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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Tuesday 14th June 2005

Andrew Neil

A group of people are seated round a conference table at Rupert Murdoch's New York headquarters watching a video of Andrew Neil filing a report on money laundering in Antiga. It's an example of the kind of story that might appear on 'Full Disclosure', a newsmagazine show Neil is helping to launch for Fox, and the purpose of the viewing is to decide whether to use this segment in the pilot.

As a piece of news reporting it's not particularly striking. It wouldn't seem out of place on 'Dateline' or '20/20', which is presumably the intention. But if you're used to seeing Neil on television in Britain, where he edited 'The Sunday Times' for eleven years, there's something rather unsettling about it.

His hair, which led to him being dubbed "Brillo Pad" by 'Private Eye', has been given a darker tint and moulded into a more conventional shape. His voice, which used to lurch uneasily between Glasgow, London and New York, has become deeper and more authoritative. Even his complexion has lost some of its raw, ruddy texture. It's as though his whole appearance has been subtly enhanced using the computer morphing techniques pioneered in 'Terminator 2'.

The lights come on and Andrew Neil, looking reassuringly like his old self, appears at the head of the table. The much-quoted remark by a London socialite-"He's so ugly it makes you gasp"-is more than a little unfair. He may not qualify as a 'newshunk' but then neither does Sam Donaldson. Yet it has a certain force because of the meticulous care he evidently takes over his appearance. Just as his apartment in London has been 'decorated', so his clothes give the impression of being 'styled'. The overall effect is of a hard-won dignity, a dignity easily punctured by a malicious personal remark.

During the discussion that follows Neil seems a little uncomfortable. He's used to making snap decisions and barking out orders-sometimes without even looking at the person he's addressing-and he hasn't fully adapted to the more collaborative, polite atmosphere of television news. As soon as the group edges towards some tentative conclusion Neil says, "Right, that's settled. What's next?" The staff of 'The Sunday Times' are used to this but David Corvo, executive producer of 'Full Disclosure' and formerly Vice President of Current Affairs Programing at CBS, shifts uneasily in his chair.

When someone makes a point Neil approves of he doesn't so much agree with it as appropriate it. David Corvo suggests it would be better if a Néstles Quick can stuffed with money appeared at the beginning of the report rather than half way through. "That's the grabber," he says. A few moments later, with the air of someone making an entirely new point, Neil says, "You want to come in on the can, don't you? I mean, that's the grabber."

If Andrew Neil is going to succeed on screen he's going to have to work on this. By far the most unusual thing about the segment we've just seen is that Neil appears as a reporter rather than as the subject of a report. Whenever he's on British television it's always as a pundit, as editor of 'The Sunday Times', never as a reporter. It's as though he's been demoted from a talking head to a nodding head, from an interviewee to an interviewer. This is a role that doesn't come naturally to a man who has been a public figure for the past eleven years. For the first time in his life Andrew Neil is going to have to keep his opinions to himself.

Andrew Ferguson Neil was an unknown quantity in 1983 when Rupert Murdoch plucked him from his job as UK editor of 'The Economist' and made him editor of 'The Sunday Times'. He was only 34. In his announcement to the staff, Neil's predecessor Frank Giles said, "I have to tell you that Andrew Neil, a man of whom I know nothing, has been appointed as editor." This was Establishment code for "not one of us". Under Harold Evans, whom Giles had succeeded two years earlier, 'The Sunday Times' had been a broadly progressive newspaper, even if its editorials still urged readers to vote Conservative. With the appointment of Neil, a former Chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students and a defender of Margaret Thatcher's economic policy, it looked as though everything the country's intellectual elite feared when Murdoch acquired Times Newspapers had come to pass.

Andrew Knight, who had been Neil's boss on 'The Economist' and subsequently became Chairman of Times Newspapers, believes his experience on the magazine is what steeled him for the trials ahead. "The whole perception of Andrew is as an intellectual and political tough guy," he says. "That was all forged at 'The Economist'." He had to do battle on a weekly basis with the likes of Sarah Hogg, a leading member of Britain's intellectual and political aristocracy, who is now head of the Downing Street Policy Unit. "As someone with less of an intellectual pedigree, Andrew had to prove himself," says Knight. Neil won his battles at 'The Economist' only by winning the intellectual respect of his opponents. "That was the secret of his mastery at 'The Sunday Times'," he says. "Under the iron fist there was an iron intellect."

Ivan Fallon, who became deputy editor of 'The Sunday Times' six months later, recalls how Neil was greeted by the rest of Fleet Street. "You couldn't open a 'Guardian' or an 'Observer' or a 'Private Eye' without reading some comment of a withering and usually inaccurate kind," he says. Many of these comments, such as 'Private Eye' calling him "Brillo Pad", were coded references to his class origins. The son of a professional soldier who'd worked his way up through the ranks, Neil was born and brought up in Paisley, a working class suburb of Glasgow. He was educated at Paisley Grammer School and Glasgow University before joining the Conservative Research Department in 1971.

This background set him apart from most of his Fleet Street peers, who tended to have been to private schools, followed by Oxford or Cambridge, where they gravitated towards the left before becoming journalists. If his ten years at 'The Economist' left him a little socially insecure-he still refers to it as "top of the Oxbridge club"-it was nothing compared to the babtism of fire he received at 'The Sunday Times'.

"Although he pretended not to mind," says Fallon, "he did mind a hell of a lot."

One of the most common complaints against Andrew Neil is that he's "chippy", meaning he has a chip on his shoulder about his background, and there are certainly plenty of examples of this. During one of his frequent parties on the roof of his apartment building in Onslow Gardens a neighbour politely asked him to tell his guests not to flick cigarette butts on to her terrace. Neil lost his temper and told her that she and her class were responsible for the country's decline. On leaving a party at Lady Henrietta Rous's house in Eton Square, he was overheard saying to his companion, "No wonder England's going to the dogs. You wouldn't get that kind of behaviour in Germany or America."

In the eyes of his critics, Neil's chippiness has completely distorted his perception of contemporary British society. He has a tendency to stylise all the conflicts he's involved in rigid class terms, classifying his enemies as members of various cliques-"the liberal intelligentsia", "the Hampstead set", "the Garrick mafia"-which have no basis in reality.

"It's as though Andrew Neil wandered into England in the Nineteen Fifties," says Stephen Glover, former editor of 'The Independent on Sunday'. "It is intellectually crude to build up this dialectic between thrusting declassé people such as himself and these public school Oxbridge types who have their dead hands on the tiller of the state. Somehow he needs that myth to fuel his energy, to give meaning to what he does."

But Neil has good reason to believe that the hostility towards him is motivated principally by snobbery. Many of the legitimate complaints against his régime at 'The Sunday Times' were accompanied by references to his accent, height and appearance, all well-known class-indicators. If Neil's atitude towards his social superiors is distorted by the lens of the English class system so is their attitude towards him. At Lady Henreitta Rous's party one young swain patted him on his crown and said, "You've got a head like a badger's bum."

England's social elite are particularly unforgiving of Neil because he shows no inclination to join their ranks. Guests at his apartment reported how he would leap up and dance around the room when the theme music of 'Miami Vice' came on the television-hardly the behaviour of a social climber. On the wall of his office at 'The Sunday Times' he stuck up a framed quote from 'Private Eye' purporting to be the comment of a disgruntled member of his staff: "If you can't plug it in or fuck it he's not interested."

Perhaps Neil's most notorious departure from the conventions of polite society is his habit of flaunting his liasons with beautiful young women. He frequently appears at parties with a gorgeous, scantily-clad babe on each arm, one white, one black, as if he's just stepped off the cover of a Seventies funk album. After one exhausting day on 'The Sunday Times' he is reported to have said to a colleague, "I'm going home to see my girlfriend now, and she'd better be on her back when I get there."

Some prefer to interpret this behaviour as a kind of social naïveté rather than a deliberate flouting of convention. According to a colleague on 'The Sunday Times', "For someone who is so clever, so developed, so sophisticated, he's absolutely hopeless socially." But Stephanie Schilling, one of a group of women whom Neil regularly sees socially, says it is simply his way of relaxing. "There's no question that he prefers female company to male company," she says.

It was Neil's 1988 relationship with Pamella Bordes, a former Miss World contestant whom he met at the nightclub Tramp, which led to his most celebrated clash with the Tory Establishment. After she was exposed as a call girl in the 'News of the World', Sir Peregrine Worsthorne wrote an editorial in 'The Sunday Telegraph' pillorying Neil as "Randy Andy".

This was a genuinely embarrassing scandal and Neil would have been wise not to prolong it . But by now he had successfully silenced his critics on 'The Guardian', 'The Observer' and 'Private Eye' by taking swift legal action whenever they libelled him and, against the wishes of Rupert Murdoch, he brought a libel case against Worsthorne and 'The Sunday Telegraph'.

After a humiliating courtroom battle, which completely laid bair the class-based nature of the dispute, Neil was awarded damages of one thousand pounds and Times Newspapers sixty pence, the cost of a single copy of 'The Sunday Times'. Even though The Sunday Telegraph Ltd. had to pay costs estimated at over a quarter of a million pounds, it hardly amounted to the victory for "New Britain" Neil claimed.

"I think in retrospect he regretted fighting it but he would never admit it," says Ivon Fallon. "Privately he would but not publically."

There is a postscript to the case, however, that reflects well on Neil. In his memoirs, 'Tricks of Memory', Sir Peregrine Worsthorne records that when his wife Claudie died he received a letter of condolence from his old opponent. "Having sat next to your wife for several days in Court 13," Neil wrote, "I just hope that one day I will be lucky enough to find a girl who will show me the same devoted loyalty as she showed you."

There are two conspiracy theories doing the rounds in London media circles as to why Andrew Neil moved to New York earlier this year. Both of them pivot on a story 'The Sunday Times' ran last February which alleged that a British construction company had offered bribes to the Malaysian Government in 1985 to obtain a contract to build an aluminium smelter. The Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, was so incensed by this and various follow-up articles he announced a ban on the award of all government contracts to British firms.

Conspiracy theory number one has it that the British Government was so furious with Andrew Neil over this, which put billions of pounds of revenue to British firms at risk, Prime Minister Major threatened to reopen investigations into Murdoch's cross-ownership of media companies unless he got rid of Neil.

Conspiracy theory number two, which the Malaysian Prme Minister appears to believe, maintains that the story damaged Murdoch's business interests in Asia since he was in the process of trying to persuade the Malaysian Government to lift its ban on satellite dishes, thereby opening the country up to the Murdoch-owned Star TV. Since Neil has been relocated Malaysia has lifted the ban and two services from Star will be carried by the Malaysia East Asia Satellite next year.

Sitting in his office on the second floor of News Corp on Sixth Avenue, opposite Radio City, Andrew Neil doesn't give much credence to these theories. "Well the world's full of conspiracy theories," he says, "particularly the London media world."

Don Hewitt, the executive producer of '60 Minutes', first met Neil at a dinner Rupert Murdoch gave for Grace Mirabella earlier this year. "Henry Kissinger introduced him to me," he recalls. "He said, 'Don, meet Andrew Neil. He's going to be your competition.'"

Murdoch has been interested in producing a rival to CBS's '60 Minutes' since he acquired the rights to broadcast National Football Conference games last December, outbiding CBS which had been showing them for 38 years. Don Hewitt denies that the '60 Minutes' franchise has been built on the back of Sunday night football, pointing out that in the beginning NBC broadcast as many four o'clock games as CBS. "It's not the be all and end all," he says. But Sunday night football provided '60 Minutes' with a strong lead-in and for the last 16 years it has been among the 10 most watched prime time shows.

In addition, Murdoch is believed to have plans to expand Fox's network news coverage, particularly since he acquired eleven affiliate stations earlier this year. A successful newsmagazine franchise could form the hub of a network news division, providing feeds to Fox's affiliates as well as to Star TV in Asia and BSkyB in Europe. According to Betsy Frank, the industry expert at Saatchi & Saatchi, Fox's demographic profile has tended to "skew a little young" and more news programming would be a way of bringing in a more mainstream audience. "In the past people have not looked to Fox for this kind of programming," she says. "Reality, shows like 'Cops' and 'America's Most Wanted', was the closest they got to news."

Quite apart from commercial considerations, it may just be that Murdoch is fed up with the barrage of snide comments about Fox in the rest of the media, which earlier this year was branded the "white trash" network. "He doesn't want to be known as a schlockmeister," says Rob Long, a television producer at Paramount. "He wants to be known as a broadcast eminence gris."

Andrew Neil doesn't appear to have been Murdoch's first choice to anchor 'Full Disclosure'. Last February it was widely reported that he had met with Diane Sawyer and offered her either seven or ten million dollars, depending on which side you believe, to anchor a newsmagazine show for Fox. According to Neil, Murdoch still harbours some doubts about his second choice. "I think Rupert is apprehensive about me playing too much of a role on screen," he says. "I mean my title here is executive editor and chief correspondent and I can understand that but I don't really want to do it unless there is some role on screen because I enjoy doing that."

The self-publicising side of Neil's character has traditionally been one of the sources of tension between him and his employer. Murdoch values loyalty to the company above all else in an employee and, though he initially had high hopes for Neil as a company man, he soon realised that Neil's first loyalty was too himself. A former 'Sunday Times' executive says this was behind Murdoch's opposition to Neil's libel suit against Sir Peregrine Worsthorne. "He thought it would turn the paper into the 'Andrew Neil Times' rather than 'The Sunday Times'," he says.

'Full Disclosure' has experienced considerable teething problems, though this isn't uncommon in the development of a new show. Initially, it was going to be called 'On Assignment' and was provisionally scheduled to debut this Fall against '60 Minutes'. By the middle of August, in addition to the name change, it had been rescheduled to appear on Mondays after Melrose Place.

But by the time Fox announced its new Fall schedule in September a new drama series called 'Party of Five' occupied that slot and Neil and his team hadn't even produced a pilot. "There is no definite plan for it," said Richard Licata, a spokesman for the network in Los Angeles. "I should tell you that 'Full Disclosure' is not a definite title for the show."

Andrew Neil is far from bullish about the show's prospects. "It's really all down to Rupert in the end," he says. "I mean Rupert is our major audience. He is the one that if he's committed to doing this then it will happen, if he's not and he decides to do something else then I think we'll be eaten alive by the rest of the network which doesn't really have a great interest in news or current affairs."

Perhaps the uncertainty over the show reflect Murdoch's overall management strategy. "According to Andrew," says David Corvo, "the whole company's run on the back of an envelope."

Neil's contract with Fox comes up for renewal in December and there is some doubt as to whether he will remain in Murdoch's employ. He has already negotiated his severance package-rumoured to be worth three million dollars-and signed a contract with the London publisher Macmillan to write a book about his editorship of 'The Sunday Times'. In addition, he would do some broadcasting, a bit of lecturing and write a 'Sunday Times' column. "Network American television is about the riskiest business in the world," he says. "Anyone who goes into it without a parachute is mad."

It's hard to tell whether Neil is genuinely doubtful about the prospects of becoming a successful anchor on 'Full Disclosure' or whether he is merely hedging against the possibility of failure. Some aspects of his character, such as his various social anxieties, are transparantly obvious while in other ways he's extremely difficult to read. "There's something odd about him as if he's from another planet," says John Walsh, who for years came into daily contact with him as the literary editor of 'The Sunday Times'. "It's rather odd talking to him. You watch his eyes flickering all over the place. You can't really connect with him at all."

On the other hand his large network of friends all describe him as generous and warm-hearted and the degree of loyalty towards him among the staff of 'The Sunday Times'-at least among those he didn't sack-is far higher than it is on most newspapers. He is also extremely fond of children, something which doesn't gibe with accounts of his thugish behaviour towards his 'Sunday Times' staff. "He has more official and unofficial godchildren than anyone I know," says Andrew Knight, "and he looks after all of them."

What no one is in any doubt about is his ferocious talent as a news journalist and it is this, above all, which will be his greatest asset in American network news. Tom Yellin, executive producer of ABC's 'Day One' and an old friend of Neil's, says, "Bringing in Andrew might be a very clever idea because you get Andrew's heat and Andrew's instinct for a story."

James Adams, 'The Sunday Times' Washington Bureau Chief, is convinced he stands a decent chance. "His characteristic is that when the gauntlet is thrown down he will just pick it up and give it his all," he says. "Anyone who underestimates Andrew Neil makes a very big mistake."

Vanity Fair, 1994

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