We are taking an extended break at Palazzo Ranter.
In the meantime, we can still accept copy.
So please get typing
Table of Contents
We are breaking up for the hols today (spend too much time with the Hackademics, and it’s catching) so, first… a very merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous new year to all our contributors, without whom…
And also to our supporters, the columnists and commentators who have generously helped promote the Ranters plot and carried the flame of old hackery around the world.
225 issues (and more than 3 million hits already this year) is something of an achievement and the buggers who never contribute quite clearly appreciate the efforts of the few who do.
We’ll be back, DV, on January 6. If you will need reminding, use the box on the right.
So, to this week…
There is currently an Inquiry into the press that… wait for it… that you didn’t know about. It’s in Australia. And although they know about it Down Under they don’t actually know what it’s about. Mark Day tries to fathom it.
We have our own of course (you have heard about it – it was in all the papers) and John Dale has the double this week, first, writing about how the Leveson Inquiry is taking over his life, and then by suggesting, in a worthy rant, how it might have done for Kelvin.
But first, a Christmas story from Alan Whittaker about getting a turkey home from Fleet Street. And then Liz Hodgkinson (subs pse chk splg)writes about getting people’s names right. That’s the people who matter… the writers.
All of the above. Plus Rudge the cartoonist.
Now we’re going for a long lie down.
Have a merry one.
If you think you might suffer from withdrawal symptoms in our absence, go and check the book’s site – http://booksaboutjournalism.com/ – if you’re quick you could still get something decent to read over the holidays.
By Alan Whittaker
It was a scene worthy of a Christmas card. The advance flakes of the next snow flurry glittered ominously above the street lamps enhancing the seasonal decorations displayed by two of Fleet Street’s most venerable trading enterprises. The grey pre-war holly wreath had once more been resurrected from the cellar and now adorned the entrance to Mick’s Cafe while a delicate necklace of red and green fairy lights added a chic Parisian touch to the Durex display in Hancock’s window.
Ian Watson-Jones, who had served 20 something years as copy taster on the Evening Standard and the much-lamented Star before joining the News of the World, reckoned we could just make it to the back bar of the Harrow before the snow thickened. He also surmised that the sole occupant of the bar so early in the evening would be John Halcro Ferguson, the Observer’s Latin America guru. ‘And I bet you a large Scotch he mentions South America within two minutes,’ said Jonah. I rashly accepted the bet.
Sure enough, the only person lurking in the back bar was JHF. ‘It’s turning into a blizzard, Fergie,’ said Jonah amiably as she slipped out of his overcoat. ‘Indeed it is,’ replied the sage of South America. ‘Reminds me of a dreadful night I spent in Patagonia…’
Ian glanced at his watch and smiled. ‘Fifty-seven seconds,’ he said. ‘It took him some time to get into his stride but I’ll have a Grouse.’
Jonah was due to meet Joe Adams, a crime reporter of the Evening News, who turned up an hour later than arranged accompanied by a shapeless object in a huge black plastic sack on which the tread pattern of a tyre was clearly discernible. He had difficulty squeezing the sack through the pub entrance.
Joe apologised for being late but he had been to Smithfield. Before leaving home that morning he had informed Mrs. Adams that the usual oven-ready turkey from Sainsbury’s would not be required. There would be a change this Christmas. He would select a bird fresh from the Norfolk countryside.
‘I waited till the market was closing; that’s the best time to get bargains,’ he said, jubilantly pointing to the black sack. ‘Look at that beauty. Weighs a ton and all for three quid. I had a hell of a job getting it here.’
The tyre impression on the bag was the result of trying to heave the carcass out of the path of the bus he was about to board in Farringdon Street. ‘The front wheel ran over the bag when it slid off the pavement,’ he explained.
The turkey was indeed rather large. About the size of an ostrich. And severely mangled as a result of its encounter with a number 18. If Joe hadn’t bought the thing the market trader would have had to fork out three quid to get the council to dispose of it. No one in their right mind would contemplate buying such a grotesque creature. No domestic oven was big enough to accommodate it.
Joe placed himself by the bar and the black bag by a hot radiator. Outside the snow fell with increasing intensity.
An hour or so later Joe slung the bag and its mutilated and slightly warm occupant over his shoulder and headed for the railhead. By taxi.
Things didn’t improve. After depositing Joe at Waterloo the cabbie drove off and in the process managed to inflict further grievous damage to the turkey when the rear nearside wheel ran over the bag. The bird was now in a seriously distressed condition. Undeterred Joe boarded his train and stowed his mangled bargain on the luggage rack opposite his chosen seat. That way, he reasoned, he could keep an eye on his purchase. He checked his watch. It would be twenty minutes before the train moved. He must stay awake.
The compartment was warm. The Scotch was working its soothing magic and he felt deliciously drowsy. Through half-closed eyes, he saw a fur-coated matronly woman occupy the opposite seat. She was built on the lines of Hattie Jaques with a cleavage to match. She looked the type who would have been to Covent Garden for the opera. Joe dozed.
An abrupt lurch indicated the train was moving off. The motion roused him and so did the piercing scream from the near-hysterical Hattie Jaques look-alike. The sudden jolt of the train had disturbed the black bag above her head and the scrawny neck of the turkey had slipped out and was now nestling, beak down, in her unwelcoming bosom. Another convulsive jolt caused the entire carcass to cascade, first to her head and then to her lap.
Joe shuddered at the memory of the woman’s horrified face as one of the turkey’s legs became entangled in her hair. ‘When she recovered she was furious and moved to another compartment,’ he said when he recounted the tale next evening.
Mrs. Adams didn’t bother to look at his purchase before ordering him to heave it one last time. Into the dustbin. ‘We’re having Sainsbury’s oven-ready as usual on Christmas Day,’ Joe sighed.
By Liz Hodgkinson
If you want to attract attention to the brilliance of your copy, it’s good to have a byline that stands out. That’s easy enough, possibly, if you have a name like Roz d’Ombraine Hewitt, Meredith Etherington-Smith, or even Marcelle d’Argy Smith, all of which are completely individual and as such, hard to ignore.
But if you are Liz Hodgkinson, how do you differentiate yourself from Liz Hodgson?
The answer is that much of the time, you don’t. Although Liz Hodgson and I are completely separate people and have little in common other than a similar name, for most of our professional lives, we’ve been mistaken for each other.
It all began when Liz Hodgson started working for the Femail pages of the Daily Mail. No problem, you might imagine, except that I, Liz Hodgkinson, was already there. Before long, her byline was on my stories and my name appeared on her copy. It was inevitable and so one of us had to go. Last in, first out, and it was the other Liz.
She then went to the Sunday Mirror and for a time we managed to regain our separate identities.
The mix-up resurfaced when Liz and her partner, Ian Markham-Smith – for whom she wrote an affectionate obituary in Ranters the other week – moved to LA. From there they filed many showbiz stories to all of Fleet Street. Once again, my name started appearing on her stories and hers on mine. It got worse when, not infrequently, I was sent cheques that were rightly hers. Of course, I returned them and I hope she did the same for any sent to her that was meant for me.
I don’t know how the subs thought that I (or she) was writing prolifically in the UK at the same time as filing endless celebrity stories from America but perhaps they simply didn’t ask themselves that logical question.
Then for many years, subs seemed able to keep us separate. Their task was made easier now by the fact that Liz and Ian often used a joint byline. I think that both names appeared on their books, as well.
But just when I imagined people could finally tell us apart, we are getting mixed up again.
Only this week I had an email from a reader about Ladies of the Street, my book about women journalists. The sender, a journalist called Vernon Ram, wrote:
Surely you are the same Liz who did a stint with Ian Markham-Smith at the SCM Post in the early ’80s, including a spell at Hongkong Tatler before pushing off to the US and Variety/The Hollywood Reporter?!! The object of this is to congratulate you for Ladies of The Street I have just finished reading, a real show-stopper by any yardstick. Bet you remember visiting us at our home in Lamma Island. Best wishes, – Vernon Ram
It’s a lovely accolade but that was the other Liz. I have never worked for the SCMP or pushed off to the US. Liz Hodgson, if you are reading this, you may like to get in touch with Vernon.
But it doesn’t end there. Since the book was published, I’ve had several other emails from journalists who say they remember me living in LA and working for US publications.
Now, Liz Hodgson and I are not rivals; in fact, we are good mates and when we meet, we laugh about the byline similarity. Perhaps we have even helped each other’s careers, who knows?
But we all like to think we are special, completely original. And actually, the Hodgkinson family mix-up doesn’t end there. My son Tom Hodgkinson, who writes for the Independent on Sunday and is the famous, or notorious, idler, has a rival called Tom Hodgkinson, who writes book reviews and literary articles. I’ve often been contacted by bookish friends to say they have seen Tom’s piece in the Literary Review, or somewhere, only for me to have to tell them, sorry, it’s the other Tom.
Now, I gather, the other Tom calls himself Thomas to differentiate himself, but the confusion continues. At least I don’t think they’ve ever had each other’s cheques. Mind, nobody pays anything these days so it would hardly matter if they had.
But none of this is quite as bad as Liz Gill and Liz Gill. Again, both Lizzes worked at one time for Femail. One Liz Gill is a journalist, a writer, and the other is (or was) a fashion artist and cartoonist. They are, once again, completely separate people.
Former Sunday People journalist John Smith, another Ranters contributor, solved the problem of his name by having Plain John Smith as his byline. And of course, he became famous as ‘Plain John’, so much so that is almost became his name.
I suppose I could be Plain Liz (my second name is Jane, and that’s plain enough) but I hardly think it would set the world alight.
So, to set the record straight once and for all, I am the Liz with that important bit extra: three more letters, to be exact: Liz Hodgkinson, author of Ladies of the Street.
Ladies of The Streetby Liz Hodgkinson is published by Revel Barker at £9.99.
By Mark Day
We’ve got to hand it to you Poms. You do your inquiries well. You’ve got your Lord Leveson forensically probing the ways and means of the modern media. We’ve got The Fink.
You have an inquiry where all parties – politicians, journalists, and inquirers – are at pains to say that whatever the outcome, the Press must remain free. We’ve got a political witch hunt where such niceties fail to get a mention.
The Australian press has, since its inception, pretty well followed the British path. Decades ago it did so with much tugging of the forelock, but those days have passed. We did, after all, give you Rupert Murdoch in a bit of reverse colonisation, but we have still admired the breadth and creative energy of the British media while allowing the odd tut-tut about its methods.
Stings, such as those so mercilessly executed by the Fake Sheik would not pass muster in Australia on two counts – they would break the Australian journalists’ code of ethics which demand that a reporter shall identify him/herself and the publication they work for and if any recording of conversations were clandestinely taken, that behaviour would breach the federal Listening Devices Act.
As for phone hacking – it is perhaps a sad truth, but most of us down here are so technologically dyslexic that we wouldn’t know how to do it, let alone be willing to break another law relating to telecommunications interception. No evidence of hacking has emerged in Australia – from hackers, hackees, or hearsay.
But that’s no matter. The British phone-hacking scandal has provided a convenient excuse for a media inquiry, currently under way, presided over by a former judge, Ray Finkelstein, and a former media writer and now academic, Matthew Ricketson.
The inquiry was set up because our parliament is like yours – the life of the government depends on a coalition of parties. Just as David Cameron needs Nick Clegg, in Australia Julia Gillard needs Bob Brown, the leader of the Greens.
For more than 20 years Brown, a Tasmanian senator, has been in the parliament preaching climate change, land care, clean water, the end of coal, banning all nukes – all matters of great importance, for sure, to students and doctors’ wives. But he has been largely ignored by Labor and Liberal governments.
In the 2010 election, Julia Gillard managed to form a government only with the support of three lower house independents and one Green. In the Senate, she needs all nine Greens to have the numbers needed to pass legislation. Suddenly, Bob Brown is no longer ignored. As a wily old pollie, he’s in the box seat and he knows it.
During the life of the Gillard government, and Kevin Rudd’s before her, Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers in Australia, notably The Australian, rigorously and relentlessly examined government activities. The Oz has broken story after story about money wasted in stimulus spending designed – successfully, it must be said – to avoid a global financial crisis-induced recession. It has attacked the $36 billion national broadband network spending and declared the Greens a political movement that must be destroyed at the ballot box.
Before the hacking scandal, Bob Brown had declared The Oz was ‘the hate media’, and after the closure of the News of the World Julia Gillard opined that News had ‘some hard questions to answer’. She never outlined those questions but when the Greens deputy leader Christine Milne argued that the hacking events provided a ‘convenient’ pathway to a full media inquiry’, the die was cast. The tail wagged the dog.
So we have the Finkelstein Inquiry, set up to inquire into
‘the effectiveness of the current media codes of practice in Australia, particularly in light of the technological change that is leading to the migration of print media to digital and online platforms; the impact of this technological change on the business model that has supported the investment by traditional media organizations in quality journalism and the production of news, and how such activities can be supported, and diversity enhanced, in the changed media environment; ways of substantially strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in relation to on-line publications, and with particular reference to the handling of complaints; and any related issues pertaining to the ability of the media to operate according to regulations and codes of practice, and in the public interest.’
Not a word, you’ll note, about the freedom or independence of the media. It is refreshing to see high up in the Leveson inquiry terms of reference acknowledgment of the most important and fundamental aspect of the media’s place in society: it is to inquire if there is a need for ‘a more effective policy and regulatory regime which supports the integrity and freedom of the press, the plurality of the media, and its independence, including from government, while encouraging the highest ethical and professional standards.’
The Fink’s inquiry got underway last month. Among the first to give evidence was Greg Hywood, CEO of Fairfax Media, publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. He began his address by asking: ‘What problem are we trying to solve?’
In a later interview, he explained: ‘There were some issues for News International in the UK – a long way from here – and there’s been no evidence that anything like that happens in Australia; none at all.
‘So because something happened in the UK we’re here talking about changes to the regulatory environment, with a whole range of things being floated – government intervention in the Press Council, government funding, a new regulatory environment. My view is that freedom of the press is a precious instrument; you don’t lightly play with it and what we do as a media company in a commercial environment is a very important public good; we ask the questions people don’t like being asked and our communities are, over time, better off because of it.’
So far it appears The Fink is concentrating on the structure, the power, and the funding of the Australian Press Council, a self-regulatory body funded by publishers but without punitive powers beyond admonition. His report is due to the government by the end of February and his recommendations will be incorporated in the much wider Convergence Review inquiry which is looking at broader issues of outdated broadcast regulation.
This indicates the true nature of The Fink’s endeavours – an afterthought bolted on to an existing structure as a matter of political convenience. Don’t expect much to come of it.
It’s a fix
By John Dale
I admit it, I’m an addict. I’m mainlining on reality TV in a way that is scary. I always told myself I could fight it. What a fool I’ve been! Now I am waking up with the schedule in my head, canceling convivial lunches, getting the shakes if I try to withdraw.
Lord Justice Leveson is ruining my life. I may consult a lawyer.
It’s got the format of Judge Judy, the characters of le Carré, the red herrings of Agatha Christie, and the plots of Robert Harris. Off-camera, there’s a sword of Damocles suspended by a single hair, and every day, as they deliver another 30,000-odd word, the witnesses invite it to skewer their well-coiffeured skulls or greasy pates.
With agonising slowness, revelations are being extracted which are then inserted into the big picture like pixels on newsprint.
For us hacks and ranters, and no doubt many civilians, it’s a slow-burning blockbuster.
There’s Robert Jay, QC, playing Robin to Lord Leveson’s beetle-browed Batman, and the beautiful Carine Patry Hoskins as a wide-eyed Girl Wonder.
On Monday the inquiry into press standards reached Chapter 5: News International Week.
I give the following as one exquisite moment of Hitchcockian suspense.
Jay, who never misses a dot or comma, was in the middle of a lawyerly duel with Tom Crone, former legal manager at News International.
He inquired about a reply Crone had given to Adam Price, MP, at a select committee.
Jay: ‘If I were to ask you the same question as Mr. Price asked you, would you give me the same answer?’
Crone requested the transcript. For two minutes he pored over it. Everyone waited. As we got ready for the answer, the judge looked at the clock and said: ‘It’s time for a short break…’
If it were TV, you’d call this a cliffhanger. It would be ‘Next week: see what happens!’
So people popped to the loo, stretched and yawned, stood up and turned around, shuffled their trousers and underwear, had a natter, took a breather. Five minutes passed.
Then the judge reappeared and the inquiry resumed.
Crone jumped straight back into his seat, leaned forward, and peered over his spectacles. Without prompting he said three words to Jay: ‘Yes, I would.’
Yes, he’d give the same answer. There was a palpable sense of relief or disappointment, depending on your view.
I don’t have space here to explain all the complexities. The evidence is long and detailed.
In another time and place, Murdoch’s company might have felt honoured to have four days of non-stop coverage devoted exclusively to it. But this was different.
News International Week – the announcement acted like a movie trailer, creating such a buzz that various hacks who normally shunned daylight rushed down to the Royal Courts of Justice to hang out like stage door Johnnies.
They were initially disappointed that the first star was himself ‘redacted’, at least visually.
Therefore I cannot say whether Mazheer Mahmood wore a lounge suit, his Fake Sheikh gear, or dressed as a High Court judge in hope of creating his usual mayhem. I do not know. All we got was his voice, which had the well-rounded vowels of someone used to impersonating Eton-educated desert billionaires.
When he answered questions incompletely, we heard a toughness enter Lord Leveson’s otherwise amiable tone.
Maz insisted he had carried out his News of the World investigations as a public duty and denied that he entrapped people by offering ‘golden carrots’.
He said: ‘We risk our lives on a daily basis. I live under death threats. I’m proud to have exposed pedophiles, drug dealers, drug runners, and the like.’
But he also added: ‘I’m a journalist. We publish stories, we sell newspapers. I’m not a police officer, I’m not a social worker.’
Leveson asked him if a story would be justified simply because an MP was having an affair.
Maz: ‘Yes, that’s right. We vote for these people.’
What if it was an actor or author?
Maz: ‘No, no, no. MPs hold public office, slightly different for an actor – except if he’s in Hello and cashing in on his family life – a degree of hypocrisy.’
As he left the witness box, the press was allowed to return and the camera switched back on. We saw his place being taken by Neville Thurlbeck, the former NotW chief reporter. Because he had been arrested in Operation Weeting, he was not asked about phone hacking.
Otherwise, his evidence was wide-ranging.
Kiss and tell story fees:‘There were six-figure sums but rarely. The average for a front-page splash was £15-20,000.
Authenticity: ‘There was always a myth that we made it all up, and that still prevails. We didn’t. We went to enormous length to satisfy our lawyers it was demonstrably correct – documentary evidence, photographic evidence…a birthday card, gift, phone call. For every kiss and tell that made it, there were six, ten, that fell by the wayside, even if we believed the story.’
Current situation: ‘The kiss and tell story is now largely dead.’
Privacy: ‘Recently I exposed a politician for having an affair. It made a big story. We thought long and hard about whether we should run it. The man had used his family and happy marriage in his election literature, so we felt justified.’
David Beckham:How much had they paid Rebecca Loos? Thurlbeck paused, saying he was trying to think of reasons why he should not reveal this. Leveson told him to answer.
Thurlbeck: ‘A six-figure sum, the most I’ve ever paid.’
Jay: ‘Not quite a seven-figure.’
That was taken to mean it was nearly a million.
What was the justification?
Thurlbeck: ‘The Beckham’s had been using their marriage to endorse products, presenting themselves as a fairytale marriage, they married on thrones. I thought it important to expose the fairytale as a sham.’
Jay: ‘What products had the Beckhams sold on this image?’
Thurlbeck: ‘He was promoting Brylcreem, sponsored left, right, and centre.’
Was Brylcreem using his family image? Jay suggested there was a difference between ‘implied’ and ‘expressed’ representation – which is becoming a central issue.
Max Mosley orgy splash: Thurlbeck accepted that without the Nazi theme, there would have been no public interest justification.
On three occasions, the judge intervened forcefully in seeking answers to questions.
To one, downplaying to his own influence, Thurlbeck said: ‘Chief reporter, news editor – grand-sounding titles, they don’t call the shots at all.’
The judge also told him to a name the newsdesk person who, he said, had instructed him to send the orgy women emails described as ‘close to blackmail’.
Jay asked if such pressure was normal journalistic practice.
Thurlbeck: ‘It would happen all the time, the broadsheets, TV stations…offering anonymity in return for the story.’
Leveson: ‘Did you give any thoughts to Article 8 rights (privacy) of the women? Yes or no?’
Thurlbeck: ‘There was no discussion of it.’
In his appearance, Tom Crone was asked about News International’s ‘one rogue reporter’ defense. He said: ‘My feeling was this would probably come back to bite the company.’
Leveson: ‘You were certainly right there.’
By my reckoning, we’ve had half a million words at least up to now. There are many more to come. At the same time, there are parallel hearings before other courts and committees, as well as additional revelations, official and unofficial. There is even doubt about whether the NotW was involved in Milly Dowler’s phone hacking, which is what triggered off the inquiry. But it is now way beyond mere hacking in that it is dealing with press standards as a whole.
From my own observations, I’d say that Lord Leveson is deeply committed to press freedom. But he is identifying ethical and cultural failings which have become institutionalised in that journalists think they are ‘normal’. His task is to decide how these can be rectified without damaging free expression and commercial viability.
If you have not started following it in detail, I suggest you don’t. If you do, you’ll end up in The Priory. I’ve just booked my bed.
John Dale is covering media matters on his website johndalejournalist.co.uk
By John Dale
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 motor-mouth of Kelvin MacKenzie. It’s been a long wait and I’d almost given up hope but then at last a candidate hove 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 underlying theme 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 publicly bleeding away in parallel with that of the journalism of which he was the 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 it was just cruel fun.
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 its 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 that 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 quite.
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 a 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 that 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?
‘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 less 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 that 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 that 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 the freedom of speech. I will defend his right to do so. But if he retained 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.