The media industry needs a good conspiracy theory now and again -
and this one’s a classic. The Sun, as we all know, is having a tough
time. It is being undermined by uncertainty from within and is under
attack from without by a revitalised Mirror.
Its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, decides to act on both fronts. The first
bit’s easy - merely a little rearrangement of the office furniture. The
second half is a little more problematical, given that the Mirror’s
revival is being masterminded by the one-time Sun editor, Kelvin
But news reaches Murdoch that MacKenzie, after years of kow-towing to
media magnates, now wants to be fat controller in his own right. In
fact, MacKenzie has been trying to raise the cash to take control of
Talk Radio? Surely an unlikely ambition for a man of MacKenzie’s
It’s hardly likely to impress Murdoch as an investment opportunity
Strangely, though, he opens his cheque-book. Last week, he backed
MacKenzie’s bid (Campaign, 12 June).
Why? Well, from Murdoch’s point of view, it obviously makes sense for
MacKenzie to be out of newspapers and into something harmless. The
theory is that he’d have bankrolled anything that MacKenzie had set his
That’s the story. And it’s obviously believable, at least as regards the
role ascribed to Rupert Murdoch - his Machiavellian credentials are well
documented. But does the conspiracy theory really add up?
Talk Radio is, after all, one of the three big national radio
Admittedly, it got it wrong from day one, choosing to go down a
disastrous ’shock jock’ route. But, as Robert Ray, the joint managing
director of MediaVest, points out, the station’s star is in the
ascendant. ’It had something of a false start, but I’ve always thought
that Talk Radio was one of the big opportunities in commercial radio. It
has quality presenters with attitude - people like Danny Baker. It has
started attracting quality audiences. The common strand with MacKenzie
is that the Sun’s success was built on attitude. I think it has a great
potential to attract new audiences.’
Yvonne Scullion, the head of radio at Zenith Media, agrees that Talk has
turned around. But she is unsure about what MacKenzie could bring to it.
’Talk looks pretty healthy these days and the interest in acquiring it
is a testament to what’s happened there in the last year. But the speech
format is far harder to get right in the commercial sector than it is on
the BBC. It is a mistake to be too downmarket or populist - which is
where MacKenzie’s instincts probably lie. A downmarket approach is only
of interest to advertisers if it delivers a huge audience.’
This sort of reservation adds credence to the theory that MacKenzie
should look a bit harder at radio before he leaps. He acquired notoriety
in television (as head of Mirror Group’s Live TV), but the jury is still
out about the success or otherwise of his small-screen career. Like
other forms of juggling, topless darts isn’t really going to work on
But all of this is based on one supposedly unassailable fact - that
Murdoch has no real interest in radio. That might be the most dangerous
assumption of all.
Some observers point out that Murdoch’s interest doesn’t exactly come
out of the blue. It was rumoured weeks ago, when the speculation was
that Talk would evolve into a sports station, becoming a sister
organisation to Sky’s sports channels.
It would take Murdoch slightly outside of his core strategy. But it
would be right up MacKenzie’s street. Possible? As theories go, it may
score poorly in terms of Machiavellian conspiracy - but it’s just about
credible for all that.