Andrew Neil is one of the most important and controversial figures in British newspaper
of the past 20 years. His greatest success was as editor
of the Sunday Times
, 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
, and the lengthy attempts of
to gain control threatened its stability. Additionally,
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
after a struggle against competition authorities: he
already owned two national British newspapers, the Sun
and the News of the World
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
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.
Whilst still editor of the Sunday Times, Neil became chairman
of Rupert Murdoch's British
satellite television company Sky TV
, and remained in that position for two years,
presiding over its launch. In 1994
he was briefly executive editor
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
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.
In 1996 the Barclay Brothers
took control of Scotsman Publications
, the publisher of
-based newspapers the Scotsman
, Scotland on Sunday
and the Edinburgh Evening
. 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
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
http://www.bbc.co.uk/, the Guardian
at http://www.guardian.co.uk/, Carlton TV
http://www.carlton.com/, the Sunday Herald
at http://www.sundayherald.com/, and the Daily
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.
Ben Summerskill, "Paper Tiger", The Observer, July 28, 2002,
http://www.observer.co.uk/comment/story/0,6903,764496,00.html, viewed January 7,
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,
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.