Books: Neil desperandum at the court of King Rupert

Andreas Whittam Smith ponders the point of a vainglorious memoir; Full Disclosure by Andrew Neil, Macmillan, pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
Andrew Neil has written an account of his eleven years as editor of the Sunday Times from 1983 in order to prove something. He wants us to know that he did a fine job and he wishes us to understand the malign reasons which led Rupert Murdoch to ease him out. For my part, I hoped to discover the mainspring of Neil's character. Why did he produce news pages which were animated by hate? The editor and his team seemed to detest many of the people and institutions about whom the Sunday Times wrote and wanted to persuade the readers to loathe them too. And why is a man with so many achievements to his name so vainglorious? He claims to be more impressed by deeds than words, and yet he feels compelled to write a 470-page justification of his career.

Neil thinks there is a diseased establishment in power. At grammar school in Paisley and university at Glasgow he developed a dislike for the "peculiar combination of snobbery and incompetence" which he believes characterises the Establishment (which he sometimes calls English and sometimes British). Lazy and complacent, the Establishment seemed to be presiding over decline and thus "offended the patriotism my parents had instilled in me." He lumps together the public school system and Oxbridge, not seeing that the former is in retreat while people like himself have long dominated the two ancient English universities. In his view, the meritocracy had made great gains but was being driven back by High Tories and a left-wing chattering class. Yet you can agree with all this without burning with hatred.

By contrast Neil writes sweetly about his parents (plain, decent folk), about his brother (who was tolerant and enjoyed their father's good nature) and about his upbringing ( a happy, uncomplicated childhood). There seems nothing in his early days to explain the dark side of his character. Nor later on. After leaving university, he enters the Conservative Research Department in London. In other words, he is handed the key to the Establishment's front door. Politics, it has been said, are nothing more than a means of rising in the world. He soon goes to the Economist, from where, ten years later, Murdoch picks him to be editor of the Sunday Times at the age of 34. This is the primrose path.

But it had led him to a destination even more disagreeable than the Establishment; for he has arrived at the "Court of the Sun King". Neil gives the best account I know, outside the history of totalitarian states, of what it is like to work in a situation in which all power is held by a single person. Strong-willed, successful, first generation entrepreneurs often behave as dictators. The advantages are quick decision-making, daring strategies and a permanent state of high alert. It is also cruel, heartless, humiliating and draining of the personalities of those involved.

As Neil puts it, you are not a director or manager or an editor: you are a courtier - rewarded with money and status by a grateful King as long as you serve his purpose, dismissed outright or demoted to a remote corner of the empire when you have ceased to please him or outlived your usefulness. He may intervene in matters great or small. He is constantly on your mind. "I wonder how the King is today" is the first question a good courtier asks himself when he wakes up. However the courtiers themselves soon become worse than His Majesty. He is brutal with them; they are, if anything, even more unpleasant to their underlings. Neil admits that he himself was quick to penalise failure and slow to praise success; he became a "harsh, unforgiving editor". Nor is there any trust between courtiers; they will always ditch a colleague to obtain the King's favour. I had understood that this was how Murdoch's media empire worked. Neil has provided compelling detail.

The next stage in this autobiographical project is to prove how good the Sunday Times was during our hero's period as editor. With the figures for circulation, paging and advertising revenue, the case is easily made. But we are also treated to a rehashing of old Sunday Times campaigns and stories. This serves to jog the memory rather than to provide fresh insights. It comes across as boastful, and lacking in nuance. Newspapers are said to write the first rough draft of history; Neil just gives us the same, uncorrected versions again.

Finally, we come to the point of the book. Neil was removed, he argues, because he was becoming too famous. He says he was warned early in 1994: "Rupert resents you becoming a public figure in your own right". Murdoch, he believed, bridled every time word reached him in America that Neil had been on radio or television. The courtier was becoming too powerful, too independent. This was the true reason, Neil argues: Murdoch felt he was losing control of the Sunday Times.

I do not buy this story. Neil had begun to present the early morning news show on a London talk station. The owner of the Sunday Times had every right to resent this and believe that it was a diversion of his editor's creative energy. Moreover, newspaper owners generally welcome the sort of fame that came Neil's way as a result of having to defend and explain the newspaper on television and radio and be interviewed on the big issues of the day. It is seen as free, prime time publicity; indeed nowadays journalists who cannot handle this side of the job are unlikely to become editors. It is hard to believe that Murdoch has a different view.

However it scarcely matters that Full Disclosure fails to convince in the way Neil wishes. Leaving aside the occasional repetition which indicates undue haste in writing and editing, the book is very readable and interesting. As well as the angry, boastful Andrew Neil, we also meet the modest, self- knowing, dignified Neil whose account of his affair with Pamela Bordes is beautifully and affectingly told.