THE ENIGMA MACHINE
The story of journalistic taskmaster Andrew Neil
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