PROFILE: Life enters yet another section: Andrew Neil, an editor in love with America

Friday 06 May 1994 23:02

RUMOURS of the editor's departure were circulating among the staff of the Sunday Times last Tuesday, at least an hour before the call came. Then, following a discreet telephonic murmur, the entire complement of Britain's largest and most successful broadsheet paper piled into the newsroom to hear Andrew Ferguson Neil announce that he was temporarily (though some believe it will be permanently) quitting the post he has held with such tenacity and success for 10 years.

Did he break down? Did a sob of regret, a throb of emotion, a sigh of Celtic wistfulness, escape him as he addressed his troops? Did he laughingly break off his prepared announcement to tell a story about the early, callow days when he was Fleet Street's youngest editor, and how he had once . . . ?

Did he hell. He read them out a press release.

Sentimentality is not a word one associates with Andrew Neil. A stranger to the melting mood, he has often been accused of insensitivity in dealing with people - with staff, girlfriends, magazine interviewers, Question Time audiences, telephone chat-liners, rival newspaper editors, chancellors, even the Queen. . . . But he is about to venture on a very sentimental journey indeed. When he takes up his new position with Rupert Murdoch's Fox TV network in New York, setting up, editing and fronting a prime-time current affairs show, it will be the consummation of a protracted love affair between him and America.

Some would say he has already half- mutated into an American television mogul. His speech is peppered with Madison Avenue war talk: 'We've got to hit the ground running'; 'Are we up to speed on that one?'; 'I think we know where he's coming from.' He surrounds himself with Stateside paraphernalia and basks in its cultural fall- out. Visitors to his airy and capacious office in the News International plant at Wapping see a gumball machine beside his desk, a little basketball net humorously attached to his wastepaper bin, and a photograph on his wall showing him apparently dropping a curtsy before Ronald Reagan.

Visitors to his London home in the early days of his reign at the Sunday Times recall being startled by the sight of the off-duty Neil emerging from his bedroom in a cap-sleeved T-shirt emblazoned with a giant 'USA', a can of Budweiser in his hand. He was power- dressed in wide braces long before the film Wall Street turned them into a uniform. He admires Arnold Schwarzenegger, laughs at the Naked Gun film series and the gung-ho humour of PJ O'Rourke, and positively glows with pride when reminded of his gush-free interview with Madonna ('the toughest I've ever had,' she reported).

Neil's legendary abrasiveness is also very American. When he arrives at the Fox studios in June, Forbes magazine, which occasionally publishes an unlovely pantheon of 'The Toughest Bosses in America', will recognise the arrival of a hot contender. At the Sunday Times, stories flew about every week of senior executives being ritually humiliated at Tuesday conference (where he once dismissed the entire meeting like a pack of boy scouts because their feature ideas were insufficiently inspired). Many of these stories were merely embroidered tales of personal embarrassment, but it is true that strong men quaked at a summons to his office.

One former employee said the most terrifying utterance he had ever heard were the words 'Don't defy me]' that came thundering through the wall when Neil was once annoyed with his architecture correspondent. But he could also be kind, understanding, un- interfering, generous in praise (his memos were handwritten and tended to dispense more encouragement than censure). This week many of his supposedly tongue-lashed and mutinous staff sounded positively regretful about his departure.

What drives Neil? He lives for three things: for politics, for work and, most of all, for being right. He is no pedant, but he can use the language of pedantry to intimidate those he finds sloppy. Told by a luckless style editor: 'For the lead feature, you have three choices,' he replied: 'No, I have two choices from three alternatives,' then rubbished the first alternative and said: 'And now I have one choice . . .' Like the Oxbridge high-table dons he so disparages, he relishes argument for its own sake; unlike them, he seems determined to win at all costs. To this end he can draw on an enormous breadth of reference, yoking the political systems of four wholly different countries into a sudden factitious harmony to make a point about the shortcomings of political philosophy.

He will also espouse outrageous viewpoints to provoke a response. Once, in a dull meeting, he attacked the concept of maternity leave: 'If I break my leg I can be back at work inside a week. A woman has a baby and expects to take four months off . . .' The assembled hacks blinked in silent astonishment. 'I thought someone would stick his head above the parapet,' a chuckling Neil told a girlfriend later. 'But none of them would, the pussies.'

This love of argument goes back to his schooldays. Born in 1949, the juvenile Neil was Paisley Grammar School's intellectual Exocet. In debating contests he talked Sassenach opposition to a standstill. 'Andrew was an outstanding speaker,' recalls a former teacher. 'He swept the board, beating a number of English schools which were expected to win.' He moved from verbals to print at Glasgow University (reading politics and economics), where he edited the student newspaper. At a time when the vast majority of the student world was embracing the counter-culture of drugs 'n' demos, Neil's political alignment was to the Federation of Conservative Students.

He came to London, where his rise was swift. He became a Tory party researcher, then an adviser to Peter Walker, the Secretary of State for the Environment. He joined the Economist in 1973, reporting on Northern Ireland, Parliament and (as labour editor) the trade unions. In his 30th year he crossed the Atlantic as the magazine's America correspondent, and reported from New York and Washington on, among other things, the 1980 presidential election campaign. His love of all things American can be be carbon- dated with confidence to this period. Back in England in 1982, as editor of the Economist's UK section, he was offered the Sunday Times job by Rupert Murdoch after Neil's editor, Andrew Knight, had praised his feisty lieutenant over lunch. Watching him go, Knight called it 'a plain loss' to the most vertiginously superior magazine in the world.

The Sunday Times that Neil inherited was not, by general consent, nearly as polluted with crypto-Marxists and hard-left fellow-travellers as he sometimes made it out to be. But it had become, under Frank Giles's uninspired hand, directionless and craven, a far cry from the stylish, arty and crusading liberal-left broadsheet presided over by Harold Evans. Neil transformed it. He compared its later incarnation to 'a supertanker', which was nearly right. In fact it became a supermarket - of ideas and reports, glamorous froth and moral rectitude, stuff and nonsense, vulgarly festooned with special offers, travel deals, collectables, extra-value bits and pieces.

Neil's most significant innovation was to segment it, expanding its original three sections to 10, building a simulacrum of the encyclopaedia-sized New York Times. New sections appeared: Business, Sport, Books, 'The Culture', Style . . . The last-named attracted a special kind of peer-abuse, for its self-important taxonomies of metropolitan 'image' and its alternate courting and shafting of Hollywood stars, but to a new late-Eighties generation of young-and-dumb achievers it appeared to represent the acme of class.

As for the news - one cannot gaze for long at the list of the paper's Neil- sanctioned controversies - Scargill and the Libya deal, the Israeli bomb factory, the defiance of the Spycatcher ban, the revelation of the Queen's dislike of Mrs Thatcher, the systematic dereliction of the Royal family; right up to Neil's recent head-to-head with the Malaysian prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad over the question of whether bribes were offered by Wimpey to politicians - without marvelling at Neil's unique ability to wind up the Establishment and the Fourth Estate alike. Sometimes his adversarial approach seems merely capricious (such as his attack on violent Hollywood films); at other times it appears perverse, even dangerous (such as the paper's insistence on the 'myth' of heterosexual Aids). But what one notices, time and time again, is Neil's capacity - or inclination - to turn every crusade into a seemingly private row. With Andrew Neil, nothing is just business. Everything is personal.

And now? The majority of his staff feel sure that Neil will not return when his seven-month sojourn in America ends. The combination of real network power, a vast budget, a continent-wide audience, a projected interview (conducted by himself) with President Clinton, a reported pounds 400,000 for half-a- year's work - how can he not stick around and become a media millionaire, a Ted Turner with more attitude, a Rupert Murdoch with more friends?

Just one problem clouds the horizon. When Neil goes to live in the land of meritocracy, where nobody will refer with surprise to his council-house background, where no Establishment of public school and Oxbridge types clogs the corridors of power and there are no Charles Moores or Peregrine Worsthornes, no Garrick mafia or Groucho chatterers, no vainglorious Royals or junked-up aristocrats to inspire his contempt - whom will he have to hate?

It is by opposition and confrontation that Andrew Neil is defined. In America - still, with all its faults, the territory of his dreams - he will have so much less to confront, so many fewer catalysts for his energetic contempt. His lucrative new job is doubtless all for the best. But the last thing Andrew Neil wants or needs is the best of all possible worlds.

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