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,

because although I have a permit covering the car I drive myself, it does not cover the cars driven by my two chauffeurs, who work a shift system. The system we would like to operate is as follows. My car is parked overnight. The following morning one of my chauffeur arrives in his car, transfers himself to my car and drives me to the office, leaving his car parked at my address. I need a permit for his (company) car to be left there during the day until he takes me home in the evening and drives the company car away. I have two regular chauffeurs and it would be extremely helpful if each of their company cars could be granted a permit.

Mr Reeve replied the following day, turning down the request. In a fit of fury, Neil clipped the correspondence together and scrawled on it the following note to his secretary: ‘Joan – let’s set Insight on this lot.’

For some reason, Neil doesn’t include this initiative in his book, so we shall never know what became of it. Again, though he mentions a series of dinners thrown in his honour by the more sycophantic courtiers at the Sunday Times, he forgets the meal which stands out most in the memory of his fellow feasters: a lunch, in a private room at the Due Franco restaurant in Islington, the highlight of which was the entry of a nervous, near-naked strip-o-gram lady who sat on Neil’s knee and slowly removed his shirt and vest. While everyone else hovered on the edge of death by embarrassment, Neil, according to one unlucky lunching companion, ‘looked entirely at home’. It fitted his image of himself. Later in the book, describing a weekend journey to the countryside to meet his new amanuensis, James Adams, Neil gives a pretty clear idea of how he likes to see himself: ‘James,’ Neil writes, ‘was surprised when somebody his own age emerged one sunny Sunday in shorts and open-necked shirt from a black convertible BMW with a pretty American girlfriend on one arm and a six-pack of Budweiser under the other.’ Such a very modern editor could not waste his time in high-falutin’ editorial conferences. Out went the independent Insight and out, too, went anyone else who dared to mutter the liberal-left mantra. Out went the ‘high priest’ of the old guard, Hugo Young. Out went the fuddy-duddy, collectivist, liberal, bring-Britain-to-its-knees Sunday Times, whose circulation when Neil arrived was 1,285,000, and in came the new, thrusting, individualist, free-market Sunday Times, whose circulation when Neil left 11 years later was 1,231.000.

Add to these anecdotes and quotations Neil’s writing style, which is dour and monotonous, that in all its 481 pages there is not the slightest trace of a joke nor a sign that the greatest young journalist of his generation ever enjoyed a single book he didn’t serialise, and you might conclude that Full Disclosure should be consigned to everlasting fire. You would be quite wrong. The book is thoroughly absorbing. It is a dark tragedy the chief fascination of which is that its author does not realise he is in a tragedy at all. First we have the young journalist appointed editor by his proprietor and loving him for it. We see the young man as a grateful guest in Rupert’s spacious home, happily skiing with Rupert’s children. There is yet more hero-worship as Rupert applauds the end of Insight, the downfall of Hugo Young and all the rest. Further adulation follows in the next scene, the siege of Wapping. Here the entire production of four newspapers, including the Sunday Times, is shifted from Fleet Street to Wapping. Thanks to a secret agreement with the electricians’ union (later broken by Murdoch), thousands of trade unionists were sacked and replaced by workers who could no longer ‘hold the newspapers to ransom’ by their accursed collective bargaining. It was, Neil writes, ‘a dash for freedom from print union tyranny’. Brave young Andrew.

And then poor young Andrew as good old Rupert saves him from a vote of no confidence by his own journalists. Andrew’s gratitude is almost tearful in its appreciation of the persuasive powers of his master. But then slowly, subtly, the mood begins to change. As early as page 110 the phrase ‘macho-management’ suddenly emerges to confuse us. Ivan Fallon, Neil’s deputy, who is described as a ‘gentle soul’, observes Murdoch rushing round the corridors of Wapping, yelling at everyone to ‘get the fucking newspaper out’ and concludes nervously: ‘that man inspires by fear.’

Chapter 7, ‘At the Court of the Sun King’, spells it out. The generous, inspiring proprietor who so charmingly persuaded those journalists not to turn against their editor, is transformed by his protégé into Rupert Fear. He is, to start with, ‘much more right-wing than is generally thought’. His hero is America’s Greatest Liar, Oliver North. He engages in constant ‘telephone terrorism’ against his editors, reducing supposedly hard men like Kelvin MacKenzie and David Montgomery to stammering wrecks and causing Patsy Chapman, the editor of the News of the World, to suffer a nervous breakdown. ‘These were the calls I came to dread,’ Neil writes. ‘Not because I feared the consequences but because they were unpleasant or pointless. It was never quite clear why he was in such a bad mood ... there were simply times when he relished giving his underlings a bad time.’ Sometimes he practised his ‘silent routine’ – i.e. said nothing and waited for some proffered remark from his victim which he could mock or abuse. All this terrorism had a dreadful effect on editor Neil. ‘Sometimes he would leave you wondering if you had done anything right. It cast a cloud over your whole life. Other times, when he liked the paper you felt you could walk on water.’ The damaging effects of Murdoch’s need for total control seeped through the entire organisation at Wapping. ‘The place soon degenerated into the sort of rule by management diktat that I had feared.’ ‘The rough tactics of a group of middle managers, aping Rupert’s style, began to sour relations with the shop-floor.’ ‘The harmonious atmosphere we had worked so hard to create at Wapping quickly gave way to trench warfare: it was management’s fault.’ The production manager’s office was ‘attacked with firehoses’; ‘the printers began to sabotage production’; ‘there was a suspiciously high number of web breaks.’ These are welcome revelations from a workplace hitherto shrouded in secrecy. But so impregnable is Neil’s egotism that he nowhere relates his ‘dash for freedom from print union tyranny’ to the incomparably more horrible tyranny it helped to create.

The final act of Neil’s tragedy shifts away from the shop-floor to the editorial offices. Although he loyally supported the Tory Government throughout his tenure, he was not a ‘knee-jerk Tory’ (as Murdoch once accurately described Neil’s successor, John Witherow). He had an eye for a good story and was prepared to publish material which annoyed the Government. He engaged in a long war over the serialisation of Peter Wright’s Spycatcher – a battle he eventually won; and although in general he lines up with the rich and powerful, he devotes a whole chapter to ‘ruining the Sunday breakfasts of the rich and powerful’. True, this is a thin chapter, but it does contain a sentence purloined from the left-liberal consensus: ‘good journalism is what powerful people do not want to be published.’ An excellent example of that follows a hundred pages later: ‘On 20 February 1994, the Sunday Times reported that Wimpey, the British construction company, had arranged for “special payments” to be made to the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, and other senior political figures in the country’s ruling party in return for a contract to build an aluminium smelter.’ That sounds like good jounnalism. Were there any powerful people who did not want it to be published? There were lots. The Prime Minister of Malaysia, for instance, who was so cross with the (completely accurate) Sunday Times story that he suspended all trade talks with British firms. But there was someone else, even more powerful, who was against publication: the proprietor of the Sunday Times. ‘In the autumn of 1995 a British minister dined with our High Commissioner while on a trade mission to Kuala Lumpur. He asked our man in KL if there was still any residual animosity to British business since the ban provoked by the Sunday Times. “Not since Murdoch fixed it with Mahathir,” replied the High Commissioner. “The Malaysian Prime Minister made it clear that Murdoch would never do business in his country as long as Andrew Neil was editor of the Sunday Times,” he continued.’ From which the disconsolate editor concludes: ‘Neil had to go. Murdoch obliged.’

He was sacked: well, not crudely booted out as if he’d been a member of a print union, but sacked nevertheless, shoved out of the editor’s office into a new, Murdoch-inspired current affairs television project in the United States, provisionally entitled ‘Full Disclosure’. The programme was axed after a year’s rehearsals – there was no disclosure at all. An angry Neil parted company with his once-beloved proprietor with a pay-off worth half a million pounds.

Neil says that his union-busting triumph at Wapping ‘changed our industry for the better’. In every respect, however, it changed our industry for the worse. The union-busters predicted an increase in independent newspapers, but all the independent newspapers which started after Wapping have been closed (Today, London Evening News, Sunday Correspondent) or swallowed by the big combines (Independent). The bullying which Neil described was reproduced almost to the letter by Robert Maxwell when he took over the Mirror. The same telephone terrorism, the same silence routine, the same bullying of underlings which spread downwards until almost everyone was being shouted at by a Maxwell clone. Maxwell’s bad moods got worse and worse. He got madder and madder in his megalomania, as Neil says Murdoch did. He trusted fewer and fewer of his close circle, sacked more and more of them and ended up relying for his executives on his children. Murdoch, according to Neil’s account, is now going the same way. The entire press has been infected by the influence of these proprietors. When Maxwell died, the two senior journalists named in this book as the most active in the Wapping union-busting, Charles Wilson and David Banks, smashed the unions at the Mirror. With the exception of the Guardian and Observer, there is now no organised union in any national newspaper, and as a result a fawning, nervous atmosphere prevails. All the papers owned by the Big Four proprietors are by any standard incomparably worse than they were in the years of the liberal-left consensus. There is less information, more chequebook journalism, more propaganda, more trash. The omnipotent proprietor-monster which Neil helped to create has swallowed most of what was commendable in British journalism.

As for Neil, he sails on, impervious to his own experience. After a year or two setting out his predictable and limited views in columns in the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times, he went off in search of another Murdoch to pamper, patronise and bully him. He has been snapped up by the mysterious Barclay brothers, who, unlike Maxwell and Murdoch, hardly ever present themselves to the public who buy their newspapers. They have put Neil in charge of their Edinburgh papers, once famous for their independence, and are strongly rumoured to have set their sights on owning, wait for it, the Independent. If they want a man who will proclaim on their behalf the clichés of ‘fourth estate independence’ and a ‘free press’, while slavishly clearing out anyone who stands up to his millionaire proprietors, they have found him.