Will Hutton on the visceral anti-Englishness that Andrew Neil shares with his former bossby Will Hutton / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in December 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Writing an autobiography mid-career is unusual. It remains to be seen if Andrew Neil’s book, Full Disclosure, will attract the same interest in the country as it has in the newsrooms of London; the odds cannot be high. But the book is important and readable, albeit more a self-glorifying cartoon history than a great work of journalistic reflection. The editor king makes the intervention that will save Eddie Shah from the pickets and so reform Fleet Street; he writes the leader that swings key votes against Thatcher in the 1990 leadership contest; the “establishment” quivers before his avenging keyboard. All is informed by “Neilism”-a primitive belief in markets, anti-state and anti-union with a tough approach to the “underclass,” but leavened by support for public investment, a commitment to constitutional change and strong support for the meritocracy. If you read the Sunday Times, you know the line.
Cartoons are enjoyable and often catch truths-and Full Disclosure is a remarkable insight into the culture and attitudes of the new conservative establishment that arrived in the 1980s, not to mention the window it offers into the Murdoch empire. It is Neil’s self-obsessed candour which saves the book; every time your interest flags he drops a juicy tit-bit, and sometimes a whole bag of sweets, into your lap.
Newsnight staff will be intrigued to learn that John Birt offered Neil the role of presenting Newsnight in 1987-he declined only because of unfinished business at the paper. Indeed, Birt turns up frequently at all the right, rightwing parties ready to applaud our hero. Rupert Murdoch’s preference for David Waddington over Michael Heseltine as Conservative leadership candidate is revealed. The radical conservative Irwin Stelzer is not only Murdoch’s closest adviser; he also chats with Tony Blair. And Jacques Santer, when prime minister of Luxembourg, is shown to have played a key role in helping Sky TV, agreeing that if it was closed in Britain, it could operate from Luxembourg.
The central paradox of the book is Andrew Neil’s definition of himself as an anti-establishment outsider-even as he celebrates his own role as triumphantly carrying all before him. He manages to share the culture of victimhood now pervasive in rightwing circles without recognising that insofar as there is now an establishment he was one of its key members for as long as he edited the Sunday Times. If Britain is in the grip of an unshakeable belief in the verities of a particular kind of capitalism, then Neil was and is one of its most enthusiastic propagandists-deploying and degrading his newspaper in the task. And if the establishment was anything like as effective or pervasive as Neil believes, it would surely have made a better fist of defending itself against the Sunday Times and the Thatcherites. But then it did not hold real economic and political power; that was in the hands of the new establishment, most notably Rupert Murdoch.
There are some nuances. While proud of Wapping, Neil makes it clear that it has brutalised the journalistic and managerial culture of the Murdoch titles. He felt that Eric Hammond’s electricians should have been allowed to organise there as the quid pro quo for their help in allowing Wapping to succeed-and that Murdoch’s refusal even to answer the union leaders’ request for a meeting was wrong. It was a betrayal of trust, and in the long run you cannot run any organisation if every deal has only one winner.
But there is no trust relationship possible between a foreign born ultra-capitalist and his workforce, let alone his key managers and editors. The most fascinating thread running through the book is Neil’s account of Murdoch’s empire; how Murdoch himself thinks and operates. In 1990, with Sky haemorrhaging cash and a world recession looming, his company was at risk-but he still went ahead and authorised a ?900m investment in colour presses for his British newspapers. He bet his company on the success of Sky; then doubled up to bet on colour presses. This is coolness of a high order; there is no recent example of British businessmen taking such risks-and getting it right so often. If they had, our media would not be so foreign owned.
But the organisation, like Robert Maxwell’s before his death, is increasingly a one-man band with only the immediate family trusted with secrets and preferment, at least if we are to believe Neil’s account. Murdoch’s executives are all haunted men, even if they know that their departures will be well-lubricated with cash. But there is no obvious successor-and there is no in-depth managerial or organisational structure. As long as Murdoch is alive, driving the company from the top, it can survive and even prosper; but once he has gone it could implode. By then, of course, it may be so big that even implosion may still leave it relatively strong; but Neil is not optimistic.
And Neil himself? Although he makes much of his dislike of the establishment, this is often-as with Murdoch-code for dislike of the English. The Scotsman and the Australian were united by a common bond. At the bottom of all the belief in markets and enterprise lay something more unpleasant; a visceral anti-Englishness. England, and its journalism, have certainly been damaged by their attentions.