach deep into the psyche of people whose ape-like appearance would suggest they have no psyche at all.
MacKenzie is quietly taking the most potent communications medium yet devised deep into the pot-bellied, cackling, farting, six-pack littered terrain on whose perimeter Noel Edmonds enviously hovers.
No-one but MacKenzie could have devised a topless darts programme nor spotted its magnetic appeal. Simple observation told him that ordinary televised darts tournaments lacked a compelling ingredient, but it was that vital spark of creativity endowed to so few that revealed what was needed. Darts organisers up and down the country froze in open-mouthed awe at the unveiling of a component of their game which had lain undiscovered since man first stood on the oche.
Among his other innovations is Canary Wharf, a soap opera whose characters so burst with libidinous impulses they cannot keep their hands off each other for more than five minutes at a stretch. That narrative progress impeded by such frequent groping must lack pace is beside the point. MacKenzie’s uncanny, almost telepathic, understanding of the mass audience that has emerged from more than a century of compulsory state education is faultless. Canary Wharf’s power-hungry female executive who needs a “regular dose of sex”, is an inspired blend of the nymphomaniac without whom the Complete Book of Dirty Jokes would be a thin volume, and the busty, insatiable heroine of every skinhead’s fantasy.
But it is in his treatment of news that MacKenzie has gloriously triumphed. This column has long held that news and television are contradictory. Television has not gone along with the loftier predictions of its pioneers, who thought it capable of educating and informing, and has emerged purely as an entertainment.
However strenuously its producers and presenters may strive to prove otherwise, news is no exception – the colour of Anna Ford’s dress engages the attention as much as the words she recites from the autocue. The necessity of providing a visual image to support every item, subverts rather than aids understanding, while the attention span of a television audience compels superficiality. For these reasons, and more, TV news is long overdue for a radical new approach. MacKenzie has delivered.
Any day now, Live TV’s news bulletins will feature an actor dressed in a brown and white rabbit suit. He will occupy the space usually reserved for translators for the deaf, and will respond to news stories as their content is revealed. His gamut will run from flinging up his paws in horror to nodding in sorrow. He is a quite masterly invention.
Programmes director Nick Ferrari, who created News Bunny in collaboration with MacKenzie, says the rabbit will become the channel’s “opinion former”. This can spell nothing but relief for those countless viewers whose only source of news is television, and who, through boredom, inertia or plain stupidity, have been uncertain how to respond to what they see and hear.
According to a Live TV insider: “This is part of a new upmarket trend at the station”. Who could argue with that?