How Andrew Neil 'resigned' me over lunch
Life as an ex-editor is as fraught as bringing out the paper. Since leaving The Scotsman, with a little encouragement from his publisher, Tim Luckhurst has found that spending more time with the children can have its downside
Tuesday 19 September 2000
In his 1998 Booker Prize-winning novel,
Amsterdam, Ian McEwan describes the agony of a newspaper editor abruptly sacked from his job. The fictional Vernon Halliday contemplates a plethora of vindictive revenges, stares moodily at his last edition and then slumps in despair - "he was at home when he should have been in an office. He knew only one profession and no one would employ him in it now. He was in disgrace and he was too old to retrain."
In his 1998 Booker Prize-winning novel, Amsterdam, Ian McEwan describes the agony of a newspaper editor abruptly sacked from his job. The fictional Vernon Halliday contemplates a plethora of vindictive revenges, stares moodily at his last edition and then slumps in despair - "he was at home when he should have been in an office. He knew only one profession and no one would employ him in it now. He was in disgrace and he was too old to retrain."
McEwan got it right. As his novel recognises, editors of national newspapers have a lot in common with cabinet ministers. Neither job permits any respite, both are exceptionally well paid and command respect for the position and only sometimes the individual. Bad editors and bad ministers will always be treated politely by their staff. They have power irrespective of ability.
There are approximately the same number of national newspapers as there are departments of state. To head one is to reach the pinnacle of a career. The few who make it can reasonably expect all that follows to be a downhill path. Only the tiniest minority go on to win the very top jobs - prime minister or editor of The Guardian or The Daily Telegraph.
The formalities of departure are virtually synonymous too. Ministers rarely leave in open disgrace. They depart, with elegant words of kindness, to "spend more time with their families" or "pursue other interests". Editors resign - or to put it more accurately, are resigned - to indulge in other polite euphemisms for bleak but affluent unemployment. The language is strikingly similar. Ministers "make it clear" to the prime minister that their "future is at his disposal" (as if he was ever in any doubt about the matter). Editors obligingly inform their proprietors that they have every right to seek fresh blood - as if saying "Bugger off, I'm staying put" would make the remotest difference to the outcome.
The sacking process is designed to protect bruised egos. Jack Cunningham was no more willing to exit the Cabinet than Andrew Neil was to quit The Sunday Times. I look forward to the day when an editor or minister announces that he was pushed kicking and screaming from a post he had fought for all his life and spent the next few months manically contemplating what inspired bribe or blackmail might see him return to it.
It doesn't happen (the announcement that is, not the thought-process) because history teaches an absolute lesson. Once fired, the only way back is to behave with maximum dignity in the desperate hope that others will agree with one's own private assessment that the "resignation" was capricious and unjust.
The temptation to accept invitations from broadcasters and rival titles to condemn the proprietor as a demented little squirt who couldn't manage a whelk stall, is great but must be resisted. Encouragement from former colleagues to do just that must be also be dismissed at all costs. They are concerned about the effect of your departure on their prospects - and they soon stop calling when the new boss proves equally amenable to their ambitions.
Of course, no sacking is pleasant for the victim. And self-respect is a luxury compared to the need to pay the mortgage. But high-pressure jobs are different from run-of-the-mill careers (not least because the pay-off tends to be bigger). An editorship is not an adornment to life - it is the whole caboodle.
No wonder the sense of dislocation is so acute - it feels like hell even if it is the best thing that could happen to you. Let me come clean. Back in June, I was "resigned" from the editorship of The Scotsman. I had only been in the editor's seat for a few months. I became ill and had to take a break. When I recovered, my employers made it crystal clear that they did not want me back at the helm. The deed was done in a restaurant in the centre of Glasgow - not an ideal location and one which guaranteed that details of the discussion appeared in a rival newspaper's diary column. I wouldn't have chosen the venue if I'd known what was going to happen. But with a naivety which appears to accompany my life-defining moments, I thought I was meeting the Publisher to discuss my eventual return to work. It seemed a reasonable assumption at the time, but I acknowledge that the public nature of the event was my fault.
The shock was not unbearable while I was still undergoing medical treatment. I didn't get out of bed for a month anyway, so working 16-hour days wasn't really on the agenda. But as soon as I was better, I felt like an ant expelled from the colony.
Running a newspaper is a constant adrenaline buzz. It is like going through the agonies of gestation and birth once every 24 hours. And like the mother of a newborn baby, you know how badly you are needed. Someone has to make all those vital decisions and, as long as you are standing, everyone will cheerfully leave it to you.
Having only recently been promoted, after two years as deputy editor, I probably took it worse than most. I felt I had not had the chance to prove myself. I had just started doing all the things I had watched my predecessor do and I was really beginning to enjoy the process.
Between six and seven in the evening, I still find it hard not to chose a front-page picture, read the leaders, demand late rewrites on five facing-page leads and weigh the merits of a decent exclusive against an elegant presentation of a more significant story. I have dreams about poaching a great columnist from a rival title or condemning a government initiative with such eloquence that I can hear my own words played back to me on the Today programme's review of the newspapers. Above all, I miss the joy of juggling with 15 balls and managing not to drop any. It made me feel worthwhile.
I'm calm now, and fitter than I've been since I was 18, but I still feel a frisson of vicarious despair every time I see another editor fall. I know what it is like to wake up at six in the morning, programmed to perform, and then lapse back into the duvet with the recognition that there is no stage on which to do it. Even the joy of getting to know children one fathered but ignored for the best part of a decade is far from pure. Just when you want to play football or discover PlayStation, you find that their self-image is deeply connected to yours. "Why were you fired, Dad? Will we have to move?" are hard questions when you're not sure about the answers yourself and would certainly prefer not to think about them.
The condition is akin to grave depression. It is hard to meet friends and harder still to apply for jobs. From being the star of the scene you are suddenly the target of unwanted sympathy. And this is where the cabinet analogy runs out. There are no commissionerships or Nato appointments for former editors. Potential employers assume you won't do anything except edit another paper. If you make it clear that you are simply anxious to return to the world of work, the instant assumption is that you are desperate and will abandon whatever you are invited to do the second a suitable title expresses interest.
Ex-editors often find themselves contemplating the possibility of a writing career. Some, like Magnus Linklater, Roy Greenslade and Peter Preston, do it exceptionally well. Others confront the simple reality that writing was never really their forte. They commissioned excellence but did not generate it themselves. A few do get the dreamed-of new appointment. Andrew Jaspan, now editor of Scotland's Sunday Herald, had a spectacularly hard time at The Observer. He has come back better and more determined than before.
Many don't know what to do. My ex-colleague Martin Clarke, until just weeks ago editor of the Daily Record, must be finding ex-editorship uniquely painful. Martin isn't the world's most adorable chap. He can be utterly vile. But he was born to be an editor. He is certain of his own judgement, committed to the role and incapable of deputising any but the most mundane decisions.
Enough - it's infinitely worse for former miners and steel-workers. The big difference is that they have the support and sympathy of their communities. Ex-editors don't. We have to rely on the imagination of potential employers. Could I administer Kosovo or run a political campaign? I imagine I could do it as well as a former cabinet minister - but editors make too many enemies when they are in post to expect favours afterwards. All offers very gratefully received - but I'll try to keep the ink in my pen running.
* The writer is a former editor of'The Scotsman'
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