Meeting Andrew Neil is the journalism equivalent of sitting down with a legendary heavyweight boxer. If anyone has won some great newspaper bouts and slugged it out with the best, it’s him. It all started at The Economist in 1973, culminating in the editorship of the British section.
Then he fought his way through 11 bruising years as editor of The Sunday Times between 1983 and 1994 and turned that title into THE Sunday papers.
Neil was a vital player in Rupert Murdoch’s daring switch to Wapping and, amazingly, from 1988 he doubled up as launch chairman of Sky TV. He flitted to Fox TV briefly, before finally falling out with Murdoch after his 1996 autobiography ‘Full Disclosure’.
Everyone thought that was the big K.O. for Neil, but to the chagrin of his enemies it seems impossible to keep him on the canvas.
The billionaire Barclay twins, David and Frederick, made him publisher of Press Holdings and The European, The Scotsman Group and The Business have followed – with differing fortunes. Now he has The Spectator, as well as the art magazine Apollo and handbag.com, not to mention two BBC political shows and various other ventures.
Despite all his efforts, Neil, now 56, has been consistently drenched in the bile of media commentators, and to Private Eye, well, he will always be Brillo Pad in a vest with an ‘Asian Babe’ on his arm.
I talk to him at a super-sized boardroom table in discreet offices in St James’s. Still tanned after Christmas in Cape Town, he is engagingly intense and laughs frequently with a flash of pearly white, TV-primed nashers.
And laugh he well might. If you owned a prial of prestigious properties (Kensington, New York, South of France) and were hot-synched into the mainframe of media, you’d be pretty chipper too.
It’s 20 years since the Great Battle of Wapping.
How do you feel looking back now?
I can hardly believe it is 20 years. It is one of the watersheds in your life and you wonder how you got through it. But if it had to be done again, I would do it. It was just so important and I feel very proud.
Of course, all the the trouble was entirely unnecessary. If we had been dealing with trade unions that had shown any sense, or any idea that technology changes were coming along, there need never have been a dispute. It could all have been managed in a transitional way, but these were people who had always been victorious in every war and defeat for them was inconceivable, so why bother compromising? I remember in one negotiation meeting, a union man took out a box of matches and threw them at me across the table and said, "Why don’t you go and set fire to that new plant. We are never going there and neither are you!" My inner reaction was, You bastard, we will go without you.
What is the legacy of Wapping and its impact on newspapers generally?
The Financial Times wrote subsequently that the history of the newspaper industry is B.W. and A.W.
– Before Wapping and After Wapping. We saved the British newspaper industry, no question. We got new technology in on a realistic cost base and were finally allowed to produce papers that we wanted to produce, as opposed to what the unions would allow us. If Wapping had not happened, there would definitely be far fewer newspapers today. For a start, the unions would have destroyed The Independent.
And there would be no multi-section Saturday or Sunday papers, and very little colour. Newspapers struggle in the best of times, but without Wapping it would be impossible. We got severely criticised for what we did, but all of our critics were able to adopt every one of the breakthroughs that we made.
I speak to younger journalists today and sometimes, when you tell them what it was like before Wapping, there is a look of amazement, like you are making it up. It is so incredible to think the industry was run like it was. You even begin to doubt yourself because it is so unbelievable and so stupid. But so true.
Personally, what are the abiding memories?
It was a harrowing time, but I got through it because I really believed in it. For 13 months, I had to have two bodyguards with me everywhere. They were either ex-SAS or Marines. Every time I went home I had to wait in the car in a side street while they checked the house. For the first 48 hours you felt quite important, but after that it was miserable. You could do nothing and basically I would get into Wapping at 9am and leave at 10pm. I got death threats regularly and a couple of times I was in fear of my life. We got caught up in a riot one night when the driver panicked and took a wrong turn. Another night the house was attacked.
You gave the appearance that you were coping, but privately it was distressing. At Wapping we used to joke that Murdoch would have to put a helicopter on the roof and it would be like the US Embassy in Saigon if the printers won. We knew if we lost we would never work in this town again.
The lowest point was about halfway through when it looked like it would go on forever. There was talk that we were going to crack and do a deal and that depressed me. I went to Murdoch and said, "It’s up to you, it’s your business, but if those people now come in here, I am gone." He said, "Don’t worry, I don’t think it’s going to happen."
Well, here you are, all these years on and it seems to have panned out pretty well…
Yes. I have never been happier or more fulfilled by all the various jobs that I do. I still enjoy working hard and playing hard, and I am at peace with myself.
That sounds as if that has not always been the case.
Well, while I was at The Sunday Times and at other stages, there was always turmoil, like, am I doing the right thing? What should I do next? But now I love the portfolio of different things that I do. I love working for the Barclays, my broadcasting for the BBC and I love my independent interests.
I love being able to flit between London, South of France and New York.
I am very fortunate. I have a great career that still has a few places to go yet – so I am sorry to disappoint those who are waiting for me to collapse.
Yes, you’ve had a few negative cuttings, how difficult have you found all the sniping?
They’re nearly all negative! If you were a film star you certainly wouldn’t want my cuts. To say that it didn’t bother you at all, would be a lie. It used to really upset me in the early days of The Sunday Times, but now it probably upsets me just a wee bit.
We are in a pretty petty industry. We are obsessed with ourselves and I think there is a certain amount of jealousy and envy in some of the coverage, written by middle-aged married journalists saying, "Oh, there he goes, off with some bird again, at his houses."
And Private Eye, that’s had a good run with you.
I haven’t bothered reading The Eye regularly for years.
It used to be religious reading, but now I only see it if I’m at an airport or the dentist.
Looking back, it’s not so bad. They make things up, get things wrong, but I do think "The Eye Test" is, in a way, more powerful than the PCC. If what you were doing appeared in The Eye – reported accurately, I might add – could you hold your head up or not?
That is not a bad test and, for all its faults, The Eye provides an important function. Most of what they have written about me has been pretty mythical and I have not done anything that has been reported accurately that I have been embarrassed about.
What! Not even that vest picture they always use? What’s the real story behind that? It might help the rest of us be less disturbed by it.
I am amazed they still run it, but I guess that means you still matter. I was a bit embarrassed to begin with, only in the sense that it was presented as how I would turn up at a nightclub, like some ageing rocker.
The picture was taken by Terry O’Neil on Nick Lloyd’s camera at the Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados during Christmas in 1994. I wasn’t staying there, but we were on the beach, hence the vest and the baseball cap. Nick and Terry hadn’t met the new girlfriend and Terry said, "Ah, I’ve gotta take a picture." I have never actually known why it got into the public domain.
The woman worked at Fox Television and she was the No.1 make-up artist in New York. I have always kept her name private and she has no idea she is the most famous woman in Private Eye. I have lost contact with her now. The picture gives the impression that I was this old man with this young girl, but there was only a 10-year age gap. And she’s not Asian, she is Afro-American, but The Eye is obsessed with Asian Babes.
The picture doesn’t bother me. Compared to other stuff it is water off the duck’s back. I’m like the Catherine Tate character – "Am I bovvered?" No, I’m not. And as for the nickname Brillo Pad, it has been with me so long now it is part of the furniture.
What has been the toughest time for you on the receiving end of the press?
No question – it was the whole onslaught of the Tory press when I serialised Andrew Morton’s book about Diana in 1992. It was relentless, personal and unpleasant. Really quite brutal. I’d got a taste of it when I did the "Queen dismayed by uncaring Thatcher" story in 1986. I managed to upset the two people they revered most on that Tory side. It actually won me the award I am most proud of – "Editor Least Likely To Ever Get A Knighthood" – which was from Press Gazette!
With the book, the right-winged Establishment came on a full-frontal attack. What I did was highly controversial and you expect to get monstered, so I have no complaints. It is a free society, so people can say what they want. At one stage, I thought I would have to resign. Murdoch had warned me about it. He said, "Now you are going to become the target and they will try to destroy you." He was right, but they failed. I have a much better relationship with them now and I seem to have out-lasted the greatest critics. But what a nightmare for them – I am chief executive of The Spectator! [Cue laughter and a flash of those pearly whites] Yes,
The Spectator, what stage are you at with finding an editor and what can be expected in terms of changes?
I am just finalising a shortlist. We have had 12 people apply, plus a few other big names who are too proud to apply, but we know they want the job, so I will call them. We will get it down to about three and then there will be further interviews with myself and Aidan Barclay [son of David and the immediate boss]. The two of us will decide. I hope to announce the name at the end of January, or the beginning of February.
The Spectator is a bit like the mouse that roared.
In terms of a business, it is minimal within this company’s operation, but its ability to cause trouble is huge because people take it so seriously. It is now part of a serious business and we are upping the resources substantially this year. I am talking in the region of £300,000. That would be around £200,000 for editorial and £100,000 for a brand advertising campaign. These are not huge sums – Condé Nast would eat that in a week – but it is a lot of money for a cottage industry like The Spectator.
Editorially, it will not change radically. Every famous name currently associated with The Spectator should stay, but we should add some more to the mix to broaden the appeal, which may mean more business and non-political coverage. Circulation is currently at 70,000, which is an historic record, but I would love one day for it to get to 100,000. That depends on how much money we put into it, but there is currently a miserable advertising market and I’ll have to pull back a bit if we’re not hitting budget.
The new editor has got to settle in and put his or her mark on the magazine, which will take six months, so you are looking at the latter part of the year before any promotion. But there are good times ahead for The Spectator.
But not such good times for Stephen Glover. Why has he been sacked again?
The fundamental problem is that Stephen Glover’s lifestyle is paid for by Associated – that’s where the big money comes from. Almost every second week in The Spectator he was beating up on the Telegraph papers and it was really annoying everyone. One of the Barlcays said to me, "He’s not a columnist, he’s a fifth-columnist!" No media group in Britain allows one of its titles to regularly beat up on a sister title.
It just doesn’t happen, and why should we be any different?
Now that the Barclays have sold the Scotsman Group, your portfolio has been reduced. It has given your detractors something to celebrate.
That is true for now. The Scotsman was the biggest part of the mini empire that I ran, but there are other things that didn’t exist before, such as The Business, The Spectator, Apollo magazine and handbag.com, which is our fastest growing business. These things go up and down. I spoke to Aidan and said that we may have to re-negotiate my relationship now that a big chunk of my responsibility has gone. But he said, "No. That’s how it is now, but things will change, so let’s keep going." We have worked together for nine years and have never had a harsh word between us.
Your falling out with Rupert Murdoch is well documented. I wondered if you ever miss him.
Ultimately, you do miss Rupert because seeing him is a huge intellectual buzz, but it is history. I think it was a pity on a personal level because we had been through some battles. However, the fact that he broke off all communications was useful because it put a line under it. That was the Murdoch years.
I would not give up a moment of them and I have no regrets, but there comes a time with such a powerful figure that you have to move on, and I’m pleased I have. Some people who have worked closely with Murdoch continue to be obsessed with him and talk about nothing else. They define themselves by him.
That said, I have recently had an idea for a book about Murdoch. The working title is The Murdoch Wars – Part One. Divorcing Anna, Lachlan going back to Australia, what does it all mean for the business and Murdoch’s great desire to build a dynasty? Will he ever succeed, or will it fall apart?
I mentioned it to my literary agent, Ed Victor, and he jumped at it, but I have yet to write a synopsis.
The book would be done with a co-writer, but I have to work out if it could fit in. My priority is to the Barclays. What I do for them takes precedence over everything else and if anything impinges on my work for them, then I will not do it.
Imagine you were close to Murdoch again, what would you want to know most?
Well, thinking aloud, we would probably end up talking about politics and what I would really want to know is this: When does The Sun swing behind Cameron? Murdoch will know that if he is to do that, he has got to do it soon. There is a mistaken view that The Sun’s endorsement before an election is what matters. It is not. It is The Sun’s drip-drip support, week in, week out over a prolonged period that builds somebody up and destroys whoever is the alternative. It is the positive and negative effect that is so powerful. If The Sun is really going to get behind Cameron, then it has to do it this year – I would say by the autumn. But first they have got to make up their mind if they think Cameron is a winner.
Certainly, in a professional sense, you seem to have it all, but what does someone like yourself worry about, do you ever have sleepless nights?
I don’t actually sleep very well, but that’s not down to worrying, I think it’s a sign of getting old. I don’t need much sleep, not more than six hours, and it is not deep sleep either. I don’t worry, but when you become well off having come from nothing, it is always at the back of your mind that you could lose it all. In terms of lifestyle, I make more money than I need – I mean how many nice restaurants can you go to? But what comes with money is independence, and it means that none of the organisations I work for can tell me what to do.
Are you set up for life?
Yeah. Just about. But it has been a long, hard grind in the business I am in to get to financial independence.
It is not like working in the City. It has not happened overnight, you have to accumulate.
How about love and marriage? Is the absence of those a big hole in your life?
I was attached for a while last year to a beautiful Belgian woman, but no, I am not attached at the moment, which is probably why I look so happy!
I quite like being on my own, you know. I love to go out with my close friends. We have a little Fridaynight club when we get together and many of those people have nothing to do with the media. They have known me for 20 or 30 years and I can relax with them and say whatever I want, knowing it won’t be repeated. But bliss for me is to have an evening at home on my own.
Marriage is certainly not on the horizon. I would not rule it out, but I think at 56 it becomes less likely.
I live a very selfish existence. Everything is organised around me to help all my work fit in. For me, there is almost no time when work ends and leisure begins. It is a continuous seam.
Your drive is remarkable. What keeps you going and what are your remaining ambitions?
I am very lucky. We are all lucky. We’re in a business that is fun and important. During my life, the media has never been more important than it is now. In the old days, the media was pretty miserable. The newspaper industry was run by the print unions and television was not even a business, it was a public service.
Today the media is big business as well as being journalism. I’m constantly energised by it all.
Things have always happened to me by luck and circumstance. I have never had a plan in my career.
I always tell young journalists that journalism is not a place for a career plan, because we are tradesmen who ply a trade.
Finally, what’s your view on our newspapers?
British newspapers are the best in the world. We produce some of the finest journalism and, yes, some of the worst, but that is what a free market gives you.
Nothing gives me greater pleasure than going onto a British newsstand and just looking at all the papers on sale. That makes me feel proud.
NEIL’S NEWS SCHEDULE
Newspapers: I am up at 6am every day and read the papers for an hour to get up to speed.
Recently, I have cut back, so now I get delivered the Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times, the Financial Times, The Sun, the Herald Tribune and the Wall Street Journal.
I read the Mail and the Guardian first because with those I feel I am prepared for whoever I interview on the television. Both papers are very strong and very different, but you know what you are getting and they do it well.
As I am doing more international things, I read and like the Herald Tribune. I use to devour the Wall Street Journal, but since it went tabloid it has lost it a bit. I read The Independent if I see it during the day, and I always get the Evening Standard, which I like and think is looking good since the revamp.
Magazines: Of course The Spectator and now Apollo. I particularly like Prospect, which is a very intelligent centre-left magazine with a lot of original writing that is way above party politics. It is very serious and steps back a bit, as a monthly should, but there’s not a lot of chuckles in it. The Economist has always been a favourite.
Television: I Sky+ most things and it’s wonderful. You need never watch a commercial again. When I get in at night there’s a menu of stuff to watch. I like Channel 4 News and Newsnight.
Radio: I generally listen to the 7am news on Radio 4, but I don’t have Today on while I am reading the papers. In the car I listen to Classic FM, unless it is news time, in which case I will have on World At One, or PM.
Web: The web is amazing. I was in New York during Charles Kennedy’s demise and I didn’t miss a thing. I listened to his resignation statement live on my laptop on Radio 5 in Manhattan.
Remarkable. And if I want to hear something from the Today programme later in the day, I go to its website.
Andrew Neil’s FANTASY FLYERS
What would be the Fantasy Headline of the story you would most like to read?
"Scotland wins World Cup with 3-1 victory over Brazil"
What would be the Fantasy Headline involving yourself?
"Neil takes helm at New York Times". It is the most prestigious paper in the world, but I am sure it is never going to happen. My politics aren’t right for a start. But it would interest me just for the kudos attached to producing the paper read by the most powerful people in the world.
What would be the headline you most dread?
"Neil takes helm at New York Times". That is because I would love it, but also dread it.
Who would you most like to interview and what question would you ask?
Mohammed: What do you have to say to Osama Bin Laden?
What question would you never answer?
What was she like in bed?
What headline would you like on your obituary?
"Man who launched Sky TV heads for great satellite in the Sky"
No interview would be complete without some discreet product placement. We aim to be a bit more up front, so feel free to pull The Blatant Plug…
If you read The Business and The Spectator and watch The Daily Politics and This Week, you will be better informed than the Prime Minister!
Copyright Rob McGibbon 2006. All Rights Reserved