Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1648 - 1659)


Mr Andrew Neil

  Q1648  Chairman: 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.

  Q1649  Chairman: 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—

  Q1650  Chairman: 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.

  Q1651  Chairman: 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.

  Q1652  Chairman: 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!

  Q1653  Chairman: 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.

  Q1654  Chairman: 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.

  Q1655  Chairman: 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.

  Q1656  Chairman: 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.

  Q1657  Chairman: 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 farce.

  Q1659  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: But is that peculiar to the UK culture or is that about newspapers worldwide?

  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 country.

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