Andrew Neil: His world just isn't big enough

Big changes at 'The Spectator', the sale of handbag.com and now this week's relaunch of 'The Business' as a magazine. So what will the tireless Andrew Neil have to show for all this activity? He tells Andy McSmith

Andrew Neil has been running Sunday newspapers for the better part of the last quarter-century - but not yesterday. There was no Sunday newspaper on sale bearing the Neil imprint. The Business, that ailing, loss-making pink broadsheet, formerly known as The Sunday Business, whose death was foretold more often than Fidel Castro's, passed away peacefully on 1 October. In its place there will arise a new, serious, 72-page, trivia-free glossy magazine, also called The Business, on sale this Thursday.

Like its predecessor, The Business will be a niche magazine - no sex, no gossip, a minimum of humour, but a lot of information about hedge funds and private equities and the FTSE 100. Its target audience is City of London traders. The old Business claimed a circulation of 130,000: 20,000 on news-stands, the rest posted free to select readers, on request. The new venture will aim for a circulation of 47,000: 20,000 on the news-stands, 10,000 subscriptions, 5,000 overseas sales, 7,000 "controlled" copies distributed free, and a bulk sale of 5,000 to British Airways.

"All along, it has annoyed me to work for a paper that is loss-making," Neil said last week. "It's not good for morale. It was impossible to see The Business as a newspaper ever making money. I hated that. But if we get this right, and it goes well, and it hits the market, it will be in profit by 2008."

A magazine launch will be a welcome change, because it seems that Neil has spent most of the year removing titles from Press Holdings, the company he runs on behalf of the Barclay Brothers. The Scotsman was sold to Johnston Press in January. A few months later, Press Holdings' only substantial internet title, Handbag.com, a set of four websites for women, was sold to the Hearst Corporation. Now the axe has finally fallen on the old Sunday Business, which has been losing readers and money since it was hit by the double whammy of 11 September and the bursting of the dot.com bubble. In the past year, it lost around £1m a month - a cost that could no longer be offset against tax from the profits generated by The Scotsman.

That reduced the company to one new venture, which may show a profit two years' hence; an arts magazine, Apollo, that is now just about making money; and one prestigious property - The Spectator, where the role Neil performs is an endless source of speculation.

Neil demurely insists that he is not, as rumoured, controlling The Spectator by proxy now that Boris Johnson is out of the editor's chair, and the former political editor, Peter Oborne, has moved on.

It is true that before hiring the new editor, Matthew D'Ancona, Neil decreed that the magazine should have "a little bit less froth and a bit more seriousness" - his own words - but that was a "marginal balancing - a tweak".

He also hired two associate editors, Fraser Nelson and Allister Heath, before D'Ancona, but they - he claims - are "the two most brilliant journalists of their generation." He also made the decision to add business coverage to the magazine's content, while the idea of a lifestyle section concentrating on luxury goods was started at the prompting of the advertising manager.

But that aside, Neil insists "The Spectator is the kind of magazine where the character of the editor is soon imprinted on the magazine itself . There's a kind of great myth that I'm still deciding what the magazine's going to say. I don't even speak about the content on a week-by-week basis. What you see are the beginnings of Matthew D'Ancona's Spectator. It will never be Andrew Neil's Spectator."

It seems too small a domain for a man like Neil. Stephen Glover, writing in The Independent over the summer, compared him to a colonial governor left with the trappings of grand office in some shrinking outpost, and suggested that he should take over the editorship of The Daily Telegraph.

Wrong on two counts, according to Neil. Firstly, he says, he is not interested in editing a national newspaper again. Having been appointed editor of The Sunday Times when he was 34, he has done that. He would rather keep up the mixture of interests that now fills his time, running magazines in the UK, helping expand the English language press in the Middle East, and hosting a weekly politics television show.

His commitment to television compels him to sit up late at night listening attentively to whomever he happens to be interviewing, for a fee that probably does not match what he could be earning if he concentrated on running businesses. It also gives the satirists ample opportunity to take the mickey out of his Scottish accent. As a boss, he has a reputation for not listening to idiots patiently, and yet he interviews politicians and pundits as if their every word is fascinating. How does he do it?

"I hadn't realised I was such a good actor," he said, surprised by the question. "I thought Mr Blair was the best actor in Britain, not me. As you know, I'm a kind of political anorak. When you were born in a council estate but nevertheless starting buying The Spectator at 14, you know something strange is going on."

This fascination with politics includes an abiding interest in his old employer, Rupert Murdoch, and which political party will get the old man's backing next. The bidding, it appears, is open. "Murdoch regards David Cameron as a bit of a lightweight. Murdoch will withhold his judgement. He has great admiration for [Gordon] Brown, but he's completely conflicted over him. On the one hand, they share the Scottish Presbyterian work ethic, and an obsession with policy: they will talk about welfare reform or whatever till the cows come home. So he loves the substance. He hates the level of tax and the ever increasing government regulation. With Cameron, he gets less of the things he doesn't like, but he doesn't get the substance. He thinks he's a lightweight."

As well as wanting to keep his hand in in politics, Neil has a sideline in the Arab emirates, where he is the chairman of a company that is going to launch an English-language daily, the Arabian Business Standard - a sort of Financial Times for the Gulf's large anglophone community. It will be launched in Dubai in the spring, and then, he hopes, extend into Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Glover's second error, according to Neil, is to think of Press Holdings as a shrinking empire. The two sell-offs were highly profitable: the Barclays bought The Scotsman for £85m 10 years ago, and effectively made £195m from selling it They invested £300,000 in handbag.com, and sold it for £22m. "When you're a private company, every now and then you have got to realise your assets, bank the cash, and move on to something else," he said. "It means that if I identify a niche magazine and it looks a good buy, I have no doubt that the cash will be forthcoming."

Within three or four years, Neil hopes that it will be a £60m business with a string of niche magazines. That can happen only if the new Business magazine takes off as planned, and if the plan to move the operation to new premises works out.

At present, the magazines are run from a basement office near Victoria Station. The sub-editing and production of The Business is contracted out to the Press Association, across the road. But the Barclays are investing in a new building near St James's Park, and when the move takes place, the three magazines will merge their production.

And, by then, we'll probably know if The Business really is the business.

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