By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s top-selling newspaper the Sun has turned a page in its colorful history by dropping provocative columnist Kelvin MacKenzie, a favorite of owner Rupert Murdoch, over an article that likened a soccer player to a gorilla.
MacKenzie had been suspended on April 15 over the column, which was widely criticized as racist, and on Monday Murdoch’s British newspaper business said his contract had been terminated by mutual consent.
As editor of the Sun from 1981 to 1994, when it was at its commercial peak, MacKenzie ran memorable front pages that were seen as fun and straight-talking by admirers, but jingoistic and crass by critics.
The sinking of an Argentine warship during the 1982 Falklands War was reported under the headline “GOTCHA”, while the then president of the European Commission Jacques Delors was attacked in 1990 with the words “UP YOURS DELORS”.
MacKenzie was also at the helm when the Sun claimed credit for the surprise Conservative victory in the 1992 election by stating “IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT”.
David Yelland, one of his successors as editor of the paper, told Reuters the move was a sign of cultural change at the tabloid newspaper, which had previously stood by MacKenzie through countless controversies.
“It’s a cultural crossroads for the company. He’s a very difficult editor but a very brilliant, talented editor,” said Yelland, who has left journalism. “It will have been very difficult for Rupert Murdoch.”
MacKenzie’s departure comes at a time when Murdoch’s U.S. TV business is struggling to contain a sexual harassment scandal at Fox News.
The Financial Times last week linked both issues, presenting the ousting of MacKenzie and of several senior Fox News figures as a clearing out of Murdoch’s old guard.
Twenty First Century Fox, the parent company of Fox News, is bidding to take full control of British pay-TV group Sky. British regulators are examining whether it is a “fit and proper” owner of Sky.
In the column that led to his downfall, MacKenzie had likened Ross Barkley, a player for the Liverpool-based club Everton who has a Nigerian grandfather, to a gorilla at the zoo.
The column also suggested that the only people in Liverpool who could earn as much as soccer stars were drug dealers.
This was particularly incendiary given MacKenzie was in charge of the Sun when its coverage of the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster, which killed 96 Liverpool soccer fans, caused revulsion in the city which endures to this day.
The Sun carried false police claims that drunken Liverpool fans had caused the disaster and pick-pocketed the dead, under the headline “THE TRUTH”.
After the column on Barkley, Everton banned Sun journalists from their stadium, while Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson reported MacKenzie to the police for racial abuse.
MacKenzie was unapologetic, saying it was “beyond parody” to call him a racist. He did not respond to calls to his mobile phone on Monday.
(Editing by Alison Williams)