INTERVIEW / Neil targets TV liberals: David Usborne in New York meets the British journalist who will need to deliver for Rupert Murdoch

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ANDREW NEIL bursts into the conference room on the second floor of the monolithic News Corporation building to confront his producer, David Corvo, with an idea. How about taking the Russian mafia item and turning it into a one-hour special with additional reporting on the plutonium trade. It could be aired in September, a month before their programme is due to be launched. He reckons it 'would be good for our credentials'.

Corvo is enthusiastic. Assembling the material should not be difficult. The boss will have to be consulted, but he is on his boat somewhere off Alaska. 'He's up there wrestling polar bears,' jokes Neil, his figure framed by a large window overlooking the canyon of Sixth Avenue and the Radio City concert hall one block north. 'Murdoch 10 - Polar Bears 1,' he adds. 'I wonder how he'd do if one turned out to be Maxwell resurfaced'.

For a man preparing to storm this country's television news establishment, the man nicknamed 'Brillo pad' by Private Eye (on account of his hairstyle) seems incongruously relaxed. Three months ago, Rupert Murdoch plucked him from the editorship of the Sunday Times and charged him with developing a weekly current affairs magazine for his Fox Television in America. Christened Full Disclosure (Neil thought its original name, On Assignment, a bit 'BBC 2-ish'), the programme is almost ready to go. The stakes are high for Neil and Murdoch and the early industry gossip has not been good.

That there should be some scepticism is not surprising. However large his reputation in Britain Neil, 45, is hardly a name in the American hinterland. 'Andrew Neil? I've never heard of him,' was the reaction of Don Hewitt, executive producer of CBS's veteran magazine show, 60 Minutes. Nor does he seem the ideal figure to front a TV news programme. For one thing, he is not an American, but a Scot with a matching accent. He suggests calling the special, 'The New Red Terror' with 'terror' coming out minus the second vowel.

Then there is the market Fox is trying to break into. For a long time occupied only by 60 Minutes and Barbara Walters' 20/20 on ABC, in recent years it has become extremely crowded. In all, the three main networks are elbowing one another with no fewer than 10 separate news magazines taking up a surprising 15 per cent of prime-time programming. Fox, which traditionally draws a predominantly young and black viewership, has no track record in current affairs. In fact, it has no news division at all.

Therein lies the importance of Full Disclosure for Murdoch, who recently has taken some dazzlingly expensive steps towards establishing Fox as America's fourth network, alongside CBS, ABC and NBC. First, he outbid CBS for the rights to broadcast the National Football League for the next four years, a move which alone should guarantee huge viewership gains.

Then two months ago, he announced he was swiping 11 more affiliate stations in cities such as Detroit and Atlanta from the other three, mostly from CBS. He hopes Full Disclosure can quickly develop into a nightly show and form the nub of an expanding news department.

'We certainly see Fox moving ahead in the ratings,' confirms Betsy Frank, television guru for Saatchi and Saatchi in New York. 'And I can understand Fox's strategy in trying to develop a news component but I would not be able to answer the question yet as to how successful they will be.'

On the programme's fate hangs also Neil's. His initial contract at Fox expires in December. He says that at that point he should have three choices, depending on how the programme is faring - 'to stay here, go back to the Sunday Times as editor or to walk away from both the Times and Fox and do something else.'

The something else, he confides, would including writing a book about 10 years at the Sunday Times. A contract is already being negotiated with a New York publishing house.

Not everyone believes that going back to the paper would be an option if the programme flops.

'Rupert had had enough of him there, that's why he moved him,' says one News Corporation insider. 'Andrew wanted to be God and Rupert didn't like it. There is only one God and his name is Murdoch.'

There is a chance, of course, that Full Disclosure will work. For that to happen, it will have to set itself apart from the rest of the crowd. And Neil thinks he knows how to do that. His show, in his carefully chosen words, will be 'politically incorrect'. Though he denies it, that is also likely to mean conservative, or at least more so than the competition.

Early story ideas include debunking the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an institution jealously protected by liberals, and a Sunday Times-derived expose of how the Aids virus is not as prevalent among heterosexuals as most experts would have us think.

'Somebody said to me once there's no establishment in America, so there's nothing to go at. But there is. There is a huge media establishment,' Neil explains. 'There is a liberal-left consensus. It's almost a one-party state among the news magazines, the three networks, the New York Times and the Washington Post.' He notes also that there is a bland homogeneity about all the existing programmes. 'I'm trying to set quite a high level of story, a huge mixture of stories. It's the front page of the Sunday Times, it's the style section of the Sunday Times and the culture section all kind of rolled into one.'

Some of the early disdain has started to ebb. The concept of Neil - a rough-edged outsider - fronting a programme that sets out to break the rules begins to make more sense. 'When I heard he was coming, my first thought was 'you must be kidding', my second thought was 'Oh, oh I see',' says Tom Yellin, executive producer of Day One, one of ABC's four magazines, and also an old acquaintance of Neil's. 'Bringing in Andrew might be a very clever idea, because you get Andrew's heat and Andrew's instinct for splashy stories and rather iconoclastic views combined with Corvo's experience of network TV.'

There is encouragement even from Harry Evans, who was ejected at Murdoch's hands from the Times after running the Sunday Times for more than a decade and who now heads Random House here. 'I think he has been completely underrated. He has a very good chance of succeeding', he says. He recently met Neil at a party given at the Ritz-Carlton by John Birt, Director- General of the BBC, for all of the top brass of American television. 'Andrew just fitted in. He just fits the American suit naturally,' says Evans. 'And it's very generous of me to say this, considering who he's working for.'

Anthea Disney, editor of TV Guide - another Murdoch property - also believes the formula might work. 'There is a real audience in the country for a new conservative, heartland- based show.' But she also has a warning: 'It can be done, providing the show is dealing with reality and not with prejudice.'

(Photograph omitted)