Born: 21 May 1949 (Paisley)
School: Paisley Grammar
Degree: MA Hons in politics and economics (University of Glasgow)
On one of his irregular visits to the offices of the publishing empire he controls, Andrew Neil mused to staff across the enormous mahogany table of his boardroom: ‘The euro is doomed to failure. It will never achieve parity with the dollar.’ Days later, it did.
The euro. The Labour Party. Scotland’s new parliament. Neil rages furiously against them all. Fifteen years ago, as one of the most successful newspaper editors of his generation, his diatribes were resonant. And the Sunday Times, which he edited for 11 years from 1983, promoted his beloved values – meritocracy, commercialism, American ‘can-do’ – with all the chutzpah that made Neil a household name.
He helped launch Sky TV for the paper’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch. Since leaving Murdoch’s employment, he has created for himself a cottage industry of media interests. When the massively rich Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay recruited him to run their fledgling publishing empire in 1996, they duly offered him a reported annual fee of £500,000.
But even for someone of Neil’s noted self-assurance, recent years must have sparked moments of self-doubt. The European, Neil’s first big publishing project, swallowed up £60 million of his patrons’ cash before being closed down. The Business is in difficulty. Staff at the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday, his flagship titles, have passed a motion of no confidence in Neil as he proposes to axe jobs and merge parts of the papers.
Neil’s long-running Sunday programme on Radio 5 went off air last year. And it is now reported that his BBC2 parliamentary show, Despatch Box, faces downscaling too. If he were one of the powerful people he loves to tease, might Neil himself ask if Icarus had flown too close to the sun?
A grammar school boy from Paisley, aspiration and hard work were the cornerstones of Neil’s education. His first editorship came in 1969, while studying politics at Glasgow University. He took over a student newspaper.
‘Andrew made it riveting,’ says one university friend. ‘He refused to act like most student editors who think they can re-invent journalism. He carefully aped successful papers. The Sunday Times once did a survey of motorway service stations with pictures of trays full of food. He copied it almost exactly with a survey of university cafés. He was a big shouter during student union debates.’
They were Neil’s introduction to Tory politics. He regularly attended Federation of Conservative Students conferences. ‘Andrew chaired things terribly well,’ says Ann Widdecombe, an admiring Oxford undergraduate at the time. ‘He was evidently ambitious, but he worked well with others. Young people behaved respectably then and Andrew was responsible for late-night “noise and morality” patrols.’
In 1971, Neil joined the Conservative Research Department, in those days a crucible for serious political thought, and then the Economist two years later. Neil’s decade at the magazine was the period of Tory political failure and British economic under-performance, which shaped so many on the Right. He was made UK editor in 1982.
Just a year later came the start of the glory years. Neil was enlisted by Rupert Murdoch to ‘rescue’ the Sunday Times. The paper had finally surrendered its prized reputation as a newspaper of record after falling for the faked ‘Hitler diaries’. Neil’s first challenge was to lead a bitter battle against the print unions as Murdoch’s papers moved to a de-unionised plant at Wapping in east London. He then transformed his paper into a vibrant champion of Thatcherism.
He took risks, including the 1991 publication of Andrew Morton’s claims that the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales was almost over. Within less than a decade, the Sunday Times became one of the most profitable newspapers in the world. And Neil wasn’t coy about making public appearances to boast about it with his boundless, confrontational energy.
His private life was no less vigorous. Typical of his many companions was a former Miss India, Pamella Bordes. Neil sued Peregrine Worsthorne for libel, and won £1,000, after the Sunday Telegraph editor wrote that ‘playboys’ should not edit newspapers. Neil had not known that Bordes was a sometime call-girl. The court victory was portrayed as a triumph of ‘new Britain’ over the old, the ordinary boy from Scotland had seen off the public-school grandee.
One of the greatest errors of his Sunday Times years was to back a campaign to prove that HIV was not the cause of Aids. At a time of moral panic, it was a reassuring viewpoint for many heterosexuals with colourful private lives.
Neil’s view has always been that, as a single man, he is entitled to court whoever he pleases. But a former companion says: ‘The idea that Andrew is a constant gadabout is not entirely true. He never visited Tramp [a nightclub] every night, as some suggested, and certainly not on Friday and Saturday, because he couldn’t pick up a mobile phone signal there to stay in touch with the office.’
Neil was eased out of the editor’s chair at the Sunday Times , amid some rancour, in 1994 – some believed because Murdoch thought he had become too much of a public personality. In spite of a seven-figure pay-off, he threw himself into other work. TV presenter Nicky Campbell says: ‘Andrew was always absolutely charming, helpful and professional.’ A TV producer says: ‘He’s got an incredibly quick brain. He sees the big picture and spots a fraud. He always sees if someone’s wriggling on a question.’
Broadcaster Trevor Phillips, now a friend, says: ‘We disagree politically but I have a terribly positive view of him. He has no assumptions. What he really likes is for you to tell him that he should go and talk to this person or read that book and he’ll change his mind. He’ll do it.’
Neil dresses sharply, a pocket handkerchief always matching his tie. In spite of using interior designers to decorate his French home, he is careful with cash. When he lent his brother £32,000 two years ago, he required repayment with an annual 5 per cent interest.
He now divides his time between a flat in London and a villa near Nice. He is connected by computer to his various titles and staff in Britain have fractious conference discussions with him through a telephone ‘squawkbox’.
He relaunched the Sunday Business for the Barclays, added and axed a colour supplement, has raised and lowered the price and changed its name to the Business so that it might sell on Mondays too. But the paper sticks in the doldrums.
His approach to his Scottish titles is even more mystifying. He slashed the price of the Scotsman, moved it downmarket, decided to challenge devolution just as the Scots won it and held a grand party at London’s Dorchester Hotel to mark circulation of the Scotsman rising above 100,000 early last year. But as soon as the price was restored, sales fell.
He has told a friend that his Edinburgh office is a ‘great place to sack people’. The friend says: ‘It’s not to cause people misery. It’s Andrew’s way back at people who don’t deserve to be where they are. It’s the meritocrat in him.’ But as his appointed editors come and go, almost annually and usually with a large cheque, the bottom-line benefits are not obvious.
‘He doesn’t need the money,’ insists Phillips. ‘He didn’t have to take over the Scotsman to generate aggravation. He can generate a maelstrom of aggravation by standing alone in a telephone box. He just wants to make it work.’
A Scottish colleague says: ‘He sees the Scotland of 30 years ago, and he has returned to sort it out. He complained to me that not one member of the Scottish parliament would get more than £18,000 a year in the private sector. They were all jumped-up local councillors. But it’s not what Scotland wants to hear.’
And the complaints of his journalists are legion. He ‘edits by complaint the day after publication’, he ‘never compliments’ and he rails that ‘if these staff can’t get better stories, then we need some better staff’.
As the cash sluices away the Barclay brothers must be asking if Neil can really turn round their faltering newspaper business. Or is he recalling his campaigns of the 1980s – against statism, against ‘lazy’ workers, and against a sniffy establishment?
One leitmotif of Neil’s reign at the Sunday Times was the argument that even the best teachers, and doctors, and hospital staff are not necessarily good at actually running their professions efficiently. Is it possible that Neil himself, a brilliant journalist, is simply not the right man to run a business empire?
‘Andrew is a remarkable man. He was almost a legend,’ says one of his staff. ‘But working with him is like listening to a veteran cricketer now playing the minor counties. He waxes lyrical about the old days. It’s still always fascinating.’
Text kindly borrowed from the Observer