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Mary Riddell

Non-stop Neil, at home alone

British Journalism Review
Vol. 16, No. 2, 2005, pages 13-20

Mary Riddell is a columnist for The Observer and an interviewer with the Daily Mail.

Contents - Vol 16, No 2, 2005

Editorial - Nightmare scenario 3

Andy Bell - The election: a dog's breakfast 7

Mary Riddell - Non-stop Neil, at home alone 13

Tabloid revolution
Robert Thomson - New Times, good times 21

Christopher Walker - Small Times, bad Times 26

Greg Watts - Why is God such a hard sell 31

Great political correspondents
Alan Watkins - Called to the bar 37

Political cartooning - Philip Zec: genius recognised — official 45

Brendan O'Neill - When reporters cloud the truth 49

Don Berry - News shouldn't be a free ride 55

John Hill - Tomorrow's world is digital 60

Fergal Keane - My best friend 65

Christopher Wilson - My nanosecond of celebrity 71

Roy Greenslade on Piers Morgan 81

Michael Brunson on the Richard Lindley 85

Phillip Knightley on Phil Rees 87

Mike Molloy on Derek Birdsall 89

Brian Winston on Birt, Dyke and the BBC 91

Bill Hagerty on Conrad Black 93

The way we were 48

  Andrew Neil has two front doors. Or more, if you count the villa in the south of France, the 78th floor Manhattan condominium and wherever he parks his worldwide transferable telephone landline number when he is in Edinburgh. But this is the grander end of South Kensington, where Neil resides in a brace of adjoining flats. While posing a challenge to the dropper-in (which door to tap on?), the conjoined apartments seem appropriate to his existence.

At 55, Neil has built himself a twin-track life. Part corporate high-flier, part television host and interviewer, he recently claimed to have a ‘boutique' of responsibilities. Topshop would actually be the better retail metaphor for a sprawling portfolio that includes running the Scotsman group, The Business and The Spectator for the Barclay brothers, as well as media punditry and TV work. In the run-up to the election, the BBC's political coverage often resembled a Neil sandwich, with his lunchtime show The Daily Politics running from Monday to Friday, and his late-night offering This Week given an extra slot.

It is obvious that Neil is rarely idle. His apartment, spacious and dimly lit, is a functional hybrid of Garrick clubbishness and a provincial auction room. Stocked with oddly assorted belongings (a rigged model schooner, some chinoiserie, a portrait of Neil and the Queen, a vast plasma screen), this is a very male habitat. Its air is heavy with good cigar smoke, and, though it is impeccably tidy, you could probably write “Bachelor Pad” in the coffee table dust. The proprietor, who is off making instant coffee in one of his two kitchens, is less easy to pigeonhole.

Neil and I have never previously met, and – from a distance – he seems quite bumptious. Word arrives from his office at The Business that he will do this interview only on condition that it is featured on the BJR cover, which sounds a) pushy and b) unwise, since I am likely to mention his stipulation. Then there is the curious dislocation between Neil the hotshot publisher and interviewer (“...the surprise star of the election” – The Guardian) and Neil the showman, who is more difficult to take seriously. Pre-election, the title sequence for This Week was a jaw-dropping spoof of Is This the Road to Amarillo?, with Neil hoofing around in pink sequins and a mauve feather boa like a hybrid of the late Dame Barbara Cartland and Bruce Forsyth. Why?

“If you believe in star signs, which I don't, it's probably because I'm a Gemini – a communicator at different levels. When I was at The Economist in the 1970s, I was writing for no more than 50,000 of the British elite, but I was also doing Nationwide, which had 12 million viewers, turning the same stories into something my mum would understand. That kind of tabloid television is probably the most difficult of the lot.”

But Neil is more than just a good populariser, or a light entertainer manqué. He is, as he acknowledges, “foolhardy”, and that streak of rashness makes him far more engaging company than I expect. By the time he left the editorship of The Sunday Times just over a decade ago, he had infuriated his icon, Margaret Thatcher, (by being too snippy), the Royal Family (by running Andrew Morton's revelations about Diana), and Rupert Murdoch (by getting too big for his boots and being rude about The Sun). I imagine that Neil, unlike almost any other ambitious fortysomething in the Murdoch empire, simply lacked the deference that the boss required. There were jobs at Sky and Fox before the relationship expired altogether, with the publication of Neil's memoir in 1996. The two men have not spoken since.

Though Neil does not say so, he seems to have suffered the fate of all mavericks who stick pins in the egos of the powerful. Certainly, no establishment safety-net cushioned his dive from Planet Murdoch into a freelance career that might have drifted through endless opinion pieces and graveyard shifts on Radio Insomnia, but for the Barclays. Sir David and Sir Frederick, the reclusive twins who have placed Neil at the heart of their media empire, must seem a dream to him.

“They are a dream in a way. I hadn't really intended, when I left Murdoch, to go back into a sort of proprietorial situation. It's turned out a better dream than I thought, because we've added more things to it. It's a good company to run now.” The latest Barclay bolt-ons include the Telegraph, which Neil is not involved in, despite speculation that he might have become its overlord. He is, however, the new king of The Spectator, which has been shifted into the Barclays' Press Holdings Group, along with Apollo, the upmarket arts magazine, and the online women's periodical, Then there is The Scotsman, which is making “a ton of money”, and The Business, where Neil has curbed decline. “Last year we lost about £3.5 million. This year I hope we'll lose between £2 and £2.5 [million]. It's progress, though frankly not as quick as I would like.”

The Barclays, living in the Channel Islands and operating out of Monte Carlo, from where they are currently suing The Times for libel in the French courts, meddle almost too little for Neil's taste. “I'd quite like to speak to them more. David and I speak regularly, but I don't see them very often. Only once, I think, this year.” Though he speaks with genuine admiration of the men responsible for the rise and rise of Andrew Neil, there is a faint, unspoken impression that he misses Murdoch. Not that he ever liked him much: “I think he was unnecessarily... rude is actually too weak a word. Unnecessarily brutal. Almost never with me, but with Kelvin MacKenzie [the former Sun editor] and others.”

Envy of sheer power

Much as he hated Murdoch's “telephone terrorism” and domineering ways, I suspect there was much in his world – the flamboyance, the cussedness, the sheer power – that Neil found enviable. Long after their estrangement, he remains fascinated by what Murdoch thinks. “He wouldn't welcome Gordon Brown [as prime minister] but he's not that frightened about it either. Don't forget Rupert Murdoch has no more territorial demands in Britain. He just wants to be left alone to run his papers. He didn't want [to own] Channel 5, which I think was a mistake. He doesn't want to get into radio. He's had the breaks, he doesn't want to acquire anything any more.”

You could not say the same of Neil, whose expanding duties have caused some angst at Doughty Street, the offices of The Spectator. The trouble began when Frank Kane, The Observer's highly respected business editor, quoted Neil as saying that the magazine “is work in progress – it has to get dragged into the 21st century”. This remark infuriated Peter Oborne, The Spectator's political editor, who denounced Neil in the Evening Standard. Neil responded by suggesting that he had been misquoted. Was he? No seems to be the answer. Or rather, in Neil's account, his remarks were accurately reported, but he was referring to The Spectator's “financial and commercial side... Editorially, I think before anyone would ever think of dragging it into the 21st century, you would probably want to get it into the 20th.” There is quite a long pause before he says: “That's just a joke.”

Stand by, however, for changes. “In nudging them in the direction of change, I have to be very careful. This is not The Economist. In some ways its ideological eclecticism and quirkiness is part of the strength. But I do think it should have a stronger voice on the big issues of the day. I've said that to Boris [Johnson, the editor] and even to Peter. What annoys them is what I said about it having a bit more intellectual rigour. They take it as a criticism of them... [but] that's just the direction I'd like to nudge it in.” The “serious authority” with which Neil hopes to imbue the magazine “still means you can have the Rod Liddles and Takis and Frank Johnsons”. Even Taki? “Even Taki, provided he stays within the law and overall good taste.”

Is Boris's job safe? “Boris's job is safe,” he says. For how long? “I have a simple principle. If I'm going to talk about the future of somebody I employ, then I would talk to them before you or any other journalist.” That is all he will say, but I would guess that Johnson's medium-term future depends both on how “nudgeable” he turns out to be and on whether the right-wing establishment can learn to forget what Neil calls “the Sextator period” (the various high jinks of Liddle, Johnson and publisher Kimberly Quinn) and treat a new, intellectually-rigorous Spectator with due reverence. Neil's evident dismay at the “complete mess” of the accounts system he inherited may not be welcome news to Quinn, the magazine's publisher and David Blunkett's former lover, who will soon return from maternity leave. “I've not had a conversation with her yet, but she's due back in the middle of the year. We assume that she's coming back and that she'll fit into the new way of doing things,” he says.

Beyond Spectator minutiae, Neil has a bigger vision. He envisages “a stable of magazines that are important to the democratic discourse of this nation,” all run by him. Neil would do backroom support, such as selling advertising and distribution, leaving separate trusts to make editorial decisions for each title. Neil has already suggested that he should take 50 per cent of Prospect, which he “loves”, but got a rebuff from its owner, Derek Coombs. Has he also approached Geoffrey Robinson at the New Statesman? “No, I haven't. But, if he reads this, he's got my number. The offer's still open. I think we'd be building a fine company. It would be a public service because we keep the diversity of opinions but give them a secure base.”

Andrew Ferguson Neil was never obviously destined to assume for himself the mantle of enlightened entrepreneur. Born in Scotland in 1949, he was one of two sons of an electrician who ran the Cairo fire brigade during the war and later oversaw the Territorial Army in Renfrewshire. Mary, Neil's mother, “had to go and work in the cotton mills during the war. She was a mill girl”. The Neils, whose pictures sit on their son's mantelpiece, came from the relatively affluent Scottish working class that often produced over-achieving children. The Barclays, Neil says, had similar roots. Neil went to Paisley Grammar (“a wonderful school”) and Glasgow University. “It was the Oxford of Scotland then, and I was studying economics where Adam Smith wrote the Wealth of Nations.”

He graduated in 1971 with a degree in political economy and political science and went straight on to become a political adviser to a minister in Ted Heath's government. His BBC contract forbids him disclosing his own politics, but I would guess that, like other get-ahead Thatcherites, he had a chilly dalliance with Blairism and has increasingly found himself to be a pundit without a tribe. Or, as he puts it: “I've made enemies on the left and right. I'm not part of the mainstream left, and I'm not a paid-up Tory either.”

Red-tops have had it
In many ways, he has always seemed a loner. Editors have to be, to some extent, and he lasted longer than many, occupying the chair of The Economist and The Sunday Times before moving into television and the Barclay empire. More relevantly, Neil has never shirked stringent opinions on others in his trade. In particular, he bewails the quality of reporting on the media. “We cover our business terribly. We're the new crime reporters. It's just terrible stuff. Makes you wince.” Unlike Murdoch, he does not foresee the inevitable decline of the newspaper, though he does think British red-tops have had it. “This general election campaign was the worst I can remember for The Sun. The days of governments going in fear of it are over. It has ceased to be this crucial paper that broke or made governments. It never did, actually, but even the mythology [has gone]. And its circulation is on the way down. The more television channels there are, the tougher it becomes for red-tops.”

About the compact Times, he is even more acerbic. “It is a mess. And it's lost authority. The editor [Robert Thomson] is very bright, and he thinks, which is not always a good thing for a Murdoch editor to do. He's very centre left. I sometimes read a Times editorial and know that Murdoch will cringe, because he hates hearing that there is much to be said on both sides. He likes red meat in his editorials. But he appointed Robert, and he'll give him a chance.”

The Independent fares better. “It was an amazing achievement to get that rise in circulation by going tabloid. But it wasn't life transforming. It still left them fourth in the marketplace. It's hit a ceiling, and The Guardian has yet to fight back [with its impending change to a Berliner format]. I think The Guardian and The Observer are pretty well placed at the moment.” He cannot speak about the Telegraph titles, where both editors are rumoured to be insecure, but he thinks the Barclays will bide their time. “The papers make money, there is work to be done on them, but don't expect anything overnight.” The Daily Mail, in his view, is “the most professional paper in the world, and the most impressive”.

While he is hard to fault in the frank-and-fearless department, these attributes – or flaws, depending on your taste – do not nearly explain the real Neil. Nor can the maulings he has taken in the past be wholly ascribed to score-settling by those he has offended. “Dracula has had better profiles than me,” he says. While this is true, Neil actually seems a vulnerable figure, whose perceived overload of ego and vanities has, in the past, invited parody and rank derision. Like many upfront characters, he is, I would guess, much more insecure than he would care to show. Does he mind that Private Eye still regularly publishes the ancient picture of him in a vest, embracing a young woman? Expecting a dismissive answer, I get a treatise. “I haven't bought a copy of Private Eye since I left The Sunday Times. When people tell me my picture is still in it, I say: ‘That's good. I must still matter.' I'm not even sure whether that's true or not. I don't care. When it began in 1994, I found the public school racism fascinating. The woman is a black Afro-American. She was Barbara Walters's make-up artist; the top one in the U.S., and she worked on my show. Fox had to get the best one to do me. Ha ha. Our relationship broke up soon afterwards, and she's completely unaware that she's the most famous face in Private Eye. Then there was supposed to be this huge age difference. At the time, I was 44, and she was 35. That's not bad. And because this woman wasn't white, she had to be an Asian babe, just because they had seen Andrew out with Asian girls before.”

Everyone remembers Neil's relationship with Pamella Bordes, the former Miss India and Commons researcher who later turned out also to have been a call girl. Neil successfully sued Peregrine Worsthorne for calling him a playboy, but now wishes he hadn't bothered. “I think I was the only one in the whole Bordes saga who never had anything to hide. I was a single guy. It was a mistake to sue because the consequences would have been grim if I had lost, whereas the only consequence of winning was that I hadn't lost. It dragged the whole thing up again, to the greater gaiety of the nation.”

The old Neil liked clubbing at Tramp and could sometimes be spotted at a party conference, holding court at dinner to a bevy of young women bearing scant resemblance to Simone de Beauvoir. More recently, he confirmed that he was seeing what he rather quaintly referred to as “a steady; very private, very beautiful and very smart”. This woman was said, though not by him, to be a well-heeled Belgian businesswoman whom acquaintances regarded as a factor in forging the new, less abrasive Neil. Is that true?

“I'm not sure that's the reason. I've mellowed a bit. I'm not hand-to-hand fighting any more, and I've got more confidence in myself. When Murdoch appointed me to The Sunday Times, I knew that if I'd been him, I wouldn't have appointed me. I was by no means sure that I was up to doing it, and lots of people were pretty sure I wasn't... The mistake I made, too, is that I got into the frame of mind where I actually started picking fights. But I don't have to prove myself any more.”

My selfish existence

The changes in Neil cannot be ascribed, however, to his Belgian partner, who turns out not to have been so “steady” after all. “We've broken up. But I'm very fine, and happy. I'm not sure I will get married now,” he volunteers without being asked. “I always thought I would, but time goes on. Mine is a very selfish existence. I work seven days a week, and I have everything organised around me. It's quite hard for someone to fit into that. I still believe in love at first sight, but I've never quite found the right person, and they have never found me. I'm not saying it won't happen, but I think it's less likely now.”

Then, as I say, lest the conversation becomes too Mills and Boon, there is the money thing. Surely Neil, who must be very rich, cannot relish the thought of gold-diggers or a costly break-up? He takes this idea more seriously than I expect. “A friend of mine has just got divorced, and she got half his wealth and houses. He was wealthy enough still to be fine for the rest of his life. He'll continue to have his yacht. If I was to lose half of my wealth, that would change my prospects quite substantially.” Neil, who remains yachtless if lavishly-housed, has a reputation for frugality. Still, it is hard to believe that financial prudence is the real reason for his single status. He once said his best Christmas was one he spent alone in his French house, watching television with his housekeeper in attendance; a tableau that most people would consider to be borderline tragic. But he boasts of 14 godchildren, and no one who meets Neil could think him a lonely or disappointed man. I would guess that he simply lacks interest in the private compacts that fill and shape most people's lives. Why bother with the backstage stuff when you can be front-of-house?

Cut to the cluster of high-profile jobs, the media presence, the stridency, the look-at-me exhibitionism, the sequins and the mauve feather boa. All down to being a Gemini, he had suggested earlier, so I looked up his star sign on his own Apparently Geminis never settle for one benefit when they could end up with two. Hence, I suppose, the twin-track career, the double flat, the matched front doors and the blend of power and acclaim that eluded Andrew Neil for so long. No wonder he seems cheerful.