Andrew Neil: 'I am a better journalist than I am a businessman'

As his 'Sunday Politics' show begins on BBC1 today, the 62-year-old presenter reveals what he thinks about Murdoch, and talks about his life in journalism, politics – and what comes next. Matthew Bell meets Andrew Neil

There have always been two Andrew Neils. There's the one who jets between homes in Kensington, New York and St Tropez, oiling with the Eurotrash at Tramp, a seven-foot glamazon on his arm – all to make sure we know He's Made It. Then there's the Andrew Neil that got him there: the clever, hard-working, aggressive politico, a brilliant interviewer on top of his brief and never afraid to embarrass with a difficult question.

The one I meet in a dingy cupboard on Millbank has a touch of the Jaguar salesman. He is broad and squat, a breezeblock of grey suit, and his hair is freshly dyed and long, reminding me of the final scene of Death in Venice. I have just watched the 62-year-old journalist and businessman present a lukewarm episode of The Daily Politics, featuring three sixth-formers who turn out to be MPs, and he comes off set all chatty and bumptious, the interviewer preparing to be interviewed.

Of course, he knows better than anyone how not to give anything away, answering a question with a joke, or waffling to fill time. After a career that has included 11 years editing The Sunday Times – summarised by the chapter in his memoirs titled "Ruining the Sunday breakfasts of the Rich and Powerful" – Neil is a BBC man now, contractually forbidden from saying anything controversial.

From today, he has the chance to start ruining Sundays once again: at noon, he will host the first of a new one-hour show called Sunday Politics, which replaces The Politics Show. His weekday programme will also double in length from 30 minutes to an hour. And This Week, the late-night Thursday love-in with Michael Portillo and assorted celebrities, will celebrate its 10th birthday next year. Ten years!

It's all part of the "portfolio career" he has accumulated since parting company with Rupert Murdoch in 1994. He faced an uncertain future after they fell out, and they haven't spoken for 16 years. Neil elevated himself into the business side of journalism, and became close to Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, proprietors of the Telegraph titles, who made him publisher of The Scotsman. His other jobs include chairing The Spectator, a magazine he started reading aged 14. Some feel its irreverence and posh japes are at odds with his own ethos. "Sometimes, I think The Spectator is calculated to embarrass me," he laughs.

Presently, an article by Rod Liddle about the Stephen Lawrence case is under investigation for possible contempt of court. Does that embarrass him? "It's quite clear it shouldn't have been published, but if you are going to be a magazine like The Spectator, and take strong positions and be controversial, every now and then you may do something stupid."

He has made his own mistakes: his attempt to reposition the liberal- leaning Scotsman to the right alienated many readers, and he eventually oversaw its sale to the Johnston Press in 2005. He considers his time there a success, pointing out that circulation was 80,000 when it was sold, while now it sells 40,000 copies a day. He also channelled a lot of energy into The Business, a Sunday newspaper that simply never took off, and which eventually folded in 2008. He concedes it was a failure. "I am a better journalist than I am a businessman," he says. His way of whirlwinding into The Spectator and The Scotsman – demanding instant change and modernisation – suggests he might mistake busyness for good business.

Among journalists, his reputation is as a bit of a bully; but he says he was bullied himself at News International. When editor of The Sunday Times, he embodied the Thatcherite values of the 1980s, so isn't it odd that he's wound up at Mark Thompson's BBC?

"What I am doing now is a bit of a surprise," he says. "But you may be making assumptions about my politics that may not be true. I have voted for all three parties in my time, and have had some very strong views in previous incarnations. But my views now are largely irrelevant. The viewers don't want to know what they are."

In fact, Neil has always dabbled in broadcasting, having presented Tomorrow's World in the 1970s, and hosting Despatch Box and Is This Your Life? in the 1990s. "I always wanted to have a career in print and as a broadcaster. My mentor is Alastair Burnet, the greatest news anchor Britain has had. When I joined The Economist [aged 24], he was editor, and doing conference coverage and election programmes. And in a way, that was what I wanted to do."

This Week became a surprise hit soon after launching in 2003, thanks to the cosy dynamic with Michael Portillo and Diane Abbott (Abbott is no longer a regular presenter), though some viewers complain that it's on too late. "Yes, it's on far too late," he says. "Half of our viewers seem to think it's pre-recorded. That just shows you the low IQ of our viewers."

In fact, he likes it being on late, as it lets them get away with a more informal style. "We're unpolished, and it has mistakes in, and our quizzes are a joke, because we don't even know what the answers are, but we have the freedom to do what we want." Not everyone enjoys the sub-Countdown graphics and clunking puns, which Neil admits to writing himself, as he revels in its cheesiness. Was it a good idea to call Diane Abbott a chocolate HobNob, though? "No, it wasn't a good idea. Actually, I didn't write that. But I said it. I took the script. You know it never crossed my mind – we've called them much worse. Because there isn't a racist bone in anybody's body in this programme, we never saw any racist implication in it, and there wasn't any in it."

Given that Newsnight has slumped to its lowest audience ratings ever, I say, why don't they parachute you in to save it? "Why would I want to do [Newsnight] when I'm doing what I've always wanted to do?" he retorts. Is the BBC now paying him more? "No, and luckily I don't depend solely on the BBC for my income." Does money motivate him? "Yes. If you haven't had any, it's quite good to have some." He refuses to disclose how much the BBC pays him, saying it's between £1 and £1m, though I doubt it's anywhere near Jeremy Paxman's rumoured £1m. Does he feel he has been passed over for other plum BBC jobs, of the sort that go to middle-class, public-school types like the Dimblebys?

"You mean I'm not middle class?" Well, you've always described yourself as working class. "No, that's my background. I lead a pretty middle-class lifestyle, but I come from a working-class background. But it never crossed my mind until you raised it. Not at all. Everybody I work with at the BBC seems to come from a pretty similar background to mine. I think if you come into a well-established institution later in your career, from the outside, then naturally things are different from [how they would be] if you'd grown up in the BBC and done almost nothing else – like a lot of the major presenters have."

Andrew Ferguson Neil was born in 1949 in Paisley, Renfrewshire, the son of an electrician. He attended Paisley Grammar and Glasgow University, where he read economics and political science. He started out thinking he wanted to go into politics, and took a job as a research assistant for the Conservatives, but then he joined The Economist and stayed 10 years.

When the Barclay brothers bought the Telegraph group, some thought Neil was disappointed not to get the top job, but he claims he never wanted it, as it would have meant giving up his broadcasting work. However, he doesn't rule out a return to Fleet Street, saying "never say never to anything".

When conversation turns to Rupert Murdoch, he recommends that the press baron sell his British newspapers: The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times. "If I was a shareholder, I would argue for elevating Murdoch to be a lifetime president and creating an entirely independent, non-Murdoch board. All the Wall Street analysts tell me that would add 20 per cent to the share price, and if you sold the British papers, that would increase the share price by another 20 per cent." Would the Barclay brothers buy them? "I can't speak for them. But I think there's always somebody who would want to buy The Sunday Times. We could put a few bob together, out of Daily Politics' petty cash, and put in a bid ourselves!"

In reality, the chances of Andrew Neil returning to newspapers are tiny. He loves broadcasting, and he's good at it. Though he will always be known as Brillo – the name Private Eye gave him because of his wiry hair – he has learned to laugh at himself. He has mellowed and exudes an avuncular bonhomie. He has 14 godchildren but has never married, though he does have a steady girlfriend, Susan Nilsson, a Swedish engineer 20 years his junior. He has stopped parading round town with models – "she's put a stop to all that".

Perhaps there's a third Andrew Neil emerging, one more self-aware and in control of the other two. No doubt he'll reinvent himself again, but for now, this one will do just fine.

Curriculum vitae

1949 Born in Paisley, Renfrewshire, one of two sons. His father was an electrician, his mother worked in a cotton mill.

1960 Passes the 11-plus and attends Paisley Grammar. Becomes a keen cricketer, and plays for the 1st XI.

1971 Graduates from Glasgow University, where he was tutored by Vince Cable, and becomes an adviser to a Tory minister.

1973 Joins The Economist as a correspondent, later editing the Britain section.

1983 Is controversially made editor of The Sunday Times.

1986 Helps oversee the paper's move to Wapping.

1988 Makes friends with Pamella Bordes, a former Miss India, prompting Peregrine Worsthorne to say "playboys" should not edit serious newspapers. Neil sues and wins damages.

1989 Made launch chairman of Sky TV; helps bring The Simpsons to Britain.

1994 Leaves The Sunday Times after becoming too high profile for Rupert Murdoch's liking.

1996 Publishes his memoirs, Full Disclosure. The Barclay brothers give him control of The Scotsman, The Business and The European.

1999 Becomes rector of St Andrews University.

2003 This Week launches on BBC1, with Michael Portillo and Diane Abbott.

2004 Becomes chief of The Spectator.

2005 Becomes chairman of a £30m fund to buy TV rights.

2010 Hosts celebrities on a boat during general election.

2012 Sunday Politics begins.

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