All heads turn as Andrew Neil enters the newsroom of the Sunday Times like a gunslinger moseying through the swing doors of a Wild West saloon. On his arm, dressed in the shortest of skirts, is the pouting Pamella Bordes. On his hip is the security pass to the newspaper’s offices that he has taken to wearing like a holster. It’s 11.30 on a Friday night, the early pages are being put together and, as he swaggers past cowering sub-editors and reporters, the editor points to various computer screens. ‘Cut that intro,’ he barks. ‘Give me a better headline on this.’ All eyes follow him as he now leads his girlfriend ostentatiously into the executive washroom at the end of the line of desks. He emerges 20 minutes later grinning like the cat who got the cream.
It is a story veterans of Wapping love to relate. And I am now reminded of it as I watch the great man approaching the entrance to Brighton’s Palace Pier. He has a pigeon-toed walk which, combined with the rolling motion of his wide, forward-hunched shoulders, looks like someone doing a bad impression of Robert Mitchum.
Today he is not wearing the cowboy boots he sometimes favours, but he is carrying a six-shooter on his hip, disguised as a mobile phone. It is high noon. The sun is blazing down. And the Wapping Kid is back in town. I ask if he was followed. He grins and says that he doesn’t think he was. Full Disclosure, his autobiography, tells of the time when he was tailed. By MI6, he thinks. In New York. It also describes the many death threats he received; the bodyguards riding shotgun in his car; and the attempts he claims were made by the Establishment to destabilise him.
On one occasion his new flat in South Kensington was burgled, and every drawer and cupboard searched. ‘It was hard to avoid the impression that somebody was looking for some dirt on me,’ he says, with a neutralised but still springy Paisley burr. ‘It was no time to be paranoid. I knew everyone was against me! That was what hardened me. It brought out reserves of brutality I didn’t know I had.’
Seagulls are wheeling and screeching overhead and, as we wander along the pier, past an arcade full of slot machines, their cries are drowned out by the sound of Madness singing ‘I Like Driving in my Car’. Sportingly, Andrew Neil agrees to be photographed sitting in the tiny car of a brightly coloured merry-go-round in front of a huge grinning clown. It seems that Brillo Pad, as he is known to Private Eye readers, has a sense of the ridiculous. (The journalist Matthew Norman discovered this, too, after he started a campaign in his Guardian diary to find a suitable wife for Neil. The butt of his joke joined in the search and began faxing his own suggestions. Neil apparently enjoyed the whole caper, even when Norman’s mother was revealed as the only applicant.)
A gang of shuffling old-age pensioners stops to stare. ‘I know the face,’ says one as she unwraps a treacle toffee. ‘But I can’t think of his name.’ One’s thoughts return to the time when Neil was asked by Mrs Merton on her television show if he had ever thought of having an allotment because it would do him good to get out and meet people his own age (Neil is only 47, but he appreciated the joke).
The photos done, we stroll back along the pier and stop at a booth where palms can be read electronically. Ever since he dragged Fleet Street picketing and screaming into the computer age, Neil has been obsessed with new technology. Indeed, on the door of his downstairs loo is a framed page from Private Eye in which a disillusioned journalist from Wapping is quoted as saying: ‘If he can’t fuck it or plug it in to the wall, he isn’t interested.’ But the electronic palm-reader has gone to lunch, so we take a walk along the seafront to find a restaurant and do the same.
Andrew Neil edited the Sunday Times for 11 turbulent years. He was, he now claims, eased out of the job in 1994 for two reasons. First, the Malaysian prime minister demanded Neil’s head on a plate, following a spat between the Sunday Times and the Malaysian government which threatened Murdoch’s Far Eastern business interests. Second, Rupert Murdoch, the paper’s proprietor, had become jealous of his celebrity. As if on cue, a middle-aged man lying in a deckchair recognises Neil and shouts out to me, ‘Are you auditioning him?’ Neil smiles tightly, ignores the man, and continues his theme. The trouble was, he says, that in many people’s minds he had come to personify the Sunday Times. ‘Rupert didn’t like that. He resented the independent celebrity I had. No one is allowed to outshine the Sun King.’
Neil portrays the Australian media mogul as a cross between an omnipotent Sun King and a foul-mouthed tyrant who has no real friends and who rules over his medieval court through authority, loyalty, example and fear. ‘He can be benign or ruthless, depending on his mood or the requirements of his empire. It was part of his management style that he could leave you in deep depression or on top of the world.’ Neil describes Murdoch as having a Jekyll and Hyde personality. In a later chapter, perhaps unconsciously, he uses the same cliché when writing about Pamella Bordes, the Parliamentary researcher who, after her fling with Neil was over, was exposed as a high-class call girl. I ask if he has a masochistic streak that draws him to such people. ‘I’m not self-destructive. In fact there’s a huge self-preservation streak in me. That was what stopped me falling head over heels in love with Ms Bordes, or getting besotted in the way our tiny friend [Donald Trelford, then editor of the Observer] did. The same applies to Rupert. The best advice I ever heard was: ‘Don’t fall in love with Rupert. He turns on his lovers.’
Neil constantly talks of the breakdown in his relationship with Murdoch in terms of a divorce. ‘It wasn’t a love affair in the sense of being two intertwined individuals in a passionate embrace,’ he says. ‘But we were a team and we both knew our roles. I could see the divorce coming as early as 1990. But the decree absolute took until 1994. It was all about a clash of egos and, in a way, I’m surprised he tolerated me for as long as he did.’
There is a third version of what happened between the star-crossed lovers. According to this, when Murdoch offered the 34-year-old Neil the job of editing the Sunday Times he knew he was taking a big risk — critics said that because Neil came from the Economist rather than a newspaper, he was too inexperienced. But the Sun King’s faith was rewarded when Neil rode into town for his shootout with the unions during the bitter Wapping dispute, one of the longest and most violent strikes in industrial history. And when Neil then went on to introduce the first multi-multi-section newspaper in Britain, as well as launch Sky TV, a strong bond was formed between master and servant. But in the early Nineties, the theory holds, Murdoch began to accuse Neil of being gratuitously controversial, a parody of himself, guilty of folie de grandeur.
Worse, Murdoch feared his editor was so unpopular with the public that he was putting off more readers than he was attracting. (When Neil became editor in 1983, the circulation of the Sunday Times was 1.29 million — when he left in 1994 it was 1.22 million.) Murdoch’s antennae may also have picked up on a feeling at the time that, under Neil, the Sunday Times had become mean-spirited, yobbish, too rabidly anti-Establishment. As a former colleague of Neil’s puts it: ‘The Sunday Times had become a perfect fake Rolex. Neil knew it, and each week he would pray that the gilt — his sensational scoops — would stay on until the lunchtime news. After that it didn’t matter if the stories fell apart because everyone would have already bought the paper.’
And so, the story goes, Murdoch let Neil down gently by promising him the job of anchorman on a new prime-time current affairs programme in the United States. But it was a bone his pet Rottweiler never got to play with. The programme only made it to the pilot stage — amid plentiful stories of American terror at his untelegenic looks and impenetrable accent — so, when Neil returned to Britain six months later, tail between his legs, all his enemies were delighted.
Tellingly, some of these have been unable to keep up their animosity. As Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye puts it: ‘It is difficult to sustain a loathing of Brillo since the Dirty Digger stripped him of the apparatus of power and blew him out — or rather “offered him a job in television”, as the euphemism goes.’
But Andrew Neil is canny enough to know that many people will still try. He is well aware of the enemies he has made over the years. ‘The reviews for this book will all be hostile,’ he grins. ‘There will be a lot of retaliation from the diaspora of the dispossessed. You know, the old guard, from Hugo Young [a former Sunday Times colleague, now a big cheese at the Guardian and Observer] downward. But I don’t mind. This book will sell on its controversy.’
And, judging by what is on the record, Neil’s expectations are justified. Charles Moore, editor of The Daily Telegraph, finds him ‘ghastly. It makes me laugh just to look at him.’ Auberon Waugh says he associates Neil with a sort of whingeing enviousness: ‘He seems to me like a wounded bear, ranting and raving inside his cave, a sort of Caliban figure.’ Francis Wheen, writing in the Guardian this summer, seemed to sum up the feelings of many journalists when he wrote: ‘I know of no spectacle so ridiculous as Andrew Neil in one of his periodic fits of morality. Come to think of it, I know no spectacle as ridiculous as Andrew Neil, full stop.’
Neil now thinks that the reason he made more enemies ‘than was necessary’ was that he had no patience or skill for massaging bruised egos. But there was more to it than that. Canvas the views of colleagues from Sunday Times days and you hear such descriptions as: ‘A volatile man. Pugnacious and full of bluster. Eaten up with anger’; ‘The key to understanding him is that he is very negative. He is driven by what he is against, not what he is for’; ‘Working for him was nerve jangling; he created a poisonous, internecine atmosphere wherever he went’; ‘He is chippy and gauche — all wing collars and red braces — but there is an attractiveness to his chippiness. And he could never be accused of being a hypocrite.’
Nearly everyone who meets Andrew Neil says that he can be relaxed, charming and affable. As we now sit down to lunch, he proves to be all three. But this, I suspect, may have a lot to do with the taut chuckle that punctuates his every sentence. He smiles a lot, too, which always helps. Indeed, over the years, his constant smiling has etched deep grooves on his face that run from the side of his nose down to the corners of his mouth. Combined with the cleft in his chin, these make him look as if he has been accosted by an over-enthusiastic, amateur make-up artist worried that those at the back of the village hall will not be able to make out her subject’s expressions.
Actually, as he studies the menu, I can’t help noticing that Neil is wearing make-up — orange powder that, presumably, has been applied in readiness for his televised conference report later that day. Despite this, his thick, rubbery skin still looks ruddy, as if his head has been boiled, and it strikes me that this may in part account for his Mr Angry image. He always looks as if his head is about to burst with rage.
I have to suppress a childish snigger when Neil opts for the brill (actually, his hair is not nearly so corrugated and bristly as legend has it — although it is a rather alarming mahogany tint). He doesn’t want potatoes with his fish — just green salad and vegetables. Thanks to such restraint, he says, he has recently shed 26lb. He eats using just a fork, American style, and, returning to the subject of Murdoch, jabs with it for emphasis. ‘What’s Rupert going to think of the book? I don’t know. I suspect he won’t like it. But he’s very unpredictable. It’s not a hatchet-job, is it? It just reports what I saw. I suspect he’ll pretend he hasn’t read it.’
Murdoch still haunts Neil’s dreams. This is not surprising given their symbiotic, almost preternatural relationship: Murdoch playing Frankenstein to Neil’s Monster, or, more accurately, Mephistopheles to his Faust. At one point in the book Neil describes the way Murdoch ‘descends like a thunderbolt from Hell to slash and burn all before him’. And you can almost smell the whiff of sulphur that lingers around Neil still. Indeed, I suspect the Wapping Kid still lives in fear of the moment when the ground will open up and the Prince of Darkness will return to claim his soul.
But it is a mistake to assume, as most of Fleet Street did, that Murdoch made Neil in his own Machiavellian image. Murdoch’s attraction to Neil was narcissistic: he saw in him a reflection of himself. Neil was a fellow outsider, a mercurial Scotsman who hated the English Establishment and had an evangelical commitment to the freemarket economy. (A former Sunday Times journalist gives an example of how single-minded and one-dimensional Neil can be. He was once working on a nostalgic anniversary feature about the 1968 hippy counter-culture. Neil approached and asked what he was doing. ‘Ah yes,’ said Neil wistfully, ‘’68 — the year of Callaghan’s economic reform.’)
Murdoch also recognised that both men are reckless gamblers: always acting on instinct and, almost addictively, taking risks. Neil compares his time with Murdoch to a ride on a rollercoaster. Again, he uses exactly the same comparison when talking about his time with Pamella (now Pamela) Bordes. He says he was genuinely frightened by what he calls her dark and evil side; yet, to echo Neil’s cliché-rich writing, he was drawn to her like a moth to the flame. The thrill of the risk, the whiff of sulphur, was overwhelming. Bordes, he claims, told him that she thought she might be schizophrenic and this, combined with her bulimia, is what he now thinks accounts for the frenzied way in which she scrawled obscenities on his mirrors and took scissors to his suits and shirts. (She suspected him of being unfaithful because, according to Neil, she had listened to an answering machine message that was nearly a year old.) She would ring him constantly, send him dog excrement in the post and, one day, was even spotted by a caretaker waiting outside his flat with a breadknife.
‘I found myself playing the starring role in the sequel to Fatal Attraction,’ Neil recalls. ‘The day I got back and she had wreaked all that havoc was terrifying. My friend Gerry Malone [now a Tory minister] joked that if I’d had a bunny rabbit it would’ve been a goner.’ Until now, Neil has been leaning forward in earnest anchorman mode. As the conversation turns to Pamella Bordes he leans back as though trying to get away, one hand in his trouser pocket. He was flabbergasted when he found out that Donald Trelford was wooing Bordes as well: ‘It seemed to me an incredible folly for, just as on Sunday mornings on the news-stands, it was a competition with me he could not hope to win.’ The crude machismo of this comment reminds you of the answer he gave Mrs Merton when she sarcastically asked why women found him so attractive: ‘Because I had the biggest organ on a Sunday.’ It also helps to explain why, when the Bordes scandal broke out, Peregrine Worsthorne, then editor of the Sunday Telegraph, should have felt compelled to publish a leader accusing Neil of being unfit to be an editor.
In response, Andrew Neil sued the Sunday Telegraph for libel and won £1,000. ‘I risked too much,’ he now says. ‘Winning by a
thousand wasn’t enough. I mean, it was better than losing, but £10,000 would have made it look more convincing.’ In the press the libel case was presented as a clash of the Old Britain (Stowe and Oxbridge, stuffy, snobbish, pseudo-aristocratic, High Tory) versus the New Britain (Paisley Grammar and Glasgow University, brash, upwardly mobile, meritocratic, Thatcherite).
‘The English Establishment thought it was a game,’ he says. ‘I didn’t. They resented the fact that I couldn’t be bought. I didn’t want their cold country houses where you have to bathe in two inches of hot water. I didn’t want one of their knighthoods. The hope of baubles and gongs in return for good behaviour is what is holding Britain back.’ He adds that he would have refused a knighthood if one had been offered. ‘But,’ — that clipped chuckle again — ‘I’m happy to say my resolution was never likely to be put to the test!’
Part of the reason he now regrets the libel trial, I suspect, was that it gave his press foes a second chance to snigger at him. He says he doesn’t mind jokes being made at his expense. Indeed, he professes to enjoy Private Eye’s long-running gag of finding an excuse to reprint in every issue a photo of him in a vest and baseball cap with his arm around an young woman in a bikini. But Ian Hislop doubts this: ‘Well, he has to say that, doesn’t he? I heard that when the photo was first printed someone pinned it up in his office and he was hopping mad.’
When asked why it is always open season on Neil in Private Eye Hislop says: ‘It’s partly because his sense of himself as an outsider against whom the Establishment is always plotting is so absurd. The irony is that he was the Establishment in the Eighties. That’s the other funny thing about Andrew Neil. He’s just funny. He says people like me are jealous of him because we live sad, pathetic lives with our wives and children. He’s right, of course. How I would love to live his life! In the end, the best that can be said of him is that he is less ghastly in the flesh.’
Hislop is referring, of course, to Neil’s reputation for working hard and playing hard. According to Fleet Street mythology you will find Neil in Tramp, the St James’s nightclub frequented by minor royalty, celebrities and second-hand car-dealers, almost every night. ‘I haven’t been there for about three months,’ Neil now says. ‘But I don’t want the mythology to be broken. As we say in journalism, it’s a story too good to check.’ But he does have an incredibly robust constitution. The model Nicola Formby, an old friend of his, says he is always the last to leave a good party. She recalls times when he and two drinking mates — a threesome known collectively as the ‘Maltesers’, cockney rhyming slang for old geezers — have still been going strong at 5am, long after everyone else has slid under the table. And then Neil has gone straight to a studio to present an early morning radio programme.
Neil has a vulnerable side, though. He is never comfortable working a room, even if it is full of friends. And he describes how, when he was flying back from a holiday in America to take over as editor of the Sunday Times, he was so nervous he had an anxiety attack and began to hyperventilate. Again, when he was awaiting the outcome of the libel trial, he was so churned up with angst he couldn’t swallow. ‘They were the most miserable, loneliest two hours of my life,’ he says.
The mood of the lunch having now changed, Neil tells me a touching story about the last time he saw his dying father, in 1988. ‘I had just said goodbye to him. I kissed him on the forehead, but I don’t know whether he heard me say goodbye. I was lost in my thoughts, keeping my head down as I waited at Glasgow airport for my plane back to London. Suddenly all these screaming banshees, Sogat activists with East End accents, came from nowhere and started cursing me. I nearly punched one but, thank God, Gerry Malone happened to be on the same flight and grabbed my arm to stop me.’
He says it wasn’t so much his father’s death as his mother’s, in 1993, that concentrated his mind on his own mortality. ‘Ours was a small family and it made me feel very alone in the world. Just me and my brother left. You don’t really appreciate how much you are going to miss your parents. I keep thinking of all the times I should have made the effort to go up and see them but didn’t.’
Though there are stories of him dressing up as Santa and visiting orphans on Christmas Day, and of him being devoted to his seven
godchildren, Neil has no immediate plans to start a family of his own. ‘I never set out to get married and the way things have worked out I never have. I don’t fall in love easily… But I do fall in love.’
Is he courting at the moment? ‘Erm… I might be. We’ll see how things go.’
Driving back to the conference, I ask him a final question. What is he like on the dance floor? ‘Oh! A knockout!’ he laughs, revealing a sprig of spinach caught on his tooth. ‘Sensational! Whether I’m sensationally good or bad is another matter. But definitely sensational.’
The answer is as good a summary of the life and times of Andrew Neil as you are ever likely to hear.
Two days after this article appeared Andrew Neil wrote a letter to the Sunday Telegraph to say that the anecdote with which this article begins is apocryphal, offensive and entirely without foundation. ‘If this is really a true “story veterans of Wapping love to relate”, as opposed to one invented by some fevered imaginations, did it never cross Mr Farndale’s mind to consider why it has stayed unpublished for eight years? If anything remotely approaching such an incident had ever happened it would undoubtedly have been given due prominence in the next edition of Private Eye. After all, everything else I did at the Sunday Times was.’