Andrew Neil has been offered the position of editor-in-chief of the Telegraph group, he revealed in an interview with The Independent on Sunday last week. Not by his employers, the Barclay brothers, who bought the titles last month, but by the group's former owner, Lord Black, back in 1996.
The fact that nothing ever came of the tentative offer was a lucky escape, Neil jokes, considering what has happened to the disgraced peer since. Black approached him to help the then newly appointed editor of the The Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore, but had second thoughts. "First I was offered the role of editor-in-chief of the Telegraph group," Neil recalls, "I think to hold Charles Moore's hand. Then Conrad came back to me to offer me editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph instead. I told him, 'Make your mind up.'"
Neil also revealed that he once turned down a job offer from Robert Maxwell, the newspaper proprietor who turned out after his death to have defrauded thousands of Mirror Group pensioners. "Maybe I should just stick with the Barclay brothers," Neil laughs.
Neil, 55, is in a very relaxed mood, having just returned from a long weekend in New York where he has bought an apartment on the 78th floor of the city's tallest residential building. "The view sure beats television," he says. Does this mean that he is planning to spend more time in the US, and is not interested in a job at the Telegraph?
"I don't know what will happen," he says, walking across the road to the London offices of the Barclays' newspapers at the Press Association in Victoria.
Tiring of the endless media frenzy that has erupted since the Barclays, owners of The Scotsman, tied up the deal to buy the Telegraph group, the brothers' editor-in-chief insists that they have not decided exactly how it will be run, or who will run it. "There is no detail. The brothers have not thought about it. It was a gruelling takeover bid. That is what they were concerned with, not having a business plan straightaway."
Neil thinks that Aidan Barclay, son of Sir David, could be made chairman, but the spotlight is on the top job of chief executive, currently filled by Jeremy Deedes, brought out of retirement to steer the Telegraph group during the drawn-out auction process. But Neil does not know who would replace Deedes or even if he is a candidate. "It's not a case of having names up our sleeves or the Barclays keeping secrets. No decision has been made."
Neil wrote in his Evening Standard media column last week that "the Barclays have indicated that they would like my involvement but have yet to decide what it should be". The job of chief executive might not be worth the hassle for him, Neil admits. Despite his tough exterior, he cares what people think. "It always gets me down the way some people write about me, but not as much as before." He says that much of the negative comment is from former employees with axes to grind. "There are people who are bitter. The inaccuracies that this industry is capable of sometimes drive me to despair."
You wonder whether he would be prepared to give up his broadcasting career with the BBC for a high-profile role at the Telegraph group. He clearly enjoys broadcasting. "Viewers can make up their own minds. People at the BBC have said they do not recognise this ogre that they read about. My TV work is going well. The status quo is fine. The Barclays allow me to have a parallel career. I can accommodate a peripatetic lifestyle." Yet there is the impression that he would be sorely tempted if offered the job.
If the Barclays decided to change the management structure of their newspapers - appointing one overall editor-in-chief to oversee The Scotsman and the Telegraph - Neil says he does not assume that he would get the job. "If we were to part tomorrow it would be on the best of terms."
The former editor of The Sunday Times says he is not interested in editing another newspaper (including The Daily Telegraph), "except perhaps The New York Times". He reckons that the job of the highly regarded Telegraph editor Martin Newland is safe - for now. "The [Barclay] family view is that Martin Newland has done a good job in difficult circumstances. There is a view which says, 'Let's see how he does.'"
Neil says the Barclays will initially concentrate on the commercial side of the business. "It's a market leader but it's not acting like one. The Barclays need to rebuild the brand and re-energise the team."
The Barclays will use management techniques that they have employed at The Scotsman, where they have cut costs by outsourcing back-office functions such as IT, and making savings between its other titles,Scotland on Sunday, the Edinburgh Evening News and financial weekly The Business.
"You can't pay £665m without wanting to make it more efficient ... That's O-level Business. You know how we have done it at The Scotsman - it will be the same at the Telegraph, whether it's me doing it or A N Other."
Neil is keen to dispel the idea that the Barclays don't invest in newspapers. This summer, he is planning to invest between £500,000 and £750,000 of The Scotsman's profits in its editorial department. "Will they invest in quality journalism at the Telegraph? Yes. Will they run it more efficiently? Yes. But there is no need for a revolution."
He rejects recent suggestions that the Barclay brothers have interfered in editorial policy. There are guidelines that all Neil's editors must sign up to, but they are Neil's alone. Each editor must be supportive of a market economy, support the Union between Scotland and England (editors can be in favour of devolution but not of the break-up of the UK), and challenge Scottish political shibboleths.
It sounds as if Neil prefers working for the Barclays, more than he ever did for Rupert Murdoch during his 11-year stint as editor of The Sunday Times until 1994, and as chairman of Sky Television. "It was a rollercoaster ride working for him," he says. "It's far more civilised working for the Barclays. There's no telephone terrorism. I do not regret working with Rupert Murdoch. But there is a nasty undertone to a lot of what he does which does not exist with the Barclays."
What happens next at the Telegraph group seems to exercise Neil much less than it does the rest of the media, where speculation is rife. Quoting Michael Winner's TV ad for motor insurance, Neil tells them: "Calm down, dear."
NEIL ON THE BARCLAYS AS NEWSPAPER PROPRIETORS
'The Scotsman' is a lot better run company now than when the Barclays bought it in 1995
Will the Barclays invest in quality journalism at 'The Telegraph'? Yes. Will they run it more efficiently? Yes
The Barclays do not interfereReuse content