The story of jour­nal­is­tic taskmas­ter An­drew Neil

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS -

The call had come from a sec­re­tary at ‘An­drew Neil’s world of­fice’ and I thought ini­tially that she had reached the wrong per­son. Would I be avail­able to meet An­drew early the fol­low­ing week, she asked. I hes­i­tated for a few mo­ments be­fore say­ing ‘yes’ in a cal­low at­tempt at con­vey­ing an im­pres­sion of non­cha­lance. In truth, I was pan­ick­ing and would have put my­self at his dis­posal even if it had co­in­cided with kick-off time for a Celtic v Rangers fix­ture. This was in 1998 and at a time when I was sports ed­i­tor at Scot­land on Sun­day news­pa­per.

I’d read Neil’s re­cently-pub­lished news­pa­per mem­oir ‘Full Dis­clo­sure’ and seemed to re­call a pas­sage about how, as ed­i­tor of The Sun­day Times, he would in­vite doomed ex­ec­u­tives to din­ner at a de­cent restau­rant, tell them po­litely it wasn’t work­ing and that there were no hard feel­ings and then hand them a large cheque to take away the pain.

I was young and en­joy­ing this job, though. The time for vale­dic­tory cheques, no mat­ter how large, was still some years off, I felt. Even so, by the time I’d ar­rived at Glas­gow’s swanky One Devon­shire Gar­dens in the city’s ar­bo­real West End I’d al­ready re­signed my­self to get­ting the old Dan Mac.

When Neil ap­peared though, he was charm­ing and ebul­lient. He of­fered to dou­ble my salary on the spot if I would agree to take over the sports desk of our sis­ter pa­per, The Scots­man, and be­come sportsed­i­tor-in-chief of the group. Sport might not have been his strong­est suit (de­spite the fact that his first job was as a sports re­porter for the Pais­ley Daily Ex­press) but he knew when pages lacked sparkle and ideas and The Scots­man sports sec­tion had lit­tle of ei­ther.

‘Here’s the deal,’ he said. ‘We’ll meet again in Lon­don in two months’ time to re­view progress. If there hasn’t been any I’ll try some­one else.’ He didn’t say th­ese words in a sin­is­ter or threat­en­ing man­ner; it was all sim­ply busi­ness. He had just been ap­pointed ed­i­tor-in-chief of The Scots­man group and was a man in a hurry. He had prob­a­bly also promised his own pay­mas­ters, the in­scrutable and bil­lion­aire Bar­clay twins, who had lately ac­quired the Scots­man Pub­li­ca­tions, that he would im­me­di­ately put their in­vest­ment to work.

You sensed that sim­i­lar con­ver­sa­tions were oc­cur­ring in other suit­ably louche premises in Ed­in­burgh and Glas­gow. Neil wanted The Scots­man to out­sell its great Glas­gow ri­val The Her­ald for the first time in its 180-year his­tory and, armed with a con­sid­er­able trea­sure chest, set about gath­er­ing the best jour­nal­ists he could find un­der that old bronze mast­head on North Bridge. For a while he achieved this, aided by sev­eral months of slashed cover prices, a sat­u­ra­tion ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign and some eye-wa­ter­ing com­pe­ti­tion give-aways.

Many of the jour­nal­ists and ex­ec­u­tives who worked there dur­ing this pe­riod en­joyed what were ar­guably the best days of their jour­nal­is­tic ca­reers. Neil sought to bring a touch of old Fleet Street panache and vigour to North Bridge and felt that this pa­per bear­ing the name of its coun­try in its mast­head and al­most two cen­turies of his­tory ought to be­have like a proper na­tional ti­tle with a global reach.

No longer would it mea­sure it­self against The Her­ald in Glas­gow but against The Times, The Tele­graph and The Guardian. He brought a cav­a­lier ap­proach to a grand old round­head ti­tle. One Scot­tish jour­nal­ist who went on to be­come an ex­ec­u­tive at the pa­per re­calls how in his early days as a ca­sual sub-ed­i­tor there he was told his ser­vices would no longer be re­quired be­cause he had de­scribed the per­jink Dupont pen com­pany as ‘the firm that wants to make all your let­ters French ones’ in a head­ing for an ad­ver­tis­ing fea­ture.

The Times colum­nist and po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor Iain Martin was ap­pointed ed­i­tor of The Scots­man dur­ing this time and re­mem­bers Neil fondly. ‘He is a very tough and skilled ed­i­tor with clear views on how jour­nal­ism should be done’, said Martin. ‘He was my boss for the best part of a decade be­fore be­com­ing a last­ing friend, from whom I’ve learned much. He is very loyal – great fun and a good man for a night out. Ev­ery­one who knows him at all also knows that he is very warm and gen­er­ous, al­most to a fault.

‘In many ways he was a vi­sion­ary and sim­ply wanted Scot­land to re­alise its full po­ten­tial. He made en­e­mies by call­ing out the Scot­tish Govern­ment on ed­u­ca­tion where he felt that re­sis­tance to in­no­va­tion and pro­gres­sive think­ing had hand­i­capped gen­er­a­tions of chil­dren from dis­ad­van­taged neigh­bour­hoods and in­ten­si­fied the at­tain­ment gap. Who can say now that he hasn’t been proved right in this?’

Jour­nal­ist Alan Tay­lor, now ed­i­tor of the Scot­tish Re­view of Books, be­came a con­fi­dante of Neil’s dur­ing his years in Ed­in­burgh on The Scots­man. ‘One of his great friends was a hard and tal­ented Glaswe­gian jour­nal­ist called Bob Camp­bell who watched his back dur­ing An­drew’s first dif­fi­cult months at the Sun­day Times’, says Tay­lor. ‘Bob re­turned to Scot­land and was an ex­ec­u­tive at The Scots­man when An­drew took the reins in 1997.

Not long af­ter­wards Bob died, leav­ing three young boys who had also lost their mum some years ear­lier. Not many peo­ple know that An­drew set up a trust fund for the boys which he paid into and per­suaded some of his friends to do like­wise. It was a side of him that very few peo­ple got to know but un­der­pinned much of what he did.

‘I was very fond of An­drew – it was hard not to be. He was en­gag­ing and imp­ish and in terms of net­work­ing and bon­homie made the Kar­dashi­ans look like they’d taken a vow of si­lence. I felt though, that he never quite got Ed­in­burgh and cer­tainly not the Ed­in­burgh that was the be­drock of the Scots­man cir­cu­la­tion. His weekly col­umn of­ten tar­geted what he re­garded as an in­do­lent teach­ing pro­fes­sion and the self-in­dul­gent ex­cesses of the Ed­in­burgh Fes­ti­vals. This wasn’t in it­self a ma­jor prob­lem – the pa­per af­ter all had colum­nists like Ian Bell and Joyce MacMil­lan to counter An­drew’s free-mar­ket views. It’s just that he was the pa­per’s ed­i­tor-in-chief and so many read­ers felt his views formed the new ed­i­to­rial line of The Scots­man it­self’.

The ini­tial glut of heady cir­cu­la­tion num­bers for The Scots­man un­der Neil’s stew­ard­ship, largely achieved by slash­ing the cover price of the pa­per, were un­sus­tain­able in the long term with­out se­cur­ing a foothold in the lu­cra­tive West of Scot­land prop­erty, cars and hous­ing ad­ver­tis­ing mar­kets, all of which The Her­ald con­trolled. By the time he de­parted The Scots­man a few

He is very loyal – great fun and a good man for a night out

years later it’s de­bat­able if the pa­pers un­der his aegis had been sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved. By then, the ar­rival of 24-hour rolling tele­vi­sion news and the first squawks of so­cial me­dia were ef­fec­tively bring­ing all growth in the news­pa­per in­dus­try to an end. What’s be­yond de­bate is that un­der him The Scots­man would cer­tainly not have en­dured the long and steep de­cline that has char­ac­terised its last decade.

Those who wished to sur­vive in this strange new world, let alone flour­ish, would need to adapt. Neil de­parted The Scots­man Pub­li­ca­tions in 2005 when the Bar­clays sold the group to John­ston Press for an as­ton­ish­ing price of around £160m. It was a smart piece of busi­ness by the twins and a catas­tro­phe for the group’s new own­ers. The Scots­man was sim­ply un­able to live with the fi­nan­cial obli­ga­tions that came with such a price tag.

The Scots­man un­der Neil and the Bar­clays had been one of the first UK news­pa­pers to see the brand po­ten­tial of a well­re­sourced web­site and on­line oper­a­tion. Re­sources were piled in and with a team which un­der­stood the new and ar­cane black magic of search en­gine op­ti­mi­sa­tion, the pa­per’s web­site matched the dig­i­tal leader, The Guardian, for traf­fic. Un­der John­ston Press, how­ever, the web­site was al­most im­me­di­ately down­graded and emp­tied of most of its jour­nal­ists. It ranks as one of the great­est own goals in the re­cent his­tory of Scot­tish news­pa­pers.

Even among his de­trac­tors there is an ac­knowl­edge­ment that An­drew Fer­gu­son Neil de­serves to be re­garded as one of the finest Scot­tish jour­nal­ists of his gen­er­a­tion and one who, as he pre­pares to en­ter his eighth decade, re­mains a tow­er­ing fig­ure in the UK me­dia. As a writer he would be the first to ad­mit he was never quite in the same class as Neil Asch­er­son or Ian Bell but those who dis­par­aged what they re­garded as an arid prose style con­ve­niently ig­nore the fact that he was ap­pointed UK ed­i­tor of The Econ­o­mist in his twen­ties, hav­ing been spent three years in New York as the mag­a­zine’s cor­re­spon­dent.

Dur­ing this time he be­gan to forge a twin ca­reer as a tele­vi­sion broad­caster for var­i­ous Amer­i­can sta­tions. The fees he re­ceived for this work matched the £25,000 he was get­ting from The Econ­o­mist. He is one of only a hand­ful of UK jour­nal­ists whose con­sid­er­able suc­cess in news­pa­pers has been matched in the world of broad­cast­ing. Ar­guably, his 11 years as ed­i­tor of the Sun­day Times (he was ap­pointed by Ru­pert Mur­doch at the age

of 33) laid the foun­da­tions for the fu­ture pros­per­ity of the ti­tle which had ex­pe­ri­enced a lengthy pe­riod in the dol­drums prior to his ar­rival in 1983. Many of the in­no­va­tions he brought to the pa­per are now re­garded as stan­dard in any UK news­pa­per that chooses to re­gard it­self as a ‘na­tional’. Th­ese in­cluded adding stand­alone sec­tions on life­style, tech­nol­ogy and en­ter­tain­ment, and a greater ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the pho­tog­ra­pher’s art.

Neil’s first months at the Sun­day Times were dis­fig­ured by res­ig­na­tions and sack­ings as he met fierce re­sis­tance to the changes he de­manded of a pa­per which was head­ing for the jour­nal­is­tic knacker’s yard. It was known to be a place where, if you were lucky enough to se­cure a job on it, you could pull down a mas­sive salary, an at­trac­tive pension and ex­penses that would fund a house in the coun­try. In ex­change you would not be re­quired to pro­duce any­thing much worth­while, with many jour­nal­ists get­ting by on one story a month. In his stretch at the Sun­day Times he’d been re­spon­si­ble for chang­ing the face of the UK news­pa­per in­dus­try by fac­ing down some of the worst ex­cesses of the old print trade unions and their sui­ci­dal re­sis­tance to new tech­nol­ogy.

There are many on the left who con­tinue to con­demn Neil as a re­ac­tionary high priest of Thatcheris­m, but then noth­ing pushes the left’s but­tons like a work­ing-class boy wear­ing a blue rosette. Born into a solidly work­ing class fam­ily on a Pais­ley hous­ing es­tate – his father was an elec­tri­cian and mem­ber of the Ter­ri­to­rial Army, while his mother worked in the lo­cal cotton mills – Neil at­tended the high-achiev­ing state-run Pais­ley Gram­mar af­ter pass­ing his 11-plus be­fore ex­celling at Glas­gow Univer­sity where he spe­cialised in Amer­i­can his­tory, po­lit­i­cal econ­omy (where his tu­tor was Vince Cable) and po­lit­i­cal science, while also edit­ing the univer­sity pa­per, The Glas­gow Univer­sity Guardian.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing with an MA in 1971 he grav­i­tated to­wards po­lit­i­cal con­ser­vatism and was a mem­ber of the univer­sity’s Con­ser­va­tive Club be­fore land­ing a job as a re­search as­sis­tant for the party fol­low­ing his grad­u­a­tion.

Yet those who al­low his true-blue roots to colour their per­cep­tion of him wil­fully ig­nore the re­al­ity of his spell in the Sun­day Times ed­i­tor’s chair.

In his book he de­scribed him­self as a neo-Key­ne­sian who re­jected mon­e­tarism and felt that Con­ser­va­tive val­ues ought also to in­clude a sig­nif­i­cant de­gree of so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity. In ‘Full Dis­clo­sure’ he said he wanted the Sun­day Times to ‘es­tab­lish an orig­i­nal line on eco­nomic pol­icy’. This in­cluded at once be­ing

He’d been re­spon­si­ble for chang­ing the face of the UK news­pa­per in­dus­try

more rad­i­cally right than Thatcher in terms of seek­ing ‘more com­pe­ti­tion, pri­vati­sa­tion and dereg­u­la­tion than the Thatcher govern­ment was pre­pared to con­tem­plate’.

But he also wanted the pa­per to sup­port ‘more govern­ment in­vest­ment to get the econ­omy go­ing and re­duce un­em­ploy­ment, which aligned us with the de­mands of Labour and the left against the mon­e­tarism and fis­cal con­ser­vatism of the govern­ment’.

Like many other one-na­tion Tories he over­looked the fun­da­men­tal flaw in an econ­omy wed­ded to the free mar­ket – that this only worked in a so­ci­ety not also char­ac­terised by un­earned priv­i­lege such as in­her­ited wealth and ag­gres­sive tax-avoid­ance by the top one per cent. It was like set­ting the plumb-line on a ship that had al­ready been holed be­neath the wa­ter.

In terms of lib­eral val­ues it could safely be ar­gued that Neil was two decades ahead of the news­pa­per in­dus­try. He pro­moted a host of tal­ented women to key ex­ec­u­tive posts through­out his ca­reer in news­pa­pers, in­clud­ing the ap­point­ment of Re­becca Hardy as ed­i­tor of The Scots­man, the first-ever fe­male ed­i­tor of a UK na­tional.

In his book he wrote of the changes in old at­ti­tudes he wanted to bring to the Sun­day Times: ‘With a more mer­i­to­cratic ap­proach I hoped a team more in tune with the New Bri­tain would emerge. That meant, for a start, more fe­male re­porters and ex­ec­u­tives, and a stab at a staff that re­flected the coun­try’s eth­nic di­ver­sity, in­stead of the al­most to­tally male, white, mid­dle-aged group I had in­her­ited. But above all I sim­ply wanted to hire the best peo­ple, re­gard­less of back­ground.’

Neil’s ca­reer in broad­cast­ing fol­low­ing his de­par­ture from the Sun­day Times has been as anointed as his regal pro­ces­sion in the news­pa­per in­dus­try. His thirst for in­no­va­tion made the BBC’s cov­er­age of cur­rent af­fairs ac­ces­si­ble be­yond the co­coons of the me­dia and po­lit­i­cal elites. His ‘This Week’ pro­gramme with reg­u­lar guests Michael Portillo and Diane Ab­bott was whim­si­cal and oc­ca­sion­ally slap­stick but broke some com­pli­cated themes down into di­gestible com­po­nents for an au­di­ence that might have felt they had bet­ter things to do than sit through the uber-pol­i­tics of late-night tele­vi­sion on a Thurs­day.

His BBC Sun­day Pol­i­tics show was re­quired view­ing for those with a keen in­ter­est in watch­ing his foren­sic and po­lit­i­cally in­dis­crim­i­nate evis­cer­a­tions of MPs and min­is­ters. One se­nior Scot­tish MP told me that you couldn’t really con­sider your­self a player at West­min­ster un­til you had un­der­gone An­drew Neil’s bap­tism of fire. He would have been the ideal suc­ces­sor to David Dim­bleby on Ques­tion Time. In­stead though, he stepped down from the Sun­day Pol­i­tics show – a de­vel­op­ment that led some to be­lieve he is be­ing eased out as part of a BBC purge of older white male pre­sen­ters. Oth­ers point to his re­cent mar­riage to Su­san Nils­son, a Swedish en­gi­neer, and to the fact that he is a year shy of his 70th birth­day and still has a pun­ish­ing work sched­ule with the BBC.

Neil is also cur­rently chair­man of Press Hold­ings, which owns The Spec­ta­tor. The mag­a­zine’s ed­i­tor Fraser Nel­son, also a Glas­gow Univer­sity alum­nus, de­scribes his work-rate as phe­nom­e­nal.

‘He can be a de­mand­ing boss but he cares about what proper jour­nal­ism ought to look like. Each new mem­ber of staff at The Spec­ta­tor gets a guide­book from me in­clud­ing a chap­ter on how to deal with An­drew. It ad­vises them to be hon­est in their deal­ings with him, even when some­thing has gone wrong.’

An­other for­mer Scots­man staffer, a Glaswe­gian who had no truck with Neil’s pol­i­tics, said: ‘He’s a right-wing git but I liked him. He loved the pa­pers and thought we should all love them too. He didn’t merely work in Ed­in­burgh – he oc­cu­pied the bloody place.’

“He’s a git but he didn’t merely work in Ed­in­burgh – he oc­cu­pied the bloody place

Left: Neil’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary new Sun­day morn­ing pol­i­tics show re­de­fined the for­mat.

Right: Ru­pert Mur­doch launch­ing Bri­tain’s first satel­lite TV net­work in Novem­ber 1990, with his side­kick Neil.

Above: Neil on the red car­pet with Swedish wife Su­san Nils­son at The Crown pre­miere in Lon­don.

Above: An­drew Neil grilling Alex Sal­mond, for­mer First Min­is­ter of Scot­land.Be­low: Re­ceiv­ing his hon­orary de­gree at Glas­gow Univer­sity

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