Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1660 - 1679)


Mr Andrew Neil

  Q1660  Baroness Thornton: Just for clarification, if Mr Murdoch said that he would prefer The Sun to support Mr Cameron or whoever is the Leader of the Conservative Party when the next general election happens, that is what she would have to do, even though she said to us that she is a Labour supporter and voter herself, you are saying that that is what she would do?

  Mr Neil: She does not have to do it, it is a free country. She can argue with him and try and convince him otherwise or she could say, "This is an issue of principle for me. I think this country needs a continuing Labour Government and I am going to resign. You need to get an editor that wants to support your political views". She does not have to do that. All I am saying is that, since The Sun was launched in its current formation, which I think was 1968 under Larry Lamb, it has never taken a position at an election that did not have the full-hearted support and, indeed, it was because of the full-hearted influence of Rupert Murdoch. Because you are on leasehold, you can get away with defying him. I got away with it over the election when Mrs Thatcher was challenged by Michael Heseltine. All the News International papers supported Mrs Thatcher and The Sunday Times supported Michael Heseltine. He tried to argue me out over it and he got people like Woodrow Wyatt and all sorts of Thatcherite functionaries to call up and put pressure on me. I resisted, we backed Heseltine, the Tories backed Major, but that was their problem, and I survived for another four years, so it is not black and white, which is why I would say be very careful when you start talking about regulating this. These are complicated relationships, these are personal relationships and, as long as there is diversity, as long as there is a whole range of newspapers and different owners and different forms of ownership, stay out of it; regulation has no role here.

  Q1661  Chairman: But diversity is not necessarily the one we would look at at the moment in terms of ownership.

  Mr Neil: Where politicians, where the State has a role in regulation is to ensure diversity.

  Q1662  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: You work at the moment for the Barclay brothers, do you?

  Mr Neil: Yes, I publish three magazines that are owned by the Barclay brothers, The Spectator, The Business and Apollo, and they are on my manifestations, which are growing increasingly important.

  Q1663  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Will Lewis came before this Committee, Editor of The Daily Telegraph and he was one of the editors who actually denied that there was any influence exerted by his proprietors. What is your experience of dealing with the Barclay brothers?

  Mr Neil: All proprietors interfere in some things at some stage. Like editors, they have bees in their bonnets and, every now and then, they want to see the paper reflect what they believe and what they would like to see happen, but, I would have to say, as proprietors go, it would be hard to imagine more hands-on proprietors than the Barclays. I will give you an example. When I was running The Scotsman newspapers, which consisted of three newspapers, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and The Edinburgh Evening News, in 1997 the general election came along and I had taken over just a year before, and I spoke to all three editors then and I said, "Right, who are you going to support?" and, after conversations, all three said, "We're going to say `Vote for Mr Blair'". I called David Barclay and I said, "I want you to know in advance that all three of your Scottish papers are going to say `Vote Labour'" because I knew that the Barclay family had been close to Mrs Thatcher and, I think, had helped her in various ways in the Thatcher Foundation. David Barclay said to me, "Is that what they want to do?" and I said, "Yes". He said, "Well, what do you think?" and I said, "I think that the three editors are right and that all three papers should come out for Labour in the 1997 election". He said, "Well, if that's what you think, Andrew, that's what we pay you to do, then go ahead".

  Q1664  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: But, if you had thought otherwise, you would have had the power to persuade or to tell the editors?

  Mr Neil: You cannot tell educated, informed and thinking people. You can have an argument with them, but at the end of the day you have to let editors take the decision. If editors keep on taking decisions that you completely disagree with over time, you change the editor.

  Q1665  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: But would you say you were a conduit for the Barclays?

  Mr Neil: Yes. They did not know much about the Scottish newspaper market and indeed these were the first major newspapers they had owned, other than The European. They wanted someone in there as editor-in-chief who would broadly look after the papers in their interests.

  Q1666  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: And your role so far as The Spectator is concerned?

  Mr Neil: Is roughly the same.

  Q1667  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: But you are not involved with The Daily Telegraph?

  Mr Neil: No.

  Q1668  Bishop of Manchester: You spoke earlier about serious disagreements that you had with Rupert Murdoch and a moment ago you referred to the Thatcher/Heseltine issue, but you did refer to disagreements in the plural and you said they were serious. I wonder if you could just amplify that statement.

  Mr Neil: We had a number of disagreements. In the 1980s, he got a complete bee in his bonnet about the American Religious Right and he even wanted to support Pat Robertson in the 1988 presidential election campaign. I thought that the American Religious Right was largely a bunch of looney tunes and did not want to have anything to do with them, so we had a huge fight about that. There were many issues that we had a fight over and of course the final one, which led to the parting of the ways, was over Malaysia.

  Q1669  Chairman: We will come to that.

  Mr Neil: I do not want to overplay it, but mostly I had an amicable relationship with Rupert Murdoch because, on a broad range of issues, we shared roughly the same views, not entirely, but roughly the same views, enough for me to survive for 11 years, but, every now and then, the amicable relationship was punctuated by argument.

  Q1670  Lord Maxton: In a sense, I know exactly where Rupert Murdoch is coming from on most issues and, in a sense, there is an honesty about that when his newspapers then carry on the news that they have. The Barclay brothers, however, they owned The Scotsman, a leading Scottish paper—

  Mr Neil: They did. They do not now.

  Q1671  Lord Maxton: They do not now, I know that, but I had no idea, and you just told us, that they were close to Thatcher, but I could not tell you what their political views are and, even if they have a minimal influence, I do not know what they are trying to get across. Is that not in some ways a less honest position than Rupert Murdoch's?

  Mr Neil: No, it is not less honest because the Barclays do not attempt to have the same influence on the newspapers as Rupert Murdoch. Rupert Murdoch is obsessed with what his newspapers say. The Barclays are not. The Barclays give you a much, much wider and freer leash to go on, and the story I have just told you about how they were happy, or I would not say "happy", they were content to let the three papers that they had just bought say, "Vote Labour" and that they did not have an argument about it shows the extent to which, and, if that had been a conversation with Rupert Murdoch, he would not have said, "Well, if that's what you think, go ahead and do it".

  Q1672  Lord Maxton: But it is surely strange in that case, and in that debate it had been not so much "Vote Labour", but presumably the position was that they were voting Labour for devolution and those three newspapers had a long tradition of supporting devolution.

  Mr Neil: Yes, but it was not that sophisticated, it really was not.

  Q1673  Lord Inglewood: We have concentrated our remarks on two particular proprietors and their relationships with editors, but, if we stand back from that, from your perspective, as somebody with a long career in this world, can you point to any particular relationship between a proprietor and an editor or a particular proprietor and a series of editors which you think provides an example of the way things should be done?

  Mr Neil: No, there is no template and each editor and each proprietor makes their own adjustments in their own relationship. Because, in Britain, we have a variety of proprietors and a variety of forms of ownership, everything from PLCs to private companies to trusts, and because we have different proprietors and different editors, they come to their own terms. In a sense, Murdoch gets demonised because he is the most visible, but all proprietors that I know have some influence and some say and get involved in what their papers do and say. All proprietors do it, but they do it in different ways, so there is no model, there is no template.

  Q1674  Lord Inglewood: That I understand, but you did say in your opening remarks that there was a point, I think, if I understood you right, beyond which probably a proprietor should not go. Now, could you then define that with a bit more clarity for us?

  Mr Neil: Yes. I think it is particularly true of the quality newspapers that, if a proprietor is in effect trying to edit at one removed, giving orders on a day-to-day basis, determining what the line should be, even getting involved in the editorials, having a major say over what is going on on the front page, I think, when a proprietor does that, it becomes untenable for the editor and you will not be able to hire bright people when you do that. If you treat people like dummies, you will end up only being able to hire dummies, and that is why the relationship between proprietor and editor is a very sophisticated one and on a case-by-case basis. You have to give intelligent editors leeway to edit their papers. That is not to say they do it in a vacuum, but they do it with no influence from the proprietor at all. An editor edits his or her newspaper with a whole range of influences bearing down on them from politicians to the law to business considerations to the proprietor to their own journalists, and you handle that mix as best you can and the proprietor is part of that mix, and I think that is the way it will always


  Q1675  Lord Inglewood: Just for clarity, you prefaced that last remark with saying that it was particularly in the case of the quality papers, so it is not necessarily the case with the red-tops, is it?

  Mr Neil: I think with the red-tops, particularly News International, and I think less with The Mirror because The Mirror is a public company and there is no Murdoch-type figure and there is no ideologically driven person in the management of The Mirror, but I think with the red-tops proprietors feel that they should have more of an influence. Murdoch did because he always thought The Sun was far more influential than The Times. He thought The Sun mattered more than The Times or The Sunday Times and he cared more about what The Sun said than what the other papers said. I think traditionally, if you take how Richard Desmond runs The Express, if you look at how Beaverbrook ran The Express, if you take the old days of The Mirror with Cudlipp and so on, I think you will find traditionally there has been more proprietorial influence brought to bear on the content of these papers than there has been at what we used to call the `broadsheet' end of the market. I would just say another point in relation to this, that at the end of the day, if the editor and the proprietor are not, as I would put it, on the same planet, then the situation is untenable. No matter what regulations you put in place, no matter what trustees or trusts, if the editor and the proprietor do not have a working relationship, the situation, as Yeats would say, "the centre cannot hold", cannot last.

  Q1676  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: If I can just pick up on the remark you made about Murdoch being demonised, how much do you think that has to do with the fact that he is not a UK citizen and do you have any views about the ownership rules that allow a substantial part of the UK media to be owned by somebody who is not?

  Mr Neil: I would prefer, by and large, our media to be owned by people who live in this country, pay taxes in this country, have a vote in this country and are part of public life and the political debate. That would be my preference, but I believe in open borders and free trade and the free movement of people and capital and, if our media ends up, a substantial chunk of it, in foreign hands, then I would not want to see regulations to stop that. Of course, in European terms, you could not; you could not stop any Europeans from owning British newspapers. I think you are right, it plays a part in the public debate that, if a newspaper takes a particularly strong line, say, on our attitude to the euro or to the European Treaty, the fact that that line is being dictated by someone who does not even live in this country or have a vote should be part of the debate, and that is how I would see it, come out into the open and be a factor in how much weight we give that opinion.

  Q1677  Chairman: Does it strike you as strange in the editorial freedom argument that, when you come to the issue of Iraq, for example, as far as we can see, there is almost total unanimity amongst Mr Murdoch's newspapers worldwide that it was a good thing for the invasion of Iraq to go ahead?

  Mr Neil: I think it is interesting that the Murdoch empire was more united on Iraq than the Bush Administration. There were more discordant voices in the Bush Administration than there were in the Murdoch empire, and that is just the way he runs things. He picks the editors that will take the kind of view of these things that he has and these editors know what is expected of them when the big issues come and they fall into line. It may not even be a case of them doing something they have been told to do, and I suspect that the vast majority of his editors agreed with him on Iraq in the first place and that is why he chose them.

  Q1678  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I would like to go a little bit into the Malaysian story. You have told us actually in the Condé Nast article just what you found out later about why all this pressure was put on you, but let us put it from the other viewpoint. Supposing it was not convenient for you to go at that time, supposing you had dug in your heels, what do you think the outcome would have been?

  Mr Neil: I think my position would have become untenable over time, over quite quick time. I would then have ceased to be on the same planet as him on a serious issue, one of business interests, and he would have found ways of making life pretty intolerable for the editor. It would not have been a case of just being fired right away, but it would have been a case of money drying up, budgets not appearing. This already happened to me in the final months anyway when I wanted to expand the paper into other areas and that was denied for no good reason other than we had fallen out of love. I do not think a newspaper group or a title can survive and prosper if the editor and the proprietor are in a state of civil war, and that is why arrangements, such as the trusts that The Times and The Sunday Times have, I think, are a complete waste of time, effort and regulatory effort. To paraphrase Stanley Baldwin, I think it was Stanley Baldwin who said that he would rather consult his valet than the National Union of Conservative Associations. You will know this, Chairman.

  Q1679  Chairman: It was even before my time!

  Mr Neil: Nothing was before your time, Chairman! I would rather have consulted my driver than consulted the trustees of Times newspapers.

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