Mr Neil has edited the Sunday paper for ten-and-a-half years, overseeing its expansion from three sections (news, review and business) to 10; the move to Wapping in 1986; and a redesign of its once-lauded colour magazine. An enthusiastic supporter of Mrs Thatcher's economic reforms, in recent months the Sunday Times has become openly hostile to John Major's government.
It was uncertain yesterday whether the announcement marks the end of an era, since he has left himself the safety net of returning to Britain and the paper. But the chances are that this time it does. Mr Murdoch said yesterday: 'The company is fortunate to have the talents of someone like Andrew to call on at this important time in Fox's current affairs development.'
A restless and energetic Glaswegian, who combines newspaper editing with regular radio and television appearances, Mr Neil had long been casting around for an opening which would allow him both to practise journalism and make serious money.
In November 1988, he took on the extra responsibility of helping Mr Murdoch launch Sky Television, a role which dovetailed perfectly with his evangelical belief in competition and new media opportunities. But he never relinquished the editorship and was able to retain a hands-on role at the Sunday Times, which a base in New York rules out.
Mr Neil will be both editor and star reporter on the new, and as yet unnamed, prime- time evening show, which will launch in late summer. If he is successful, Mr Neil, 44, is expected to negotiate a more permanent multi-million dollar deal for himself.
The programme is needed by Fox to complement exclusive American football rights it has snatched from CBS. Earlier this year, Mr Murdoch tried, but failed, to recruit Diana Sawyer, a rising newscaster star, for dollars 10m (pounds 6.8m) to launch the show.
Mr Neil, despite a year spent working for the Conservative Research Department before starting his career in journalism at the Economist, has never sought or found a comfortable niche in British public life. A workaholic, he led a bachelor-style life. He attracted unsavoury publicity in 1988 when it was revealed that a former girlfriend, Pamella Bordes, had worked as a prostitute. When Peregrine Worsthorne of the Sunday Telegraph suggested he knew, Mr Neil sued, winning pounds 1,000.
He is moving to New York by the end of this month and will start recruiting at least 20 journalists for the weekly programme, which will seek to combine interviews with President Clinton (conducted by Mr Neil) and more tabloid items. 'I am leaving the most competitive newspaper market in the world for the toughest news media market there is,' he said yesterday.
In his absence, the paper, currently selling 1.22 million copies a week, compared with the 1.27 million he inherited in 1983, will be edited by John Witherow, 42, who is promoted from managing editor (news) to deputy editor.
Mr Neil's departure also coincided with further change at the top of the newspapers. Andrew Knight is stepping down as chairman of Times Newspapers and News International plc, but will remain as a non- executive director. The two roles will be taken by Mr Murdoch.
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