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Introduction

Andrew Neil is one of the most important and controversial figures in British newspapers of the past 20 years. His greatest success was as editor of the Sunday Times in the 1980s, but since then the staunchly right-wing Scot has been involved in a series of less successful newspaper ventures, while reinventing himself as a television presenter.

Born on May 21, 1949 in Paisley, Scotland, Neil grew up on a council estate. He was educated at Paisley Grammar school and Glasgow University, where he edited a student newspaper. This marks him out from the many Oxford and Cambridge graduates in the media, and may have fostered his self-image as an outsider and anti-establishment figure. Following an active time in student politics, he began his career in 1971 at the Conservative Party research department, which was then a serious think-tank. The following year he began working as a reporter for the Economist, where he rose to be become UK Editor from 1982-1983.

The Sunday Times

In the early the 1980s, the once-glorious Sunday Times was in trouble. It had been crippled by an 11-month strike which stopped production in 1978-1979, and the lengthy attempts of Mohammed Al-Fayed to gain control threatened its stability. Additionally, the 1983 scandal over the Hitler diaries faked by Konrad Kujau which the paper published did little for its reputation. Australian-born press baron Rupert Murdoch bought it and its sister paper The Times in 1981 after a struggle against competition authorities: he already owned two national British newspapers, the Sun and the News of the World. Murdoch promised to preserve his new acquisitions' editorial independence.

Andrew Neil took over as editor in 1983, replacing Frank Giles, in charge at the time of the Hitler Diaries scam. Neil remained in that position until 1994, nowadays a vast length of time for any newspaper editor. Whilst preserving much of its journalistic reputation, Neil led the paper in a mid-market direction, sidelining its legendary Insight investigative team and starting a much-derided but influential Style section.

The paper's scoops under his editorship included the 1986 revelation of Israel's nuclear weapons program, brought to the paper by dissident scientist Mordecai Vanunu. However, the paper failed to prevent their source being lured to Italy and kidnapped by agents of the Israeli secret service Mossad. Vanunu was returned to Israel and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment; he was held in solitary confinement for the first 11 of those years, but is due for release in 2004.

Andrew Neil played a less glorious role in the furore over "Death on the Rock". British special forces soldiers, the SAS, had shot dead three members of terrorist organisation the Provisional IRA in the British colony of Gibraltar. On April 28, 1988, British television station Thames reported in a controversial documentary in its This Week strand that the two men and a woman were unarmed when they were shot. Neil attempted to rubbish these accusations, however well-founded they seemed, relying on the character assassination of witness Carmen Proetta. She sued for libel and eventually received more than GBP 150,000 in an out of court settlement.

Another famous Neil-edited scoop was 1991 the reporting of Andrew Morton's claims about Prince Charles's failing marriage. But the paper had been less accurate a few years earlier when it began a major campaign based on Neville Hodgkinson's claims that HIV was not the cause of AIDS, but the disease was due to anal sex and drug abuse - this appeared motivated by prejudice rather than science.

Neil showed his fighting spirit in 1986 when Rupert Murdoch decided to take on the print unions and move his papers from Fleet Street to Wapping in east London. Newspapers at the time faced the challenge of moving from the traditional method of printing (things had changed little from the mechanical process depicted in the film The Day The Earth Caught Fire, shot at the Express offices in the 1950s) to computerised typesetting, a change which would require shedding a vast number of staff.

Murdoch handled this in a typically brutal and hard-headed fashion with little concern for the 5000 redundant staff: his papers shifted operations to new premises overnight, and Neil and the other editors continued to turn out their newpapers behind picket lines. In contrast, rivals the Mirror Group negotiated with print unions and managed a peaceful settlement.

Under Neil's editorship, the paper often seemed to promote Murdoch's interests, attacking the BBC and ITV as Murdoch sought to establish his rival satellite TV network Sky TV. Like Murdoch, Neil saw himself as an enemy of the Establishment, that nebulous group of the great and good supposedly at the heart of British life, but both men had close links to the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, offering avid support for her actions.

His working practices at the Sunday Times set the tone for his subsequent career, constantly hiring and firing staff, making enemies easily, and ruling everything with his force of will. He fell out with Murdoch in 1994 and left the paper with a sizeable pay-off: this split was allegedly the result of a clash of egos. However, The Sunday Times remains similar to his vision nine years after his departure.

Television

Whilst still editor of the Sunday Times, Neil became chairman of Rupert Murdoch's British satellite television company Sky TV in 1988, and remained in that position for two years, presiding over its launch. In 1994 he was briefly executive editor and chief correspondent at Fox Network News, in New York, another part of the Murdoch empire, before his fall-out with the Australian.

He has had a long career in broadcasting: he presented BBC science show Tomorrow's World in the 1970s. Then, while Sunday Times editor, Neil hosted a Sunday morning radio show on LBC in London in the early 1990s and he has also presented on BBC Radio 5. Neil has worked for BBC Television in various capacities in their news and parliamentary coverage, including Despatch Box and briefly the BBC2 flagship program Newsnight.

With his trademark braces (US: suspenders), which resemble those of American presenter Larry King, and slightly bizarre haircut, often compared to a Brillo Pad, he has become an easily recognisable figure on TV. His presentational style can be somewhat cold and stiff, although he is clearly a man with a fast mind and great deal of knowledge about the minutiae of politics and power.

Andrew Neil published his autobiography, Full Disclosure, in 1996: despite its insight into the world of Murdoch it is widely derided for its boasting tone. He has long been a target of abuse of satirical magazine Private Eye, which persistently ridiculed him over his friendship with Pamella Bordes, a former Miss India who worked as a call-girl, and about his hair. When the veteran journalist William Rees-Mogg called him a "playboy" he sued for libel and won GBP 1000, but he has never married or appeared to have a serious relationship.

In 1999, he applied to be Director-General of the BBC, despite his contempt for the organisation when he was in Rupert Murdoch's pay. Greg Dyke won the position instead.

Scotsman Publications

In 1996 the Barclay Brothers took control of Scotsman Publications, the publisher of Edinburgh-based newspapers the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News. Following his acrimonious split with Murdoch, Neil fell into the arms of the very different newspaper group of David and Frederick Barclay. Neil took over as editor-in-chief of the titles in 1997, although his attention to the papers has not always been great due to his other commitments.

He inherited the European newspaper, created by champagne socialist fraudster Robert Maxwell as an international force for European integration, and turned it into a fiercely anti-European publication. This may appear a questionable idea for a pan-European journal, but the paper was bleeding large amounts of money even before he took over. It soon ceased publication, having lost the Barclays around 60 million pounds. Another paper in his fold was the Sunday Business, later renamed the Business, which had consistently poor sales, but is still clinging on with some prospect of evading bankrupcy.

The Scotsman is now the highest-profile title in his portfolio. Scotland is reckoned one of the most competitive newspaper markets in the world, with local titles competing against more or less Scottish editions of London-based newspapers. Total sales are high, but with so many titles, the market is cutthroat. Although the Scotsman claims to be Scotland's national newspaper, the broadsheet newspaper industry in Scotland is strongly regional, with The Scotsman selling in the Edinburgh area, its main rival the Herald based in Glasgow, and other papers dominating the market in Dundee and Aberdeen.

Through the 1980s and early 1990s the Scotsman had positioned itself on the left of centre politically, supporting devolution (greater home rule for Scotland), whilst remaining popular with the Edinburgh's prosperous middle classes with its extensive rugby and financial coverage. Neil, whose job title in the newspaper group has grown from "Editor-in-chief" to "Publisher", determined to change all that.

He attempted simultaneously to encroach on the middlebrow lifestyle coverage of the Scottish edition of the Daily Mail, and to appeal to Britain's financial elite making it a British rather than a Scottish paper. This was similar to his actions at the Sunday Times, but the Scottish newspaper market was rather different (the Sunday Times had only two rivals for much of his editorship rather than six or more). He also shifted the political focus of the paper away from the leftist Scottish political consensus and sought to attack devolution and promote his own right-wing beliefs.

Under his leadership Scotsman lost a large number of its journalists through a mixture of staff cuts and resignations in protest at his editorial style, and an aggressive program of price cuts failed to halt a dramatic slide in circulation. The paper went through six editors between 1995 and 2002.

In 2002, the Barclay brothers bid for the Scottish Media Group's newspapers, including the Scotsman's rival the Herald, which would have given it control of both leading Scottish broadsheets, and which may have brought an amalgamation of the papers. However, SMG feared that regulators would delay any such sale, and they were sold to US firm Gannett instead.

Whilst Neil's television work remains a steady source of income and he has built up a good reputation as an anchorman of political shows, his career in newspapers since his Sunday Times heyday has been less glorious. His failure at the Scotsman can be seen in the context of a general slow fall in broadsheet sales, but still seems to illustrate a willful refusal to understand his audience. His opinions have not changed since the 1980s, and perhaps it is simply the case that a man so in tune with the Thatcher years now finds himself unable to adapt to the times.


Sources and further reading

This article was compiled from a large number of news sources including the BBC website at http://www.bbc.co.uk/, the Guardian at http://www.guardian.co.uk/, Carlton TV at http://www.carlton.com/, the Sunday Herald at http://www.sundayherald.com/, and the Daily Telegraph at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/. However, it is difficult to find a media organisation that Neil has not worked for or fought against.

Much biographical information comes from:

Peter Preston, "Sic transit Andrew Neil?", The Observer, January 6, 2002, reprinted online at http://www.observer.co.uk/business/story/0,6903,628106,00.html, viewed January 7, 2002.
and
Ben Summerskill, "Paper Tiger", The Observer, July 28, 2002, http://www.observer.co.uk/comment/story/0,6903,764496,00.html, viewed January 7, 2002.

More scurrilous rumours, from The Times' old rival the Daily Telegraph:

Kim Fletcher, "Gone To Press", December 21, 2001, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2001/12/21/nmed221.xml, viewed January 7, 2002.

For a partisan account of the battle over "Death on the Rock" see:

John Pilger, "Cultural Chernobyl", Carlton TV website at http://pilger.carlton.com/media/cultural10, viewed January 7, 2002.
(Whilst Pilger is known for his left wing beliefs, TV company Carlton who host this were bitter rivals of Thames.)

Information on Mordechai Vanunu can be found at the US Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu website at http://www.nonviolence.org/vanunu/, viewed January 7, 2002.

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