The rebel and the toff: now that's a 'Spectator' sport

There's an unlikely new double act in Doughty Street. Who says the Barclay brothers don't have a sense of humour?

Andrew Neil in charge of The Spectator. It doesn't exactly roll off the tongue: not so much horses for courses as culture clash. These days Neil does benign pretty convincingly, as evidenced in his Today interview with Jim Naughtie last week - no editorial interference; greater good of The Spectator; and the affectionate interplay with Diane Abbott and Michael Portillo on This Week, his politics programme on BBC TV. In his late middle years there seems to be little of the Brillo abrasiveness that those of us knew who worked with him - no, worked for him - in his Sunday Times years knew. Cuddly was a word we seldom used.

Andrew Neil in charge of The Spectator. It doesn't exactly roll off the tongue: not so much horses for courses as culture clash. These days Neil does benign pretty convincingly, as evidenced in his Today interview with Jim Naughtie last week - no editorial interference; greater good of The Spectator; and the affectionate interplay with Diane Abbott and Michael Portillo on This Week, his politics programme on BBC TV. In his late middle years there seems to be little of the Brillo abrasiveness that those of us knew who worked with him - no, worked for him - in his Sunday Times years knew. Cuddly was a word we seldom used.

By reputation, the Barclay brothers, who have found themselves owners of The Spectator as a by-product of acquiring the Telegraph titles, do not include a sense of mischief in their list of defining characteristics. But their decision to put their political weekly under the umbrella of Press Holdings, which publishes The Scotsman and The Business, and is run by Andrew Neil, suggests that this might not be the case.

Andrew and Boris: the one they love to hate and the one they love to love. The self-styled scourge of the establishment and the self-styled toff. Andrew Neil and Boris Johnson, brought together in the genteel Bloomsbury surroundings of The Spectator. And such timing. Andrew has put scandal behind him, hardly needing to remind anyone, as he used to, that he is a single man. Boris is in the eye of the storm, humbled by his relationships with Liverpool, with Petronella Wyatt and with Michael Howard, and cast out of his opposition front-bench job.

As Neil enters the Doughty Street offices of the idiosyn- cratic right-wing magazine he will no doubt feel the libido in the air. As he says hello to Kimberley (the publisher), Petro-nella (the columnist) and Boris (the editor) it may remind him of the sexual buzz he felt at Tramp, his favoured nightclub in the days when he edited The Sunday Times. The upmarket Spectator team would find the comparison offensive.

Sometimes on a Friday night Neil would effectively sub- poena a group of his senior staff to accompany him to Tramp. Addressing the most expensive bangers and mash you had ever eaten he would beam across the table: "A far cry from the Garrick." I was not a member of that club, but Neil would insist that I was, just as he would insist that I lived in Hampstead when in fact I lived in west London. "So, Peter, what are the chattering classes of Hampstead saying about...?" and he would refer to some contentious issue of the day. He liked the idea that I had worked for The Guardian for a long time, although he hated the paper.

He created the multi-section Sunday Times that so dominates its market sector. He was autocratic, ferociously intelligent and loved to debate, but surrounded himself with too many staff who did not dare to. Perhaps it was the six-monthly cull that deterred them, although Neil always delegated that task.

He was incessantly talked about, more than any editor I have known. Word would go round the office that he was on the way in. Reports from his car would provide the latest information on his mood - which was changeable - and allow us to prepare ourselves. On bad days his editorial conferences would be torment, as he raged about his contempt for our inadequacies and his shame at having to edit a newspaper staffed by such mediocrities.

And when it went well we would sit in his office on a Saturday evening, Blind Date on the television, drinking champagne (except when Murdoch was in Wapping, when it would be hidden) and basking in his respect for our efforts and contempt for our competitors.

It was never ever boring, and sometimes it was very amusing. I lost a lot of friends, particularly on the left, by saying that I liked him and thought he was a good editor. But I did and he was, and while I disagreed with most of his views I admired the certainty and the intelligence with which he deployed them.

Will he seek to influence The Spectator? He says not, but he is still an editorial beast at heart. Although he is of the right, it is for him an intellectual, not a social position. His country cottage is in the south of France, not Wiltshire or Gloucestershire. The Telegraph upper-middle class is not his style, old Etonians not his network. What he will like in Johnson is his apparent carelessness about who he offends and his disregard for fashion, in behaviour or ideas. They may get on.

Then there is the matter of Neil's career. After his departure from Wapping and Murdoch, his rise and rise seemed to have stalled. The Barclays took him on when they were still emerging as significant newspaper publishers, and Neil thought this was his route to a major role in newspaper publishing, by which he meant London, not Scotland. His eyes were initially on the Express, and he was keen that the Barclays should bid. They skirted around the business but did not follow through.

Neil then talked of putting together a bid for the Telegraph, and was apparently unaware that the Barclays were already negotiating with Hollinger. It would have offended him not to have been told. He would not have liked the implication in the Barclays' need to "reassure" inquirers that if they were successful in acquiring the Telegraph Neil would not be involved in its management.

But he's got The Spectator, that most talked-about magazine with the most talked-about editor. Some may see it as a sop to Neil, but the situation is not short of egos, and it will make a good Spectator sport.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

DIARY

Yellow brick road

Sir Elton John makes a valiant attempt to descend to the level of mere mortals in his guise as guest editor of this week's Time Out, casually telling readers that he lives "near Shepherds Bush - a fantastic, vibrant area". That was cheering to residents of gloomy old Goldhawk Road, but when was someone whose London home is a £6m mansion in Holland Park last so keen to hide the fact?

Bored games

If you are unhappy about the number of repeats on the BBC, don't tune in to the pre-school children's channel CBeebies, which ran the same episode of the children's exercise programme Boogie Beebies at the same time every day last week. This was on top of the channel's policy of repeating shows two or three times a day. Perhaps the idea is for kids to go and do something less obesity-inducing instead.

The history man

Before the Spectator became better known for the sex lives of its staff than for its contents, Alan Yentob was interested in filming the magazine's history. After the recent excitement, the BBC creative director has returned to the plan. "Now it's a rather different story," he muses. "That could get a couple of people watching, couldn't it?"

Bulging eyes, sweaty brow...

Guest speakers at House of Commons press gallery lunches are usually politicians. So an invitation to the brilliant Dead Ringers star Jon Culshaw is a bit of a departure. Anyone doubting Culshaw's credentials will have been won round by the prescient sketch on last week's show, in which Michael Howard accused Tony Blair (played by Culshaw) of stealing his policies. The next day the real Howard accused the real Blair of just that.

Standard measures

With circulation plummeting and losses running at £10m a year, the Evening Standard has been looking for ways to keep its Christmas costs down. One measure is to scrap Christmas cards this year. Those members of staff for whom it's useful to be able to send season's greetings to their contacts will, alas, have to go out and buy cards for themselves. How soon before it's possible to find a charity card from which proceeds go to the Standard?

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