A penny for his thoughts

Andrew Neil will learn this week that he has bumped up 'sales' of The Business by more than 150 per cent in a year. But he has done it by, in effect, turning the title into a freebie. He talks to Vincent Graff
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Andrew Neil did not get to where he is today by emoting in public. So he will not say he feels hurt by Rupert Murdoch's failure to return his phone calls. Although the former Sunday Times man devoted a third of his adult life to advancing Murdoch's cause, the publisher has not spoken a word to him since Neil's autobiography was published in 1996.

Worse still, Murdoch cannot bear to be in the same room as his great Wapping crusader. The two men have come face to face only once since Neil revealed in print what it was like working "at the court of the Sun King", detailing the "nastiness" Murdoch sometimes displayed towards his staff.

It was at the reception after the memorial service for the great Daily Mail editor Sir David English. Neil was with Sir David Frost, whom he had given a lift. "Murdoch came in and he saw Frost, and then he saw me," Neil recalls, "and he did a kind of elongated turn to go to the other end of the room." A second of eye-contact was enough.

Neil has called Murdoch's office with business propositions - "There were a couple of things we wanted to do at one stage - I forget what they were now - but he wouldn't even reply."

He adds: "I am sure he will bump into me one day and he will be forced to speak to me." But though it is "not a big issue" for Neil, he cannot resist delivering a harsh verdict on his one-time brother-in-arms: "Big people can be quite petty."

If he is troubled by the childish behaviour of one of the most powerful men on the planet, he does not show it. In fact, Murdoch has "done me a favour, because it was a clean break", he says now. When he ceased to be on Murdoch's payroll, Neil now realises, he discovered that "there was no one you need fear. And he does rule by fear." Finally, "I was my own man again. I was my own boss." Of course, he is still running newspapers and still dealing with proprietors. He is publisher and editor-in-chief for the papers owned by David and Frederick Barclay - The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and, most crucial at present, The Business. The Barclays are nothing like his former boss. Truth be told, the papers are nothing like his former paper. Nowhere near as successful, for a start. Recently, The Business has been purchased by just 30,000 people a week, and its future has looked bleak.

Perhaps it still does. But something extraordinary has happened. The most recent set of ABC newspaper sales figures, for September, revealed a circulation for The Business of 207,000, up 139 per cent on the year before. This Friday, the October figures will be released, and it seems obvious there will be an even bigger jump.

There is a very simple explanation. Of the 207,000 copies, more than 175,000 are what have traditionally been called "bulk sales" but what Neil is determined the industry should learn to call "controlled circulation": 15,000 copies were slipped under the doors of four- and five-star hotel rooms, 34,000 were given to airline passengers flying first or business class, and 34,000 were distributed on the Continent. But it is the biggest batch of all that is attracting most attention: the 94,000 that were given away free to readers of The Mail on Sunday.

It is the Mail on Sunday deal that is revolutionary. The way it works is simple: The Mail on Sunday pays Neil a token amount - 1p per issue - and in exchange bundles in a copy of The Business for its own readers. Neil gets a boosted circulation, and the advertisers in his paper get access to thousands more upmarket readers (the MoS deal applies only in areas with the highest ABC1 readerships). The theory is that, in time, Neil's numbers will be so impressive that he will be able to whack up his advertising rates. The fear is that his paper will come to be seen as a freebie - and treated with the (lack of) respect shown to the free local papers that often make the trip from letter-box to cat-litter tray without a stop-off at the breakfast table.

Neil is crossing his fingers that the readership figures, when they arrive, will prove that his papers are getting eyeball-contact from thousands of the wealthiest people in the country.

Isn't there a problem that people will not value a product they have picked up for free? "Well, there may be, and there may not be," he says. But he admits: "You've hit on the fact that what we're trying to do involves a cultural change."

The point is, he explains, he really had no option. Active sales of The Business had "atrophied". He was given £1m by his proprietors for his year's marketing budget, a sum that his former paper will sometimes spend in a week. "I would love [an active sale of] 100,000 in the UK. I think spending £10m a year for five years might get me there. But I couldn't guarantee it," he says. And, in any case, "We haven't got that [money], and I am not prepared to ask my proprietors for more."

From the way Neil is talking, one suspects he had his doubts about the Barclays' purchase of the title, then called The Sunday Business, in the first place. The paper has lost millions, and what Neil euphemistically calls "the traditional route" - people buying papers - is never going to save it. If his giveaway scheme fails, the paper will very likely close.

In typical Neil mode, he is convinced that rival journalists are "like Madame Lafarge, doing their knitting at the guillotine, just waiting to say: 'Ha ha, this has collapsed - Neil's failed to make it work.'" Equally typically, he is "determined to prove those bastards wrong". The Mail on Sunday is merely the first part of his grand plan. More papers will soon carry The Business as part of their package. Neil plans to give away 150,000 copies on mainland Europe, to launch editions in America and India, and even to deliver door to door to the 25,000 richest households in Edinburgh, the "third-biggest financial centre in Europe".

"With 150,000 [on the Continent], I will be bigger [there] than The Economist, the FT and The Wall Street Journal," he claims. But people who buy The Economist read it. Will people who get The Business bother to? Even Neil is not certain. The test will come when he tries to up his advertising rates and attract the upmarket brands - "the Louis Vuittons, the Cartiers" - that, so far, have seen no reason to include The Business in their advertising schedules.

Never a problem in the old days. Isn't Neil just a little wistful about his days at The Sunday Times?

"Of course, it is always nice to have a bigger voice," says the man who turned Murdoch's flagship weekend paper into the biggest money-making machine of modern journalism. "At The Sunday Times you had a trumpet, and at the moment we have a piccolo. But this will grow. This will get more powerful."