Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1648
WEDNESDAY 23 JANUARY 2008
Mr Andrew Neil
Welcome. You know what we are doing; we are looking at the concentration
of media ownership, what, if any, dangers result from that and
what remedies are open or whether remedies are necessary at all.
Obviously, as part of the inquiry, we are looking at the role
of the newspaper proprietor or, what is often the case, the dominant
shareholder. In your career, you were Editor of The Sunday
Times for 11 years, I think.
Mr Neil: That is correct.
When we saw Rupert Murdoch in New York, he said that the law prevents
him from "instructing" the editors of The Times
and The Sunday Times", "instructing". Is
that your recollection?
Mr Neil: Yes, I would say, to
begin with, that when this debate takes place in Britain, it often
starts with what, I think, is a rather bizarre assumption that
the person who owns the newspaper, puts up the capital to buy
it, takes all the risks, pays the bills and deals with any fallout
for what an editor gets up to, including massive libel bills,
should be the one person that should have no say over the content
of the newspaper. That just seems to me to be bizarre. That is
very different from saying that the proprietor should edit the
newspaper; that is a different matter. The idea that a proprietor
should have no say on the direction of content of the newspaper
seems to me to be crazy. After all, frankly the proprieotor surely
has more right to a say than anybody else in the land other than
the editor, so I would just say that at the beginning because
I have seen some of the deliberations here and they just seem
to me to be that that assumption is crazy and it does not happen.
"Instruct" is a crucial verb
It is not an assumption we have, incidentally.
Mr Neil: I know it is not your
assumption, but I have seen the debate take place that often has
that assumption behind it, that it is somehow monstrous that a
proprietor should attempt to influence the papers that he or she
owns. I think the key word in Mr Murdoch's sentence there is "instruct".
He does not instruct the quality newspaper editors of The Times
and The Sunday Times, but that does not mean to say that
he does not have influence and he does not let you know what he
thinks. There are many ways in which you can influence a newspaper
without giving a downright instruction. Throughout the 11 years
that I was Editor of The Sunday Times, I
never got an instruction to take a particular line, I never got
an instruction to put something on the front page and I do not
think I even got an instruction not to do something, but I was
never left in any doubt what he wanted.
How were you not left in any doubt of that?
Mr Neil: Because you would get
periodic telephone calls, sometimes they would come fast and furious,
at other times you would not hear from him at all, and, in every
discussion you had with him, he let you know his views. On every
major issue of the time and every major political personality
or business personality, I knew what he thought and you knew,
as an editor, that you did not have a freehold, you had a leasehold,
as editor, and that leasehold depended on accommodating his views
in most cases, not all cases, and there were sometimes quite serious
disagreements we had and I still survived as Editor. I have always
said that to survive with Rupert Murdoch, indeed any proprietor,
an editor has to be on the same planet. You do not necessarily
have to be on the same continent or even in the same country all
the time, but you have to be on the same planet, otherwise the
relationship does not work.
Before he appointed you, would he have been sure that you were
on the same planet?
Mr Neil: He knew that I did not
have a background in the Socialist Workers' Revolutionary Party!
Quite a lot of people do not have that.
Mr Neil: Well, actually quite
a lot of people do, though they change their views as time goes
on! Indeed, I have watched people coming towards me from the left
and two days later they are way to the right of me. He chooses
like-minded people. All proprietors do that. The Scott Trust is
not going to pick a radical right Tory to edit The Guardian,
and The Telegraph is not going to pick a hard-left Labourite
to edit The Telegraph. Proprietors choose editors that
have a broadly similar world view to theirs.
But you had an example in one of the pieces I was reading about
faxes coming from The Wall Street Journal. Was that one
way of influencing, or not of influencing, but of telling you
that that was really what he was feeling?
Mr Neil: First, if you want to
know what Rupert Murdoch really thinks, you read the editorials
in The Sun and The New York Post because he is Editor-in-Chief
of those newspapers.
We will come on to that.
Mr Neil: He does not regard himself
as Editor-in-Chief of The Times or The Sunday
Times, but he does regard himself as someone who should
have more influence on these papers than anybody else, and part
of the process of him letting you know his mind, in addition to
calls and conversations, is to clip out editorials from, above
all, The Wall Street Journal because he loved The Wall
Street Journal, and he will love it even more now that he
owns it, and he would clip out editorials and he would fax them
over to you, in the days of the fax, and that was a clear indication
that it would not be a bad idea to take this editorial line. I
used to get them on Star Wars, on Reagan, on the Cold War and
so on, and sometimes you followed them and sometimes you did not.
You made an interesting point as well, that he distinguishes between
The Times and The Sunday Times
and The Sun and The News of
the World, or at least he has said to us that he
did, on the basis that, with The Sun and The
News of the World, he was a traditional
proprietor, to use his phrase, and that meant editorial control
on major issues, like which party to back, policy on Europe and
things of that sort. Would that be your
Mr Neil: Absolutely. The
New York Post is even more hands-on because he lives in
New York, he is there in the masthead as Editor-in-Chief and,
although he is not named as Editor-in-Chief of The Sun
or The News of the World, that
is, in reality, what he is. There is no major political position
The Sun will take, whether it is attitude to the
euro or to the current European Treaty or to whom the paper will
support in the upcoming general election; none of that can be
decided without Rupert Murdoch's major input.
So the evidence that we received last week from the Editor of
The Sun that the only thing that really concerns
Mr Murdoch about The Sun's coverage is celebrity
coverage and Big Brother is basically a load of nonsense?
Mr Neil: I did not recognise that
description of how The Sun operates. It is a while
since I have been there, but, when I was there, the then Editor
of The Sun would get daily telephone calls, daily
telephone calls. I was lucky, I only got them once or twice a
week, sometimes once a month, but Kelvin MacKenzie, when he was
Editor, would have daily conversations, not to determine what
the headline was going to be on the front page or exactly what
it would be, but to make sure that on every major issue, and of
course in those days The Sun was a far more influential
newspaper in the politics of this land than it is now, it followed
the Rupert Murdoch line. There is no question about that and it
would be inconceivable, for example, at the next election for
The Sun to say, "Vote Cameron" if Mr Murdoch's
view was to vote Brown; I can assure you, The Sun
would say, "Vote Brown".
Q1658 Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall:
Can I just take you back to something you said right at the beginning
about the way the debate is going, or as you perceive it, and
the strenuous efforts that we have certainly encountered on the
part of both editors and owners to try and conceal this reality.
What you said at the start about it being perfectly obvious that
a proprietor would want to influence something in which he or
she has such an enormous stake, that seems very straightforward.
Why do you think there is such an effort being made to conceal
that and does it have anything, do you think, to do with the nature
of the regulatory environment in this country?
Mr Neil: No, it has got nothing
to do with the regulatory environment, particularly since newspapers
operate in a way in which we do not think we are under regulation.
Unlike broadcasting, we only think we are subject to the law of
the land and we do not think we are subject to regulations. The
reason why people try to conceal this is that it is a Faustian
pact which suits both sides. Because the cultural debate in this
country is such that it is so often concluded that proprietors
should not interfere and, when they do, they are roundly criticised
by other newspapers and broadcasters and maybe even committees
like this and politicians. The proprietors have an interest in
downplaying their role. The editors have a similar interest because
they do not want to be portrayed as puppets of the proprietor.
They want to be seen as independent-minded people in their own
right, and many of them are and they are right to do that because
the rest of the media and the media guardian onwards will jump
in and say, "This editor is just doing as he or she is told",
so it suits the editors and the proprietors to continue with this
Q1659 Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall:
But is that peculiar to the UK culture or is that about newspapers
Mr Neil: It is peculiar to the
UK culture because of the particular way in which British newspapers
are owned. Our newspapers are dominated. Even when they are PLCs,
even when they are quoted companies, they are essentially dominated
by one individual and either it is Richard Desmond of The Express
who owns the paper outright, it is a private company or it is
The Telegraph which is owned by the Barclay family, but,
even when it is Associated Newspapers, which is a PLC quoted on
the Stock Exchange, or News International, which is nominally
a PLC, in effect they are run like private companies. The Rothermere
family controls The Mail and the Murdoch family controls
the News International papers, and I think it is peculiar to that.
If you look at the ownership of papers, say, in France with Le
Monde and Le Figaro, there are no real Murdoch-type
equivalents. If you look at the ownership of The Washington
Post, of The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times,
there have been individuals who have been powerful, big families,
like the Graham family with The Washington Post. However,
in America there is the division, the Chinese wall, between the
editorial pages and the news pages, so the owners have never been
as influential in America as their equivalents have been in this