It’s 31 January 2019. On BBC One’s late-night This Week, the presenter Andrew Neil, short, squat and menacing, peers over the glasses perched on the end of his nose at the former Labour London mayor Ken Livingstone. Neil looks like a stern schoolmaster quizzing a child about sloppy homework, Livingstone like a devil-may-care schoolboy who thinks he can wing it. The latter, following the programme’s customary format, has fronted a short film defending Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela. Against conventional wisdom, he argued that the country’s plight is not the president’s fault, but the result of US sanctions on oil, its main source of income.
Now – again following This Week’s usual format – Neil, a lifelong critic of socialism, interrogates Livingstone.
Neil: When were all the oil sanctions imposed?
Livingstone: I can’t remember when it started.
Neil: Well, I will tell you, they were imposed this week… The Venezuelan economy has shrunk by 50 per cent in five years. What US sanctions caused that?
Livingstone: … there was the collapse of the oil price, that was damaging.
Neil: That is not a sanction. What were the sanctions?
Livingstone: Oh, I don’t know. I am a retired pensioner.
Neil: … this is quite important because… children in Venezuela are starving to death. Which sanctions?
Livingstone: They’ve had sanctions for years, that’s what the Venezuelan ambassador told me.
It’s 24 January 2019. On the previous edition of This Week, James Delingpole, London editor on the far-right American website Breitbart News – and a contributor to the right-wing Spectator magazine, owned by the Press Holdings Group of which Neil is chairman – presents an item arguing that a no-deal Brexit would be good for Britain. The country could do all its overseas trade on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms, he argues. Neil, once a fervent supporter of the European Community (as it was then called) but a Eurosceptic since the early 1990s, interrogates Delingpole.
Neil: If we leave on WTO terms, our farm produce exported to the EU will face tariffs. At present, there are none… Let’s take sheep farming. France takes 50 per cent of British lamb exports. There are no tariffs. If we leave on WTO terms, they face 40 per cent tariffs. End of British exports.
Delingpole: I’m sure we’ll find a way… I’m not familiar with the workings of the sheep market.
Neil: We would [also] have to put tariffs on goods coming in from Europe. If we didn’t, if we continued tariff-free, we would have to be tariff-free for the whole world. Under WTO rules, you can’t pick and choose…
Delingpole: … President Trump has already said he’s ready to give us a fantastic deal.
Neil: Let me just clarify this. If… I’ve given the Europeans no-tariff access to the British market under WTO rules, I have to give it to the Americans. Why would they need to do a free trade deal? They’ve got the free trade.
Delingpole: I don’t know the answer to that.
Neil, a former editor of the Sunday Times, is the most deadly political interviewer on British television. Trying to wing it in an interview with him, Delingpole later wrote in a Breitbart article, “is a bit like going for a dip in the river in Australia’s Northern Territory and hoping there are no crocodiles”. Whether you are left-wing or right-wing, Labour or Tory, Remainer or Brexiteer, you have to be on top of your game and your subject if you are to emerge unscathed. “I just hadn’t boned up enough… beforehand,” wrote Delingpole.
Neil is at his deadliest on This Week. The late hour – it goes out live just before midnight each Thursday – and the relaxed, informal style, with almost everybody wearing open-necked shirts, lull guests into a false sense of security. But Neil is a workaholic and a newsaholic, capable of forensic questioning at any time of day or night.
“He has two big strengths,” says the Financial Times’s Miranda Green, a regular This Week panellist. “First, he understands the economics and he understands the markets. He tweets in the morning what’s happened in the Asian markets overnight. Few political interviewers are really good on the numbers. Second, he has a shark-like instinct for a big story.”
“He’s quite awkward privately,” a BBC source tells me. “But the moment the camera comes on, he comes alive. On Sunday Politics [which Neil presented until recently], he knew so much more about what was going on than the frontbenchers who appeared.”
Inside and outside the BBC, Neil has loyal friends and ardent admirers. But he also has critics who say that his regular BBC appearances – at one stage, he was hosting seven political shows a week – breach the corporation’s rules on impartiality.
Last year, the Guardian columnist Owen Jones noted that Neil wore “a tie emblazoned with the logo of the hardcore neoliberal Adam Smith Institute” while presenting programmes during the 2017 general election campaign. Though he sometimes took down Tory ministers, Neil’s “firebrand right-wing politics” led him to reserve his “ideological assaults” for the left, Jones argued. Andrew Adonis, a former New Labour minister, wrote to the BBC director-general Tony Hall in November demanding that Neil be sacked for his “pro-Brexit bias”. Leading climate scientists complain that Neil interviews climate change sceptics on his programmes – including Piers Corbyn, Jeremy’s brother and founder of a private weather-forecasting company – but fails to challenge their inaccurate claims. They point out that he refers on Twitter to “the climate mafia”. During an exchange in 2013 with Bob Ward, policy director of a research institute based at the London School of Economics, Neil called him “my little Global Warming Goebels [sic]”.
Neil persistently tweets or retweets Spectator articles and events to his 862,000 followers, an audience derived almost entirely from his prominence on the BBC. “The chairman of a left-wing magazine such as the New Statesman would never be allowed such leeway,” said a source who has worked with Neil on TV. “When they come on his programmes, right-wing politicians are more comfortable with him than left-wing politicians simply because he mixes far more with them socially.”
Even Neil’s best friends wouldn’t deny his combative nature. “He could cause aggravation just by standing alone in a telephone box,” his fellow broadcaster Trevor Phillips once said. Anyone who dares to argue with him on Twitter risks an acerbic put-down. “You’ve stopped taking your medication again, haven’t you?” and “The stupid hashtags after your name show a diminished intelligence” are typical examples of his style. Neil has tweeted that the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr, whose award-winning investigations uncovered illicit funding of the Vote Leave campaign, was a “mad cat woman” and “Karol Kodswallop”.
When Jones claimed on This Week that Neil’s Spectator has racist and neo-Nazi-sympathising contributors, the exchange turned into an angry shouting match. (The Spectator columnist Taki published an article in 2018 headlined “In praise of the Wehrmacht”. It was later changed. In 2013, he described Golden Dawn as “good old-fashioned patriotic Greeks”.) “Your smears and lies about me are not going to be dealt with tonight, so just move off it,” Neil barked, before cutting the interview short.
The BBC management told Neil that his tweet on Cadwalladr, deleted soon after it was posted, was “inappropriate” and breached the corporation’s “social media guidelines”. Despite pressure from senior female executives, Neil made no formal apology and the BBC took no further action. In response to Jones’s criticisms, BBC News would say only that Neil was “an excellent interviewer” bound, like all BBC journalists, by “rules of on-air impartiality”.
“The BBC is frightened of Neil,” I was told by a source who has worked on his programmes. “It treats him as a protected species. With a Tory government in office, it worries about attacks from the right and what they mean for its future funding. Neil is their defence against allegations of left-wing bias.”
hough he looks, talks, walks and often writes like a Glaswegian pugilist, Neil was born and raised in Paisley, ten miles outside Glasgow. He began his journalistic career as a local cricket reporter for the Paisley Daily Express, then edited by his elder brother. “I sometimes drove him to matches and he’d bore the pants off me, talking about the game,” recalled Gerry Malone, a friend at university and later a Tory MP.
People frequently give him babies to hold and, though Neil has no children of his own, the number of his godchildren is well into double figures. He has three dogs and, according to one former colleague, “his features melt when he talks about them”. He likes movies and American history. His favourite TV show, which he would invite friends to watch with him, was Fox’s 24, featuring a counterterrorism agent based in Los Angeles. He has little interest in high culture.
Educated at Paisley Grammar School – for which he campaigned in the Sunday Times when it was threatened with closure – he believes passionately in meritocracy and hard work. His parents, he wrote with evident disappointment in his 1996 memoir Full Disclosure, “never quite progressed into the middle classes”.
During his childhood, they lived first in a rented inner-city tenement block, later in a council house. His father, an electrician who had a good war in Montgomery’s Eighth Army, became a major in Paisley’s Territorial Army, and later a planning clerk at the local council. His mother worked in the town’s cotton mills. In his memoirs, Neil characterised them as “plain folk”, words he often used in Sunday Times editorials to describe the down-to-earth, decent, non-intellectual voters who backed Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. He was raised as a Scottish Presbyterian – his father was “an elder of the kirk” – and says that, though he has no religion, its “cultural influence” has stayed with him.
He reckons he’s good at time management. Neil writes his own letters and makes his own appointments, and said in an interview in 2010 that he tells his PA “what’s in my diary, not the other way round”. He does intensive background research for his programmes, making compendious notes. He admits to an underlying insecurity and discomfort at parties. He does not, he admits, have much charm. Former colleagues say that, despite the “jolly uncle” act he puts on for This Week trailers, he has little sense of humour. “When he laughed,” recalls Don Berry, who worked for him at the Sunday Times, “he would go ‘ho, ho, ho’, as though reading from a script.”
Although Neil has a deserved reputation for nurturing young talent, his judgement of people is erratic. At the Sunday Times, he frequently appointed journalists from a tabloid background who struggled to adjust to a broadsheet.
For all his successes, he still carries a large chip on his shoulder, according to several who have worked with him. He hated Private Eye calling him “Brillo” because his wiry hair resembled a scouring pad. “He has a very thin hide,” says a former colleague. “He is sensitive about his image in the press. His self-narrative is that London is run by a privileged elite that has kept him from his proper inheritance.” According to some fellow broadcasters, he thinks the BBC marginalised him by giving him daytime and late-night slots.
The truth is that for Neil, now approaching 70, his career peaked nearly 30 years ago at the Sunday Times – where, for nearly three years, I was a member of his staff and, for some of that time, father of the chapel (ie union shop steward). Even then, he was a restless soul, talking of ambitions to become a big player in TV and to make what he called “serious money”. Now, thanks to his work for the BBC and Press Holdings and his chairmanship of ITP Media Group, which owns more than 60 magazines across the Middle East, he is a multi-millionaire. His private company boasts net assets of £8.8m and cash-in-hand of more than £900,000, according to the latest accounts. He and his Swedish wife Susan Nilsson, whom he married in 2015 and who is more than 20 years his junior, are the sole directors and shareholders. He has a flat in Chelsea, west London, a New York apartment, and a seven-bedroom house in the south of France, complete with gym, swimming pool, jacuzzi and satellite TV in every room.
Almost everyone who knows him says a man once famed for his abrasiveness has mellowed over the years. Friends say his true nature – “kind, generous and very loyal”, according to one account – is more frequently evident. He has even, it is said, learned to laugh at himself. Yet around him, there lingers an air of disappointed expectation.
Top of the pile: Neil in 1988, during his editorship of the Sunday Times. Brian Harris/The Independent/rex
Rupert Murdoch, who took over the Times and Sunday Times in 1981, catapulted Neil into the editorship of the latter, the largest circulation upmarket Sunday, at the age of 34. It was an astonishing and, some thought, foolish appointment. “A man of whom I know nothing,” said the Sunday Times editor Frank Giles when he announced that his brief reign was over and Neil would replace him. At the time, 1983, Neil had no experience of national newspapers and very little of editing.
After taking a politics and economics degree at Glasgow University, where he chaired the Conservative Club, sat on the Student Representative Council and edited the university paper, Neil briefly worked as a Tory party researcher before joining the Economist magazine in 1973. There, he reported from Britain and America, ranging over politics, industrial relations and business, before editing the UK section from 1982. When he looked for a new editor, Murdoch initially approached Alastair Burnet, the Economist editor who hired Neil and had also used him as a researcher when he anchored the February 1974 election campaign for ITV. Burnet declined but recommended Neil as “the brightest young journalist of his generation”.
It proved an inspired choice. Before Murdoch took over, the Sunday Times had enjoyed what many saw as its greatest years under Harold Evans, editor from 1967. It became a byword for investigations, carried out by its Insight team, and for campaigns of which the most famous won compensation for children born with missing limbs after their mothers took the Thalidomide drug during pregnancy. It constantly provoked the political and legal establishment, publishing the diaries of the former cabinet minister (and NS editor) Richard Crossman and exposing the damage caused by the Soviet spy Kim Philby, despite Whitehall attempts at suppression. Its willingness to break the rules, allied to its style and flair, caught the mood of the 1960s.
But though its political allegiances were opaque (at general elections, it usually gave only grudging support to the Tories), the paper’s tone was, in Neil’s view, too unfriendly to business and entrepreneurship, too disdainful of “plain folk” such as his parents, and out of touch with the aspirations of upwardly mobile skilled workers (C2s in the advertisers’ jargon) who were employed at the cutting edge of new technology and supported Thatcher. As for free-market economics, the pre-Neil Sunday Times scarcely bothered to write about an ideology that would soon sweep the world. Neil “got” the 1980s as surely as Evans “got” the 1960s.
Murdoch had moved Evans to the Times editorship before sacking him a year later. Sunday Times journalists still grieved for an editor they had revered and even loved. All but four were older than Neil; many had been with the paper for a decade or longer. “They were entrenched and very self-satisfied,” recalls one of Neil’s early appointments. “They were mostly men; the paper had hardly any women editors and few ethnic minority staff. There was an atmosphere of white male companionship and collegiality. New staff like me were coming into a closed world.”
Some established senior executives agreed with Neil that the paper needed a shake-up. “It had got very lax,” recalls Don Berry, then the features editor. “Harry kept a lot of talented people together by letting them do what they wanted, even if it was something other than what editors wanted. Often, they were off writing books. We had all these Writers with a capital W who wanted nothing to do with breaking news. We had to plead with them to write something topical.”
Neil set about change with enthusiasm. He hoped to achieve it with existing staff, he told the journalists – but not if there was “resistance”, he added, rolling the Scottish guttural “r” in a threatening manner. “He had this habit of upsetting even the people he wanted to keep,” says Berry, whose editing skills Neil prized highly. “I don’t know that he has the capability of being nice to anyone. He saw aggression around him even when it didn’t exist. He always had the desire for a fight.”
Neil repositioned the paper as cheerleader of free-market economic policies, anti-union legislation and privatisation. He disbanded the Insight team which, he claimed in his memoirs, had “ceased to
deliver”. He sacked Ronald Butt, the paper’s veteran high Tory political columnist, who was “out of touch”. He eased out the editor of the magazine, which was “lacklustre”. He began a “clear-out” of news and features staff. He parted company with Don McCullin, widely regarded as the greatest war photographer of his generation. Out went Hugo Young, joint deputy editor, columnist and, to many staff, guardian of the paper’s integrity (“high priest of the collectivist consensus that had… brought Britain to its knees”, was Neil’s verdict).
Others survived unhappily. David Robson, the sports editor under Neil, recalls “an atmosphere of autocracy” in editorial conferences. “It took some courage to question what Andrew said and [it was] quite daunting to make suggestions. I was pretty much a spectator but it felt to me that people were frightened to talk.” At the time, some journalists told me they felt physically intimidated by Neil, though there is no record of him even threatening violence.
The literary department, under Claire Tomalin, later a distinguished literary biographer, was one of the few to “resist my will”, as Neil put it. He demanded more “famous names” as reviewers and more gossip about publishers. He sent a secretary to list all books received so that he could ensure Tomalin chose “the right ones to review”. As a defender (like his boss Murdoch) of the foreign policies of the US Republican president Ronald Reagan, he ordered her to scrap a sympathetic review of a book that criticised US military intervention in El Salvador. But Tomalin, often as direct and intimidating in her manner as Neil, defied, or at least ignored, him. The deferential tended to suffer more.
Tomalin and Berry were among those who walked out when in 1986 Murdoch moved his papers to a “green fields” site in Wapping, east London, sacked nearly all the non-editorial staff and hired non-union printers. The move was planned in great secrecy. Many journalists resented being kept in the dark and being told outright lies. They voted by a narrow majority to obey management orders to leave their old offices near King’s Cross and cross the union picket lines that besieged the Wapping “plant” (as the company management unpoetically called it) for nearly a year. Following the instructions of the journalists’ national union, a handful, of whom I was one, held out. Some of Neil’s senior editors came to woo us back, successfully in my case. Neil didn’t, and even grumbled about his colleagues doing so.
It was the low point of Neil’s editorship: circulation fell more than 10 per cent; Labour MPs and trade unionists boycotted the paper and its reporters; the morale of the staff, many of whom boarded a fortified company bus to get to work, became fragile. But Neil was, in his words, “a true believer” in Murdoch’s mission to crush the Fleet Street unions with their over-manning and restrictive practices. Three years earlier, he had rung the then home secretary in the early hours of the morning to demand deployment of a riot squad to protect Eddy Shah, owner of local papers in Lancashire, whose printing plant was besieged by demonstrators protesting against the use of non-union labour.
Wapping highlighted Neil’s strengths and weaknesses: his determination and courage on the one hand (he received death threats), his lack of diplomatic skills on the other. Driven to distraction by his gung-ho insensitivity to those who hated working behind barbed wire and seeing long-standing non-editorial colleagues holding banners on the other side of it, the journalists came close to a vote of no confidence, supported by several senior editors. “Why do they all hate me?” he asked me. “You criticise too much, praise too little,” I said. For a few weeks, notes of extravagant praise regularly appeared on people’s desks. But those who still refused to work at Wapping gradually found other jobs while many (like me) drifted elsewhere, often to new newspapers, including the Independent, then being launched.
“We’re building a new team here,” he said in one of our last conversations. “These new papers will fail. The people who’ve left [he named names], they’ll come back, knocking at our door. And they can knock and knock and knock, and I won’t let them in.” In his memoirs, he acknowledged that “I had become a harsh, unforgiving editor”.
After the Wapping move, the Sunday Times was able to use new technology and was freed from the high production costs imposed by the print unions. It became a multi-section paper, dropping on doorsteps with the kind of thud long familiar to American readers of the Washington Post and New York Times. Many British households then bought two or more Sunday titles but, Neil announced, they would no longer need to. The “Culture” section gave popular music and TV the same rigorous critical scrutiny as classical music and theatre. A “Style” section highlighted the latest fashions and trends. A “News Review” section consciously imitated the Economist. There was even a children’s comic.
Neil’s Sunday Times became as essential reading as it had been under Evans. It investigated the finances of Mark Thatcher, son of the prime minister. She denounced the paper in the Commons and never again invited its editor to Downing Street. Neil bought Andrew Morton’s explosive biography of Diana, Princess of Wales, prompting calls for him to be horsewhipped or incarcerated in the Tower. He published extracts from Spycatcher, the memoirs of an ex-MI5 agent, despite warnings from government legal officers that he risked being in contempt of a court injunction, obtained by ministers to prevent the book’s UK publication. The paper produced incontrovertible evidence that Israel, despite its denials, possessed a nuclear arsenal. It revealed how overseas aid was used to bribe Malaysia to award a £1.3bn arms contract to Britain and, later, how the British construction company Wimpey approved “special payments” to senior Malaysian politicians to secure a contract to build an aluminium smelter. The stories infuriated the British government and the Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. More ominously for Neil, they infuriated Rupert Murdoch, then hoping to get his Asian Star satellite system into Malaysia. “Not content with taking on one fucking prime minister, you have to take on two,” he railed.
Yet for all Neil’s fearlessness, his Sunday Times was never much loved, or even admired. Some critics thought Neil claimed more credit than he deserved. They pointed out that the Observer broke the Mark Thatcher story first; the Sunday Times came to it late and only after initially denigrating it. Neil was accused of failing to ensure the safety of Mordechai Vanunu, its source for the Israeli nuclear story. Vanunu, who had once worked at a nuclear research centre, was kidnapped by Israeli agents and put on trial in Israel where he served an 18-year sentence, some of it in solitary confinement.
Other big Sunday Times stories were, as critics saw it, simply misconceived. The most notorious example was the paper’s claim that heterosexuals were not at significant risk from Aids. The virus, it argued, was transmitted through either infected needles or anal sex. Heterosexuals could get Aids but only if they were drug abusers or if they indulged in anal sex, particularly with bisexuals. The paper went further: the HIV virus was not, it reported, on its own a killer – it needed “co-factors” such as recreational drugs to become fatal – and was possibly not even the cause of Aids.
Such stories outraged doctors and scientists and damaged both Neil, who was branded a mass murderer, and the paper. Nature magazine published a magisterial denunciation and called for a boycott. By
associating Aids with the “wrong” lifestyle, the stories seemed to play all too neatly into the paper’s Thatcherite agenda. Yet Neil was unrepentant in his memoirs. “Aids had become an industry, a job-creating scheme for the caring classes,” he wrote. It resulted in “a scandalous misappropriation of medical resources”. He even dared to compare his stand on the subject to Evans’s long campaign on Thalidomide.
But Neil wasn’t an Evans-style campaigner. His instincts were not to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. On the central drama of Thatcher’s premiership – the 1984-85 miners’ strike – the Sunday Times stood firmly behind the government. In what Neil called “the scoop of the decade”, it gleefully reported that money from Muammar al-Gaddafi’s Libyan regime, which was widely associated with terrorism, had been sent to the miners’ union and its president Arthur Scargill – the result, it was later claimed, of an MI5 “sting”. When security services shot dead three unarmed IRA members in Gibraltar, allegedly because they were about to detonate a bomb, the Sunday Times, far from questioning Ministry of Defence accounts, comprehensively rubbished a Thames TV programme that revealed the government’s mendacity. Instead of investigating the effects of Thatcher’s policies on poor people, Neil gave generous space to the American political scientist Charles Murray, who argued that the welfare state created “dependency” and an “underclass” that lived, as Neil wrote in an editorial, in areas where “drugs, casual violence, petty crime, illegitimate children, homelessness, work avoidance and contempt for conventional values” flourished.
On his own admission, Neil was more Thatcherite than Thatcher, complaining in 1986 that she was “running out of ideas and reforming zeal”. He favoured a 15 per cent flat rate of income tax and turning Britain into the “low-cost, high-productivity Hong Kong of northern Europe”. Yet he believed in public spending as an essential tool for economic stimulus, opposed the poll tax, and, as an ardent pro-European, backed Michael Heseltine in the 1990 Tory leadership contest, even when Thatcher was still standing. Hugo Young was therefore too harsh when he wrote, after he left the paper, that the Sunday Times had become “a hard-line paper of the right”. But he was correct to observe that, under Neil, it carried little journalism “which took as its starting point the hypothesis that there might be people out there who needed help”.
Ready to go: “He’s quite awkward privately. But the moment the camera comes on, he comes alive.” Tom Pilston/The Independent/rex
Murdoch could hardly have hoped for an editor more in tune with his agenda and more energetic in discharging his duties. When Murdoch was launching Sky TV, he sent Neil, on secondment from the Sunday Times, to ensure that the new channel got off to a good start, ahead of its rival BSB.
But the two men – strong personalities who liked to get their way – rarely got on. “Andrew was always forthright and Murdoch didn’t like it,” recalls a close senior colleague. When Thomas “Slab” Murphy sued the Sunday Times over allegations that he was directing an IRA bombing campaign, Murdoch, on the advice of lawyers, wanted to settle out of court for £1m. Neil said he would resign. Murdoch backed down and the paper eventually won the case.
Neil was by then emerging as a TV and radio pundit, far more recognisable to the public than Murdoch himself. He was often in the gossip columns, attending fashionable parties and visiting London nightclubs with young women on his arm. Woodrow Wyatt, a former Labour MP who became close to both Thatcher and Murdoch, recorded in his diaries that Neil attended one dinner in 1986 “with a dusky-looking, tart-like lady with a white skirt hitched up well above her knees”. He seemed to change his girlfriends once a month, Wyatt added.
His relationship with Pamella Bordes, a former Miss India later revealed as a prostitute by the News of the World (another Murdoch-owned paper based at the Wapping “plant”), attracted intense tabloid interest, particularly since Donald Trelford, editor of the rival Observer, was also seen with her. “Dirty Don Tried to Pull My Pam Says Randy Andy”, a tabloid headline shouted. Peregrine Worsthorne, then editor of the Sunday Telegraph, wrote an editorial entitled “Editors as Playboys” arguing that Neil was unfit to edit a serious paper. He should spend his evenings at Oxbridge high-tables, not in nightclubs, Worsthorne wrote.
Neil sued for libel and, to much public merriment, a six-day High Court trial followed. Neil won, but was awarded a modest £1,000 in damages. “Randy Andy gets a Grandy”, reported the Sun, also a Murdoch paper.
Neil struggled to shake off his reputation for a somewhat sleazy lifestyle, particularly since he remained unmarried and without even a long-term partner until his 60s. For years, Private Eye persistently ran a picture of him, in baseball cap and vest, embracing a young brown-skinned woman, generally assumed to be Bordes. Neil accused Private Eye of “public school racism” and protested to anybody who would listen that she was an African-American and the top make-up artist in the US. They were leaving a Caribbean beach, he said, not a London night-club, as Private Eye implied.
Murdoch was unamused by the Bordes affair. In his view, editors should get on with editing and not become public figures. “You’re always on television,” he once complained to Neil. Nor should editors, he thought, take on other interests. Neil’s involvement with Britain Confidential, a newsletter charging £1,500 for a year’s subscription, caused further disgruntlement. Perhaps fortunately, the enterprise flopped, attracting only seven subscribers.
In 1994, soon after the Malaysia exposé, Murdoch offered Neil another job: he would edit and present a new current affairs show on Murdoch’s Fox network. In his heart of hearts, Neil knew it was a trap, designed to remove him from his power base, just as Murdoch had once lured Evans from the Sunday Times to what seemed the greater prize of the Times editorship.
But Neil was always besotted with America: its culture, its politics, its ways of doing business. In his early days at the Sunday Times, visitors to his home often found him wearing a T-shirt with “USA” in large letters on the front. His speech is peppered with Americanisms such as “right now” and “hit the ground running”. He accepted Murdoch’s offer.
When he met staff for the proposed Fox show in New York, he told them they should not be afraid to be politically incorrect: “I want your friends to hate you because of the stories you work on.” But the show never went on air. Murdoch was unwilling to take the risk of putting an unknown Scotsman on American TV. Questions such as whether private coaching could modify Neil’s Scottish vowels sufficiently to make him comprehensible to US audiences were never answered.
In November 1994, Neil finally parted ways with Murdoch and felt, he wrote in his memoirs, “a huge black cloud lift from my shoulders”. Murdoch, he said many years later, is “a huge presence in your life which is not healthy to have for too long”. Yet to this day, according to one recent colleague, “Murdoch looms large in his psyche; he talks about him a lot.”
As soon as Neil parted company with his Sunday Times boss, he pressed on with his long-held ambitions to establish himself as a TV personality. Even at the Economist, he had presented BBC and ITV documentaries, as well as a late Saturday night show on London Weekend Television. Now, encouraged by a call from Samir Shah, the BBC’s head of political programmes, Neil returned to the UK to front a new late-night TV politics show in 1995. “He seemed ideal to me,” Shah now recalls, “because, as well as a very sharp journalistic mind, he has a real passion for politics. He was never one of those who sneer about Westminster. He was genuinely interested.”
In tandem with his newly launched BBC career, Neil began another as a high-ranking media executive and businessman. In 1996, David and Frederick Barclay, who after making their fortunes in shipping, hotels and retail, had a few years earlier entered the publishing business, appointed him editor-in-chief of their Press Holdings Group, which then comprised the European, Sunday Business and the Scotsman. The Barclays saw a former Sunday Times editor as an asset, giving them credibility and clout as they sought bigger media prizes.
Confronted with 24-hour radio and TV news channels and growing internet use, newspapers were just beginning their long battle against decline. So it probably wasn’t Neil’s fault that the three papers failed to flourish. He tried relaunches, redesigns, cost cuts, price cuts, price rises, new presses, new colour magazines and supplements, changes from broadsheet to tabloid, giving the papers away, changes of editor – in ten years at the Scotsman, he got through seven editors, as many as the paper had during the first century after its launch in 1817 – but the Barclays continued to lose millions. The European closed in 1999, with cumulative losses of £79m. Sunday Business (which became The Business after one of Neil’s relaunches and became a magazine after another) closed in 2008, with losses of at least £50m.
At the Scotsman, Neil set out to challenge the status quo as he had done at the Sunday Times, abandoning the paper’s traditional left-of-centre politics and (as Scots voted for and acquired their first devolved government in nearly 300 years) modifying its long-standing support for devolution. “The thing to do with old-established institutions,” he told colleagues and anybody else who cared to listen, “is to blow them up from the inside.”
Magnus Linklater, a former Scotsman editor (1988 to 1994), wrote a Times column arguing that Neil was alienating the very constituencies the paper had to appeal to. “He asked to see me,” Linklater recalls, “and asked what constituencies I had in mind. I said they were the medical and legal professions, teachers, social workers, people like that. He was delighted. They were exactly the people he wanted to challenge. I asked who the core readers should be instead. He said the new entrepreneurially minded Scots, such as those at Aberdeen Asset Management. Well, the trouble was that there weren’t that many of them.”
Even more strangely, Neil tried to turn the Scotsman into a British national paper, not just a Scottish one, and spent heavily to promote its London circulation. “He was completely unsuccessful,” says Linklater. “The Scotsman has always been an Edinburgh paper. It isn’t even read in Glasgow.” Once more, Neil faced a vote of no confidence from journalists (this one was passed) and, when he cheered on the demutualisation of the Edinburgh-based insurance company Standard Life, a boycott.
A rising circulation curve turned sharply downwards once price cuts were reversed. The Barclays sold the paper in 2005, though Neil could at least point out that circulation was higher than when he took over. By then, the twins had acquired the Daily and Sunday Telegraph along with the Spectator, part of the Telegraph group since 1988. The media industry speculated that Neil could be editor-in-chief or chief executive. He got neither job. Neil insisted that he had no interest in them – they were full-time position that would have meant stopping his TV work. But he admitted in 2012 that, “I am a better journalist than I am a businessman.”
After 23 years, he remains in charge of Press Holdings, having added the titles of chief executive and then chairman while his empire has diminished, so that it now comprises just the Spectator and Apollo art magazine. If he has always seemed a square peg in a politically centrist round hole at the BBC, he seems, in some respects, even more so at the Spectator, even if he started reading it (or so he claims) at 14.
“People liked the magazine for its quirkiness, its cultivated Englishness, its laid-back, witty style, its liking of writing for writing’s sake,” a former columnist told me. “He hated all that. He wanted to turn it into another Economist. He sees the world through the prism of economics. He doesn’t understand any form of analysis that doesn’t put economics at its heart. He’d like every Spectator cover to be on fiscal policy, in France if not Britain.” Another writer who still contributes to the magazine said: “It was never really about politics, it was a journal of manners. The summer party used to be a proper literary party, with a chaotic rabble of people falling over in the garden. Now it’s an appalling event, with people listening deferentially to Philip Hammond.” Under Neil, the same writer complained, the magazine abandoned its home in Bloomsbury, traditionally London’s quarter of literary bohemianism, and moved closer to Westminster, among the offices of the think tanks and lobbyists.
Neil joined while Boris Johnson, by then a Conservative MP, was its editor. Both Johnson and Kimberly Quinn, the publisher, were embroiled in widely reported extramarital affairs. “We… have to inject some intellectual rigour,” Neil told the Observer. “The Spectator is work in progress. It has to get dragged into the 21st century.” According to a journalist who then worked at the magazine, “Neil went around London trashing Boris.” The magazine needed “serious authority”, he told the British Journalism Review in 2005.
Johnson left that year and Neil replaced him with Matthew d’Ancona, an old-style One Nation Tory who had been deputy editor and political columnist at the Sunday Telegraph and now writes a column for the Guardian. He was ousted in 2009 and replaced by Fraser Nelson, Cornish by birth but, like Neil, raised in Scotland and a Glasgow University graduate. “He sees himself in Fraser,” a former Spectator journalist told me. “That they’re both Scottish is the least of it. They share an economic mindset and a flinty Euroscepticism.”
Another ex-Spectator writer alleged: “He appointed Matthew [d’Ancona] to destroy him because he went to Oxford, which Neil hates, and he is the sort of Tory Neil hates. Neil can be quite cunning, you know.”
Andrew Neil celebrates his 70th birthday in May, a few weeks before This Week goes off air for good, after its presenter told the BBC that he wished to step down. For a while, he will continue to do other work for the corporation but, I am told, the amount will diminish further.
The parting comes after a long stand-off with the BBC. An informed source told me: “He has been saying for some time that This Week, which gets an audience of nearly a million for a show starting just before midnight, should be rewarded with an earlier place in the schedules. He’s very competitive and he saw [Robert] Peston on ITV being moved from Sunday mornings to Wednesdays at 10.30pm. He wants that slot on BBC One and is convinced he’d crush Peston. But Newsnight is on BBC Two at that time and the BBC doesn’t want to move it. And it’s obsessed with reaching younger age groups. Andrew is the wrong age, the wrong sex and the wrong colour.”
Whether he is happy with what he has achieved is another matter. Did he once expect to emulate his mentor Alastair Burnet, whom he has described as “the greatest news anchor Britain has had”? Or to rule an international media empire as Murdoch did? Late-night and daytime TV, a couple of niche weekly magazines in Britain (he once talked about creating “a stable of magazines”, including Prospect and the New Statesman, “that are important to the democratic discourse of this nation”), and a chain of obscure Middle East publications may seem somewhat anticlimatic after the glories of editing the UK’s biggest Sunday broadsheet, in his 30s, during the turbulence and transformations of the Thatcher years.
Neil refused to be interviewed or to assist with this article in any way, claiming on Twitter that I must be intent on a “hatchet job”, which I was not. But his friends give the impression that, if he feels frustrated, he doesn’t show it much, and he seems happier since he got married. “I don’t think he will spend a single nanosecond shedding tears over the BBC,” says Trevor Phillips. “His view will be: it’s their loss, I’ve got better things to do. He’s always looking for the next interesting thing.”
And what might that be? The official story is that Neil plans to spend more time on Spectator USA, launched last year. But expect him on somebody’s TV screen somewhere before long. There is speculation that he could present a show for America’s NBC on its European channel, Euronews. But a British channel – possibly Sky now it is no longer owned by Murdoch – is also a possibility. “He’s leaving the BBC not because he’s gone off the boil,” says Phillips, “but because they can’t find a place for him. It’s a loss to journalism and broadcasting because politics needs to be interrogated more mercilessly than at any time since Thatcher – and Andrew has the rare ability to do that.”