Hush now, Euro-sceptics

Only Robert Maxwell could have launched a paper as unfocused and unviable as 'The European'. But it's still here - and set for a dose of realism under Andrew Neil. Richard Holledge looks back in amazement
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The Independent Online
It's a rare sight to see the boss in tears. A little embarrassing. In this case rather gratifying. It happened on a sombre December day in 1990 when The European newspaper appeared to die. It was the day the paper's chief executive, Ian Maxwell, having been buoyed by the wave of sympathy that initially followed the death of his father, gabbled out his shame to the assembled staff as the extent of the old rogue's villainy became apparent. Our usually emollient leader failed to gulp back the tears and made a dash for the exit.

Only Maxwell Snr could have had the grandiose vision to launch something as economically unviable and journalistically unfocused as The European. He took on the mantle of editor-in-chief, bullied his staff indiscriminately, and lied outrageously about circulation. Five hundred thousand? Que va, senor!

Rumour had it that copies were being burnt by that year's particular brand of rioting French who hijacked lorries laden with the paper as they emerged from the print site in Beauvais, northern France and set fire to them. Their charred numbers were added enthusiastically to the figures. A better rumour - bearing in mind the fate of the soi-disant editor-in- chief - was that copies were shipped across the Channel, lost overboard and also added to the circulation. What was that about bulk sales?

Of course, the paper did not die. It trundled on until last week when a new editor-in-chief - Andrew Neil - took over and told an initially nervous staff on Thursday that the paper should become more features-driven, more analytical, and more likely to appeal to the readers of the International Herald Tribune and The Economist. He will be in the office on Tuesdays and for press day on Wednesdays and, with the help of his amanuensis, the former Sunday Express editor Sue Douglas, the newspaper will eventually be relaunched as a magazine. Now the vision is less grandiose but probably more realistic.

The feeling, as one long-serving executive put it, is that the party - actually, more of a tea dance than a fully fledged rave - is over. The reaction, too, was that Neil's vision was very positive. "After all we had been reading about his thoughts on the paper we thought that the future was going to be hell for us. For the first time in a long time we can see some hope."

It is something of a miracle that there is a title in existence for Neil to revolutionise. After Maxwell's untimely dip the staff assumed the paper would close. They performed the ritual dance known to many soon-to-be- made redundant journalists: a riotous Christmas party ending in a den known to an older school of journalist as Vagabonds where we caroused, consoled and dutifully sang along to the out-going editor John Bryant as he played the guitar. We wept, we cheered, we staggered off into the night of an uncertain future.

Then enter an unlikely white knight in the shape of the deputy, Charles Garside. Puffing an imperturbable cigar, Charlie, one-time Sunday Express deputy, ex-Times, ex-almost everywhere, bought the title, kept his nerve as the administrators came in and went hunting for a buyer.

The staff worked for nothing over Christmas to keep the title going. They worked with the lighting at half-strength and most of the phones off. Rumour had it that there were three potential buyers. On a Saturday in mid-January Garside - inscrutable as ever - flew to Monte Carlo. On Monday he reappeared with a new managing director and new owners, the Barclay brothers.

The paper was saved. Garside lit another cigar and it was business as usual.

Few on the staff really seemed to feel the paper was going anywhere in particular, but it was, and still is, a happy office with staff fiercely loyal to each other and the paper, and relatively free of internecine warfare and skulduggery.

Or was it? Despite his warm relations with the Barclay twins, Garside was having a difficult time with a new managing director, Greg McCleod. Someone had to give - it was Garside, who re-emerged a few weeks later at The Mirror, masterminding, among other things, the children's section with its all-action hero, Canary Man.

There was more conspiracy. McCleod teamed up with a previous European executive Michael Maclay, who had been a purveyor to the feature pages of impenetrable prose written by obscure European politicians. Tucked away in an office in Blackfriars, and without telling the paper's new editor, Herbert Pearson, they produced a magazine version of the paper - features-driven with a greater analytical content.

Unfortunately the Barclays were unimpressed. Exit McCleod. Enter Canary Man himself, back in the hot seat.

Charlie lit another cigar and it was business as usual.

The circulation settled down at about 150,000, helped by sales in the US and Australia and some bulk sales - though not the kind that fell off the back of a ferry.

With the appointment of Andrew Neil as supremo to the Barclays' burgeoning newspaper empire it seemed only a matter of time before Garside would be once more on his way and so it proved with a dignified exit speech to the staff last Wednesday. But it is hard to imagine that anyone with his entrepreneurial skills will be out of the limelight for long. Certainly the staff, often infuriated by his inscrutability and uncommunicativeness, feel an unreserved warmth for the man who saved the day.

But as one executive said: "We had become complacent. Nobody seemed to be dissatisfied with what we were doing, the Barclays didn't seem to mind losing lots of money, so we just enjoyed it ... To be told by Neil that he wants us to be rivals to the big players such as The Economist is both hopeful and threatening. Our real concern is: can we match them for quality writing with the resources we have? At the moment the answer is 'no'."

Perhaps Andrew Neil will supply the answer to the question that has always dogged the paper, even at the time of its launch by the Great Yachtsman: why is it here? I once bought a copy of it in Jerusalem. It had arrived five days after publication. Quite apart from the horrifying cost of distribution, the news was old, the opinions dated.

That will no doubt change with the bracing effect of the Neil revolution. As the smoke clears in the paper's offices in Grey's Inn Road it will be back to business, but not as usualn

Richard Holledge was editor of eLAN, The European's arts and lifestyle section.