Dashing for Freedom

Paul Foot

  • Full Disclosure by Andrew Neil
    Macmillan, 481 pp, £20.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 333 64682 7

In early 1983, Rupert Murdoch, Britain’s most powerful newspaper proprietor, offered the editorship of the Sunday Times to the crusted royalty-worshipper and Tory, Alastair Burnet. Burnet refused, pleading old age, but came up at once with an alternative. ‘You should,’ he told Murdoch, ‘go for the best young journalist of his generation.’ ‘Oh yeah,’ Murdoch said, ‘and who would that be?’ ‘Andrew Neil of the Economist’ was Burnet’s reply. What is our source for this extraordinary conversation? The aforesaid Andrew Neil, on page 25 of this book. Though he immediately describes Burnet’s assessment as ‘inaccurate’, Neil devotes most of the 450 pages which follow to endorsing it. Front-line journalists usually have a high opinion of themselves, but Neil’s self-regard is loud, unique, indestructible. As he plods doggedly through his 11 years editing what he describes as one of the most influential newspapers on earth, he is continually dumbfounded by the sheer scale of his achievement.

He became editor in October 1983 and set about clearing out the mess at the Sunday Times. The first thing that was wrong was the paper’s ‘collectivist mind-set’. The second, the ‘liberal-left consensus’ which had led it into reckless attacks on the British Government and, worse, on the United States Government and generally speaking had brought this country ‘to its knees’. The ‘collectivist mind-set’ could be detected at editorial meetings, where senior journalists would openly say what they thought and argue with one another. The paper’s editorial line often derived from these discussions. Worse still was the habit which had grown up under the former editor, Harry Evans, of delegating power and responsibility within the newspaper. The plainest example of that was the Insight investigative team, which worked largely under its own editorial control. A common expression in journalism in the Seventies was ‘self-starters’ – journalists who were encouraged to find and work on their own stories and were given space in which to write them up. These ‘self-starters’ often ruffled the feathers of the appointed hierarchies which had run newspapers in the past. Neil had – still has – a fervent faith in hierarchies, especially when he is at the top of them. From the moment he took power at the Sunday Times, he set about ridding the paper of what he called the ‘space barons’.

The Insight team was disbanded, he writes, because it was engaged in ‘a series of second-rate investigations that were going nowhere’. He would keep the logo, but only for one-off investigations which he would direct. His very first idea for the Insight column showed how far he had come from the second-rate investigations of his predecessors. On 13 October 1983, less than a fortnight into his new job, he wrote a letter to Mr Derek Reeve, Kensington and Chelsea’s Deputy Director of Finance. The letter asked for help with a ‘difficulty’ Neil had with the residents’ parking scheme in Onslow Square, where he was living. Never one to underestimate the importance of high office, Neil wrote his letter on Sunday Times notepaper and signed it as the editor. ‘The difficulty has arisen,’ he explained,

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