It is the late 1960s and I am sitting at my Remington typewriter at the Daily Express clackety-clacking out a story about Millwall football hooligans. Suddenly, from over my shoulder, comes the crude critique: “What a load of bollocks. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I turn to face my reviewer, a young man in his mid-20s and with a cockiness about him that is irritating and at the same time somehow endearing. This is my first encounter with an aspiring journalist called Kelvin MacKenzie.
He was a dog’s body on the Express at the time, funneling copy up to the Manchester office and with duties that made him little more than a go-between. Yet to hear him ranting about every subject under the sun (ha ha) you would have thought he was running the place.
Kelvin considered himself an expert on all things Millwall (all things, period) and ripped into my copy. He has since been a loud-mouthed supporter of Charlton and, more recently, Fulham. So we can fathom from his shifts of loyalty that he can never be relied on to navigate a straight course.
The next I knew, MacKenzie was popping up on the other side of the Pond as Managing Editor of he New York Post. He was just 32 and had obviously won over Rupert Murdoch with his chutzpah. Three years later he was Editor of The Sun, and the rest is history or, if you prefer, hysteria.
This all brings me to his recent startling declaration that he would shut down all journalist colleges. I first read it in The Independent, and thought what a strange home that was for Kelvin. Then I realised it was crisply written and deserving of space in a quality newspaper.
It was only later that it emerged that the article was not penned by MacKenzie, but taken from a brilliant interview by Harriet Thurley for the City University’s alumni magazine XCity. For some unfathomable reason Harriet was not credited with a much-deserved byline, and the impression given it was the written rather than spoken MacKenzie views.
What jumped out at me was the following passage:
“The best way to become a journalist is to go down the route I was forced to follow, as not only did I not sit A levels I only got one O level despite taking 15 of them over two different examination boards. Only a special kind of talent can achieve that result. So my advice to any 18-year-old is try and achieve three decent A levels, go to a local paper, then to a regional, and then head out on to nationals or magazines by 21-22.
“If I had two CVs in front of me, one from a student who left school to join their local paper and another from a student who is 23 and just out of university, I’d hire the first one ahead of the other. In those five years he or she would have discovered and proved that they were good at journalism, whereas you would be taking a massive risk on somebody who could prove they could do ‘it’ in the classroom.”
Kelvin, to borrow a fitting summary from you, “What a load of bollocks.”
For a start, you were never struggling for a job. After leaving your privileged education at Alleyn’s School in Dulwich you were helped up the ladder by your parents, both long-established journalists. This is on a par with the recent statement by millionaire Nick Clegg: “It shouldn’t be about who you know …”
Many from my generation really did do it the hard way, leaving school at 15 and then climbing from a foundation of copyboy through careers in newspapers that were richly fulfilling. My two years from 15 to 17 as a copyboy on the London Evening News gave me the best possible newspaper training. I worked in every department, from sport to photo-telegraphy and from block-making to art and features. Then I sent off applications to eight local newspapers and accepted an offer to join the Stratford Express. Not a diploma or degree in sight.
These days, though, no such starter jobs in newspapers for unqualified teenagers actually exist. It is a world that has become as distant as the Milky Way. Photo-telegraphy? Kelvin’s advice might have made sense 20 years ago or so, but it can now be classified as obsolete and irresponsible.
Media courses are vital for young people looking for a future in journalism. They need to learn not only about how to gather and write stories, but everything there is to know about the modern and fast-changing world of the internet, videoing and broadcasting.
The MacKenzie Mantra was made in the same week that the Wolverhampton Express & Star publisher announced the axing of around 90 staff. Jobs in local newspapers are becoming as hard to find as Fernando Torres goals.
I always tell the many youngsters who contact me about a career in newspapers to think “media” rather than just “journalism”, and I stress the importance of them learning the intricacies of the internet.
Don’t listen to Kelvin MacKenzie. I am in awe of all he has achieved in his working life, but on this subject he is talking round things.
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