The Interview - Andrew Neil: "I don't think 'The Spectator' has had a boss for the last two years"

Andrew Neil has news for Boris Johnson: he wants to tighten the reins at The Spectator. Raymond Snoddy talks to the new baron of Doughty Street about the Barclays, The Business and the start of a brand new love affair

From the moment of his appointment as the chief executive of
The Spectator, Andrew Neil, known for his brusque ways with young and old fogey alike, has been sporting a very fogey-ish fob-watch and chain.

From the moment of his appointment as the chief executive of The Spectator, Andrew Neil, known for his brusque ways with young and old fogey alike, has been sporting a very fogey-ish fob-watch and chain.

Is this a change of heart, or a symbol of his new high office in the arcane world of the UK's political weeklies?

Alas, it's only a timely coincidence. Neil's watch is broken and has been sent away for repair, and will not be back for three months.

It does, however, mean that he will be appropriately dressed when he visits The Spectator's historic home in an elegant terrace house in London's Doughty Street to instruct the magazine's controversial editor, Boris Johnson, and his equally controversial publisher, Kimberly Fortier - now more generally known by her married name as Kimberly Quinn.

Neil is keen to offer reassurance to the two, both of whom have been making headlines of their own beyond the world of magazines, with allegations of high-profile affairs. But it is equally clear that things are going to change at The Spectator and that Boris Johnson will be on a tighter rein.

"The timing of my appointment is fortuitous, but it is also appropriate. It couldn't go on like this," says Neil. " The Spectator has to be managed and people have to report. We all have bosses in this world and that's true of The Spectator too.

"Every house has to have rules - even Animal House," he adds.

The former editor of The Sunday Times insists that he will not be editing the political weekly, or telling Boris Johnson who should, or should not write for it, or what its political line should be.

"Boris is the editor, I am in charge of the strategic development of the paper, and Kimberly is in charge of the day-to-day finances of it. In any strategic development the editorial and the commercial have to go hand in hand. I don't think The Spectator has had a boss for the last two years," Neil notes.

During that period, Lord Black of Crossharbour, the former chairman of the Telegraph group, had many other things to worry about than The Spectator. But then there was the long take-over battle for the Telegraph and The Spectator, which was finally won by Andrew Neil's employers, the multi-millionaire twins Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay.

Talks about Neil's appointment began in August, and have only recently been concluded because so many other things have been happening. There has also been a proper legal transfer of The Spectator from the Daily Telegraph Group to Press Holdings, the Barclays' separate publishing company, which groups both the Scotsman and the Business titles.

"It's all been done by the book. In the highly unlikely event that the Telegraph was to be sold again, then The Spectator doesn't go with it," says Neil, who has already had a positive contribution to make to the future of the magazine.

The natural instinct of the accountants, he explains, would have been to close Doughty Street and move the magazine into offices at the Telegraph. That is where the new chief executive's editorial instincts came into play, and he was able to refuse. Some back-office functions may be merged in the future but Doughty Street, in all its untidy splendour, complete with bikes in the hall and books piled high in empty fireplaces, will survive as the magazine's home.

"The principle of having this little hothouse of journalistic endeavour had to remain," he says.

As long as it doesn't become overheated on occasions, I suggest.

"Correct," concurs Neil, who first began buying The Spectator as a 14-year-old schoolboy.

His first instinct, that the editor of the magazine could be a Conservative MP but not also a front-bench spokesman, has now turned into a firmly held view.

"At one stage The Spectator wrote an editorial on the gambling bill, in favour of casinos. It turns out that the Tories are against it yet Boris was their arts spokesman," Neil explains.

Neil says he would never have sent Johnson to eat humble pie in Liverpool over the notorious editorial which accused the city of wallowing in grief over the death of Ken Bigley, as the Conservative leader did. "Michael Howard is not editor-in-chief of this magazine, and the last time I looked he was not the proprietor." Johnson, now sacked as the Tory front-bench arts spokesman, would simply have been required to correct the facts the magazine got wrong.

Something else is about to hit Doughty Street: expansion. Neil has been given the job of turning The Spectator and the art magazine Apollo into a stable of publications aimed at the top end of the market.

Neil says he is even interested in purchasing magazines such as Prospect or the New Statesman, should they come on the market.

"It could be the New Statesman. They would then be financially more secure. No-one in their right mind would buy the New Statesman and change it from being a left-wing to a right-wing magazine. If it were for sale we would look at it and we could set up a system that guaranteed its editorial independence," Neil asserts.

To many, Neil's new post was seen as a very small consolation prize for not being put in charge of The Daily Telegraph.

Neil says he advised informally on the progress of the takeover battle, but insists he made it clear to the Barclays he did not want the Telegraph, and there were no conversations about it and the job was never offered. Taking on the Telegraph would have meant having to give up all the other things he does - including the Daily Politics show and This Week on BBC television, The Scotsman, The Business and a year that is divided between London, homes in France and New York, and visits to Edinburgh.

"There's going to have to be some blood on the floor [at the Telegraph] and I've done that and I didn't see why I needed to get a kicking again. Anyway, Murdoch MacLennan [the Telegraph chief executive] is a much better newspaper executive than me. He's fantastic. He's great," says Neil.

The apparent lack of disappointment at not being offered such a demanding job is a sign that Andrew Neil is starting to mellow and, while hard-working by any standards, is no longer remorselessly driven.

The man, known for his abrasiveness, smiles and even claims not to have had a shouting match with anyone for ages.

"When I went to The Sunday Times I really felt under siege. I felt I was being attacked on all sides and I was almost looking for a fight," says Neil, who confesses that he must have a talent for making enemies of people with access to bitchy media diaries.

But, this past year, Neil says he has never been happier in his professional career - loving the variety and diversity of his portfolio of activities.

Last Christmas there was a gentle, secular "epiphany" that changed his attitude and appears to have turned the abrasive Brillo pad of the Private Eye caricature into a noticeably different kind of person.

At Christmas, he says, he turned down invitations to go to Cape Town, Peru or skiing with his French neighbours and, instead, spent time alone in his French house with his housekeeper and Sandy, his dog.

"I spent Christmas Day alone with Sandy and I just sat and did what I was never allowed to do as a kid - watch every programme on the television. I just relaxed and thought how lucky I was, being well-paid and having all this freedom and this diversity, and it was time I enjoyed it a lot more - and that is what I have done this year," says Neil.

He is about to complete a second three-year contract with the Barclays, and expects to sign another three-year one soon.

"We have never had an angry word between us, either Aidan Barclay [David's son] in London or the brothers in Monte Carlo. I haven't seen David or Freddie for four months, although I spoke to David last week. They are wonderful proprietors to work for," says Neil.

The contrast with his old boss Rupert Murdoch, whose managerial methods he described in his book, Full Disclosure, as "telephone terrorism", could not be more complete.

Indeed, there was so much disclosure in the 1996 book that Murdoch has not spoken to Neil since.

"Once he's done with you he's done, and it's quite healthy for the person concerned. I've seen too many people hanging on to his coat-tails even when they leave. One Murdoch honcho who hasn't worked for him for 15 years once told me he still dreams about him," reveals Neil, who tells an anecdote.

"We went to a restaurant and Murdoch hated the fact that I was recognised and he wasn't. 'How petty,' I thought. 'You're worth £5bn and are the most powerful media mogul in the world and I do a television show. Can we swap, then?'"

Neil claims to have been prevented from attending last year's BSkyB annual general meeting as a shareholder, even though he launched Sky and holds 50,000 shares in the company. He was allowed in only as a journalist who could neither vote nor speak at the meeting.

"Whatever wrongs Murdoch thinks I have done him, I have left him with two fine businesses. When I left The Sunday Times it was making £1m a week, and if Sky hadn't got on air on time it would have been finished," he adds.

Neil believes there has been "a little industry" waiting for him to fail ever since he left The Sunday Times.

"It's either, 'he will fall on his face next', or, when I was doing Despatch Box, 'he used to be editor of The Sunday Times and now he's just the publisher of The Scotsman and doing a late-night TV show', he says.

There is in Britain, and in the media industry in particular, Neil believes, a great desire to see people fail. But the publishing executive is no longer paying any attention to the diary stories, and doesn't even bother to try and get inaccurate ones corrected any more.

Instead, a typical day starts at 6am with him reading the papers and websites both to inform his politics shows and the group's newspapers.

He is already doing four politics programmes a week, and that is expected to move to seven during the next election campaign with five Daily Politics and two This Weeks. Then there are the specials on topics such as the autumn budget statement and 40 hours of live party-conference coverage a year.

Neil is usually free from the BBC by 1pm at the latest, and then it's round to The Business's office in the Press Association building or onto the plane to Edinburgh, where he keeps a wardrobe in the Balmoral Hotel.

The Business, he admits, has been a struggle, and in the year after September 11, when it was losing £11m a year - more than the profits of the Scotsman Group - there was a real question mark over its future.

He tackled costs by moving the paper into the Press Association building, and the news agency staff both sub-edit the business publication and prepare pages for publication. The editorial is produced by eight staff journalists, supplemented by articles from publications such as The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine. Losses are at a more manageable £3.5m this year (and expected to be less than £2.5m next year) and are offset against the £8m operating profits of the group.

Around 100,000 copies of The Business are now are delivered free to carefully targeted AB readers, with 30,000 sold on the newsstands and about 70,000 going at bulk discount prices to club-class passengers on airlines and to guests at five-star hotels.

"I don't think there is any doubt now about the quality of the journalism. The paper is breaking stories," says Neil.

In the hope of making the paper more attractive to advertisers, and getting it to break even, he is beginning the task of asking those who receive The Business whether they want to continue getting it. Advertising agencies say they regard such "requested" copies as the equivalent of putting money on the table.

"If this doesn't work - and we have spilt too much blood and sweat to get this far - it won't be for the want of trying," insists Neil.

He has recently taken The Scotsman straight from broadsheet to compact format and believes the move has halted the decline in the paper's circulation, although there has not been much uplift so far.

The Scottish market is "miserable" largely because, he believes, the Scottish papers spend so much time "tearing each other's eyes out" that they have allowed London papers to make huge inroads. He estimates that The Scotsman has lost around 11 per cent of its circulation since 1997, while the rival Herald has dropped 21 per cent.

From this week Neil is rolling out newly designed front pages for The Scotsman which will in effect be menus for what is inside - on the continental European model. Pages two and three will then be free for the main serious splash of the day.

By January, when the new system has bedded down, there will be significant promotion to get circulation to at least 75,000. At a board meeting last week Neil was given permission to expand in Scotland, through acquisition of daily and weekly newspapers, to grow the business faster.

"Our proprietors love the culture in Scotland. We are lean, we are efficient, we are no-nonsense with a very small management team with instant decision-making. Aidan says he begins every conversation at the Telegraph by saying 'I wish you were as good as the Scotsman management'," claims Neil.

He believes The Scotsman's £8m profit on a turnover of £56 million is a creditable performance.

" The Times is losing more money than The Sunday Times makes, The Independent is losing an arm and a leg and The Observer is now losing more than The Guardian makes," he says, by way of offering some comparisons.

He believes the move to a compact format will simply slow the long-term decline of newspapers.

"I think that's the most we can hope for." But he believes that efficient papers will still be profitable.

For his next trick, Andrew Neil is thinking of fitting in a book about the "special relationship" between the UK and the United States, a subject that has long fascinated him. And maybe he could interest someone in a six-part television series.

But can the broad smile on Neil's face these days really be accounted for merely by the pleasures of work and a more relaxed attitude to life? Is there any sign of Neil, the perennial bachelor of Private Eye myth with a succession on dusky maidens on his arm, actually settling down?

"There's quite a steady at the moment. She's lovely and very much part of my life. Maybe that's contributed to this year," Neil replies.

What's her name?

"She's very private, very beautiful and very smart," says Neil.

So should Cilla Black be getting her hat ready ?

"Let's not get carried away," he laughs. "I told you how happy I am. Why are you trying to ruin it?!"

LIFE AND TIMES OF A MEDIA MASTER

Grammar school boy

Born in 1949 in Paisley, Andrew Ferguson Neil attended the local grammar school before reading economics at the University of Glasgow After graduating with an MA in politics and economics in 1971, he worked as a researcher for the Conservative Party.

The Economist

In 1973, Neil began a decade of working at The Economist, as a correspondent in Belfast, New York and Washington, DC. He became the UK editor of the journal in 1982, and caught the eye of Rupert Murdoch.

The Sunday Times

Neil was appointed editor in 1983, two years after it was acquired by Murdoch's News International. He went on to modernise the paper into the multi-sectioned, mass-circulation cash cow that it is today, prompting the rest of the quality market to introduce supplements of their own. Neil was always ready to challenge the Oxbridge élite, and embraced Thatcherism, but fell foul of the liberal establishment, which complained that he had destroyed the Sunday Times traditions enshrined by the paper's former editor, Harold Evans. Neil became a pariah in such circles after inviting the revisionist historian David Irving to translate Goebbels's diaries.

Enemy of Murdoch

Always fascinated by broadcasting, Neil was lured away from The Sunday Times by its owner to go to America to become editor of Fox Network News. He returned to Britain to become chairman of Sky TV between 1988 and 1990, but the Scot's relationship with the Sun king soured and ended emphatically with Neil's candid biography, Full Disclosure, in 1996.

Man about town

Unmarried. Neil used to be known as a regular on the dancefloor at the London celebrity hangout Tramp. His companionship with the former Miss India Pamella Bordes attracted interest from rival papers and Neil successfully sued the Telegraph grandee Peregrine Worsthorne for libel. The satirical magazine Private Eye still delights in picturing him in cap and vest in the company of a young woman.

Friend of the Barclays

Following his break from Rupert Murdoch, Neil allied himself to the reclusive, Channel-Islands-based Barclay twins, with whom he has worked for the past eight years. His efforts to save The European were spectacularly unsuccessful and his efforts to modernise The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday have proved unpopular with some staff. Neil also has responsibility for The Business. When the Barclays recently acquired the Telegraph group, Neil was the subject of rumours that he was in line for a senior role. But, instead, he finds himself in charge of the political periodical The Spectator.

TV presenter

Neil has an increasingly high profile on television, having progressed through such offerings as The Andrew Neil Show and Despatch Box. He now presents The Daily Politics on BBC2 and This Week on BBC1, adding to his reputation as a commentator.

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