Andrew Neil: In line for Telegraph role?So, they got it in the end. Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay’s longed-for ownership of the Daily Telegraph will probably be sealed on 30 July, provided Lord (Conrad) Black does the sensible thing and waits for his cheque rather than pursuing pointless legal action against former colleagues at Hollinger International. For the Barclays, now comes the hard bit: improving the papers and getting the right people in post at the top of their burgeoning newspaper empire, which will include the Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator magazine.
Talk of Scotsman publisher Andrew Neil’s chances of a senior role at the Telegraph Group has been predictably negative. It seems nothing gets the Scottish media in such a state as the career prospects of the 55-year-old former editor of The Sunday Times. People love to list Neil’s mixed record as a newspaper publisher: the failure of The European, the millions lost at the Scotsman because of price-cutting initiatives, the reduction of The Business to the status of a freesheet. Yes, he could have done better but his record has not been as bad as his worst critics suggest. Scotsman Publications is in profit. The Business is losing money but this is largely down to poor market conditions – The Financial Times, considered the doyen of financial journalism, is barely selling 100,000 copies a day in Britain. Given the gulf between the FT’s worldwide network of correspondents and Neil’s comparatively meagre resources, this was a battle he could never win. And so what if Neil has hired a PR man to talk up his achievements in the hope of gaining a new berth at the Telegraph? It’s his money and he can spend it how he likes.
The famously private Barclays rely on a small corps of trusted lieutenants to manage their businesses. Neil is one of them. Sir David’s sons, Aidan and Howard, seem likely to be involved in executive roles at the new group but they will need an experienced newspaperman at their disposal, following the £665 million purchase of the Canary Wharf-based group. Hence, Neil is likely to be involved in one way or another. If he is not the front man at the new group he will be a consultant. His involvement would divide opinion at the Telegraph but that won’t bother Neil. This is a man who received death threats every week when he helped Rupert Murdoch move News International’s print premises to Wapping. A few hacked-off journalists will probably provide welcome amusement. Similarly, the Barclay brothers won’t give a damn about whose nose gets put out of joint. They are, charity interests aside, businessmen who want to minimise costs and maximise profit while investing for the long term. To do that they need leadership at the top of their empire, not yes-men. They should also give Martin Newland, who has edited the paper well throughout eight months of turmoil, a chance to flourish under the new regime.
What the sale means for the Barclays’ ownership of Scotsman Publications rightly deserves contemplation. Will Sir David and Sir Frederick’s interest in the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News wane now that they have gained a trophy asset? I doubt it. Scotsman Publications is generating £8 million in profit from £60m in turnover. As a senior newspaper executive told me last week, why would they want to get rid of it? “It’s good cash flow, and allows them to borrow the kind of money needed to buy the Telegraph.” Indeed, the sale could re-invigorate the Scotsman. The likely syndication of foreign news from the Telegraph should be considered a plus. Coverage of foreign affairs among the Scottish daily press, totally dependent on agencies, is currently woeful. Intelligent analysis from journalists on the ground – not those sat behind a desk in Edinburgh or Glasgow – might actually persuade a few more people to buy a Scottish-based broadsheet. Business and political coverage could also be strengthened by becoming a sister publication.
But the fact that the Barclays are paying a premium for the Telegraph – probably £100m more than the group’s true market value – has been interpreted as a cause for concern. If cuts are made, under-performing senior journalists will probably be first for the chop. That’s what happened the last time the Telegraph changed hands. However, it would be a pity if the Daily Telegraph’s Scotland operation, the best Scottish edition of a national title, is axed and the Scotsman’s output used as a substitute.
Which, inevitably, brings us back to the question of Andrew Neil’s future. If the Barclays offer him a role at Canary Wharf it will endanger his broadcasting career – while the BBC seems willing to turn a blind eye to his executive role at Scotsman Publications, this would never be allowed to go unchecked at Britain’s biggest-selling broadsheet and its politically influential stable mates. Something would have to give.
Alternatively, perhaps now is the moment that the Barclays will acknowledge that Neil’s business career is unlikely to ever rival his journalistic one. Could it just be that Neil is a far better journalist than he is a publisher? After all, this is the Paisley Grammar School boy who edited the Sunday Times at 34, leading it to commercial and critical acclaim. He had earlier distinguished himself as a US correspondent and UK editor of The Economist. What other Scottish journalist has come close to his achievements? None.
That is why, 10 years after he left the Sunday Times, we are still talking about Andrew Neil. He is that all too rare Scottish success story of someone who bettered himself by leaving the parish – and some people can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that. As the anchorman for the BBC’s Daily Politics and This Week political programmes, Neil is approaching his peak as a broadcaster. But, given the opportunity, he would probably cast TV aside to take on Rupert Murdoch’s Times. As owners of the Daily Telegraph, the Barclays can give him that chance. Don’t count Neil
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