'I'm not handcuffed to the Barclay brothers'

Twenty years on, Andrew Neil has no regrets over seeing off the unions at Wapping. Now, as he prepares to appoint the editor of a 'little magazine', he talks to Jane Thynne about his diminished role as a boss
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The Independent Online

There is a photo, taken in 1983, in Andrew Neil's autobiography showing the new, 34-year-old editor addressing a resentful Sunday Times staff. "You can tell how delighted everyone was to see me," he says in the caption, with untypical self-mockery.

Twenty years to the month after he masterminded the trauma of Wapping, there are plenty who still resent Neil. But in many other respects he is transformed. Gone is the abrasive manner, replaced by a dazzling, cosmetically enhanced smile. Gone the weird hair texture that earned him the sobriquet Brillo, in favour of undulating russet locks. Bounding out of the studio from his BBC 2 show, The Daily Politics, he performs two TV interviews just in the course of crossing the office. He is also trailed by another journalist, profiling his day. To add to the image change, he has just taken delivery of a natty Mini Cooper convertible, dispensing with an oh-so-middle-aged Jaguar XJS. He seems a man at ease in his own skin.

Which is curious considering the vicissitudes of Press Holdings, the Barclay brothers publishing stable of which Neil is chief executive. Its major holding, The Scotsman, was sold before Christmas after struggling with eight editors in as many years. The Spectator is without an editor after Boris Johnson was urged to resign. The Business is losing millions. Yet Neil is smiling.

"Well, selling The Scotsman was very sad but also a bit of a relief because it's quite hard to see where we went with it. There are a mass of London papers with huge budgets and it's very hard to compete." Surely he is feeling a sense of failure? "Och no. The Barclays regard it as a triumph. They paid £85m and they got £160m in cash, plus we got to keep the building. And it's freed me up to do other things."

Such as perhaps, concentrate on The Business, which he has given just a year to break even. "We're doing everything we can to ensure it will survive; at one stage it was losing just over £12m a year, now it's losing just over £3m. But you cannot go on losing money indefinitely. I've said we have to hit our budget of losing no more than £2m this year, or that's it."

To lose one publication may be regarded as canny, to lose two might look like carelessness. With only The Spectator, art magazine Apollo and handbag.com, the women's website, left, does he worry that the Barclays might begin to question the meaning of his existence?

"Well I've already said: 'The Scotsman is a big chunk of my responsibility gone. I'm not sure you can justify the salary you pay me.' But they're very easy- going about this. They said: 'That's true at the moment but who knows what it may be like a year or two down the road?'

"It's a gentlemen's agreement. I'm not handcuffed to them. There's only a very basic contract. David and Frederick have very much stepped back; they live in Monte Carlo most of the year and spend a couple of months a year on their island in the Channel Islands. I don't have to work for Aidan [Sir David Barclay's son] and he doesn't have to employ me, so as long as we both agree on that, I suppose it will continue."

What a contrast with life under Rupert Murdoch, which no one ever described as gentlemanly. When Neil's 11 Murdoch years came to a miserable end in America trying to make a news programme for Fox TV, he described the parting as "emerging from a black cloud".

"A senior executive who'd left 20 years before told me he still dreamt about Murdoch. I don't dream about him - nightmares maybe but not dreams - but I don't regret a minute. I know all Rupert's minuses and that's why he doesn't talk to me any more. But I also know all the pluses and Wapping and Sky TV in this country are the biggest."

On the move to Wapping, he has no regrets. "None, except for the stupidity of the union leaders. I wish it had never happened, but did it have to be done? Absolutely. Did it save our newspaper industry? Absolutely. Would I do it again? Absolutely."

Even as he says it, he gulps at the memory of the hate mail and death threats. He had two bodyguards with him at all times and a driver from the French SAS trained in anti-terror techniques.

"It was pretty harrowing. But what kept me going was that I was a true believer. I take credit for shaming Murdoch into doing it; he didn't want to and I shamed him with Eddy Shah. I said: 'This little printer is doing it and he's won'. I knew Murdoch was the only one who had the guts to do it. We knew if we lost, we were finished."

He recalls the sense of powerful justification which sustained him in that time, and adds: "I felt like that at the launch of Sky, when the whole of the establishment said it would fail. Any time you come forward with an idea and people start saying 'that will never work', I find myself saying, 'We'll prove it!' That feeling still gets me going."

Another thing that gets Neil going is the "intellectual vacuity" of the chattering classes, long one of his favourite subjects. His vision of an Old Britain, consisting of an Oxbridge ruling class versus a meritocratic New Britain, crystallised in his libel case against Sir Peregrine Worsthorne and has indirectly provoked some of his best journalism. It has been hard to sustain the idea of a toff conspiracy during a decade of Labour government, but the arrival of David Cameron is an important signal, he believes.

"New Britain's been in the driving seat for a while but it's now in retreat and Old Britain in a new guise is on the way back. We're in a country where social mobility is in freefall. If you're a bright kid from a poor background, you have less chance of a world-class education than you had 40 years ago. For the first time in living memory, both major party leaders are public schoolboys."

Education has always been an obsession and he is personally involved in the schooling of his 14 godchildren, deploring the state system. "Though I've got no children of my own, I've been through the traumas of it. A good friend with two of my godchildren moved to Wandsworth so the kids could go to decent state schools. But by the time they were 13, it was in meltdown and they had to take them out. I managed to get one into a boarding school in Scotland and another into a private school in London."

One glaring example of chattering class vacuity, which causes Neil to shake his head in amazement, is that while the London media has displayed a fascination with the fate of The Spectator, they could barely stifle a yawn at the future ownership of The Scotsman. "I call them the Myopic Metropolitan Chattering Classes. They're obsessed with this little magazine and who the editor is going to be, rather than this £200m Scotsman deal north of the border."

To some, this very comparison suggests Neil does not deserve charge of the illustrious Spectator. Stephen Glover, whose media column was dispensed with for a second time by Neil last month, protested: "It would be difficult to think of someone more at odds with everything it stands for."

At the mention of Glover, Neil's relaxed charm subsides. "Ah, Mr Glover. Once again he excels himself with the deep research that he's done. I started buying The Spectator when I was 14 in the middle of a Glasgow council estate. It was the only copy and I ordered it in. The Spectator has always stood for different things at different times. The implication that I'm going to recreate it in my image in the way that I did at The Sunday Times, well of course not. I'm not the editor and I wouldn't do that because you're only temporary holders of this and you have to respect the traditions." He has 12 names in the frame for editor and expects to reach a decision with Aidan Barclay by the beginning of February.

Rumours are rife of infighting at the magazine, but Neil says relations with Boris Johnson are so friendly they had dinner last week together. "It's like dining with a Hollywood star. A woman there almost had palpitations - she grabbed his hand. Even on the way out, people were coming over as I waited to get into my chauffeur-driven car and he was waiting for his bike to be delivered by the doorman."

By contrast, the most instant recognition Neil enjoys comes courtesy of Private Eye, which has had years of fun out of running a photograph of him in a baseball cap and vest with his arm round a dark-skinned woman. For a man with a powerful ego, how does it feel to be pilloried like that? "Oh I don't mind any more. I never generally read it but a friend said there was a picture of me with a caption about the dangers of Asian bird flu, and I fell about laughing. I've got to try and get that - that's a frame for the bathroom - I've got to call Hislop.

"I do think for all its nonsense and its inaccuracy, overall Private Eye has been beneficial. It's played as big a role as the PCC in helping to keep British journalism honest."

So what now? He has just signed a new contract with the BBC, he has launched WMR, a TV rights company, and is working with a soon-to-be-named international broadcaster. He works out and is "very happy".

For a man who sees himself as an outsider, this arrangement seems to suit him. "I'm like a railway station: I've got trains coming from all directions. I like the diversity. I'd never go back to front-line editing. If you've edited The Sunday Times, everything else is second division after that. I've only one caveat and that is if the proprietor of The New York Times called me. I'd do that."


'Observer' under fire

Such an open goal has not been seen since, er, Sir Menzies Campbell's performance at PMQs this week. The Guardian's Organ Grinder blog invited readers to say what they thought of The Observer's redesign in Berliner format. The Organ Grinder had never received so many posts, and compulsive Observer hacks have been poring over it with morbid curiosity. Around 80 per cent are critical, among them: "The liberal use of colour does look like Roger Alton gave a two-year-old child a box of crayons and instructed him to colour all the grey bits." "Full colour or not, The Observer remains some kind of vaguely liberal cross between Heat and the Argos catalogue."

"What has gotten into you all? Have you started sniffing glue? How can previously intelligent people stand by and watch a paper with such an excellent reputation be turned into a watered down, bland, disposable, navel-gazing load of toss." "The magazine is dull - really dull. Reading it is like finding yourself at a dinner of media darlings. It's like you're supposed to air-kiss the bloody magazine when you finish reading..." And these are some of the politer reactions. How many of the emails came from the Farringdon Road area is not known.

Dandy and discreet

First David Cameron, then "Ming" Campbell. Everyone seems to be jumping on the environmentalist bandwagon. The latest to enter the field is Rosie Boycott, former Daily Express and Independent editor, who has been spending a lot of time with her pigs on her organic farm in Somerset. Her latest ruse is launching an environmental magazine entitled Dandelion. "It is a sort of project I am working on but I don't think I want to tell you any more about it just yet," says Rosie.

Selfless scribe

Hats off to Joshua Rosenberg. At the Daily Telegraph staff meeting on this year's pay round, the assembled scribblers discussed the management's 3 per cent offer. The union had wanted lower-paid employees to be given an extra hike, but this had not been forthcoming from management. It was agreed that the offer be accepted. But Rosenberg proposed that the total extra money on offer be carved up by the union, meaning that the worse-off got larger rises than 3 per cent, but the better-paid, like Rosenberg, received considerably less.

Digging deep

James O'Brien puts his money where his mouth is. The LBC presenter was appalled at the lenient 12-year sentence handed out to Andrew Webster, who raped a 12-week-old baby. On Thursday morning, he interviewed Shy Keenan, founder of the Phoenix Survivors, an organisation that represents victims of abuse. Keenan said her organisation's phones had just been cut off because it couldn't afford the £800 phone bill, at which point O'Brien offered to pay it himself.

"I haven't told my wife yet," O'Brien said later. "But it was the least I could do."

Age and accuracy

The Sunday Telegraph's ubiquitous columnist Tim Walker said on Sky News that he didn't know why there was so much fuss about Charles Kennedy. "I am very nearly 40 and I have never seen a Lib Dem government - and if I live to be 80 I very much doubt that I ever will," he declared. Fair comment, but Debrett's Distinguished People of Today says Walker was born on 23 June 1963, so he is not "very nearly" 40 but some years past it. Walker was unabashed when called. "I have a certificate on my lavatory wall at home that says I am the Young Journalist of the Year, so I can't possibly be the age that you say I am," he says. He declines, however, to name the year that he won said award.