Andrew Neil: ‘It’s been the most miserable summer of my life’

The former chairman of GB News on his fractious exit from the right-wing TV channel

Andrew Nei, former chairman of GB News.

Andrew Nei, former chairman of GB News.

 

When Andrew Neil agrees to Lunch with the FT and suggests the Hari Hotel as our venue, he knows full well that I have read the leaked emails from his spectacular falling-out with his most recent employer, the rightwing polemic factory currently trading as GB News.

He knows I will have savoured the message written when he was “ensconced . .in the Hari Hotel Belgravia”, complaining about being flown to London for the channel’s launch in the “smallest private jet in the world”. As a five-decade veteran of the British media, he must be aware that the set-up is irresistible.

Regular

Neil arrives by taxi and is ushered through the hotel by the manager, who clearly adores his larger-than-life regular. We are shown to the restaurant, Il Pampero, which is empty. It doesn’t actually open at lunchtime, it emerges, but staffing it especially for Neil does not appear to be a problem. This feels vaguely compromising - I’m not confident that Lunch with the FT’s budget would run to the cost of opening a restaurant solely for our use.

Worse, as we sit at our prime table, Neil refuses a drink. “I’m happy with the sparkling water,” he says firmly.

I am aghast. We had lunch once before, 20-odd years ago, and we drank champagne at his corner table at Le Caprice. It was also Princess Diana’s favourite table, I remember him telling me at the time, not modestly.

But the Nineties are over, Le Caprice was shuttered during the pandemic and the media is now a very different industry. Here we are in our empty restaurant, a slightly humbled Neil and I, sipping mineral water and Diet Coke.

I suspect this display of restraint is designed to provide a contrast to the unexpected vulnerability that Neil has shown since his exit from GB News.

Five days earlier, the 72-year-old appeared in the Daily Mail, explaining tearfully that the channel’s botched launch, his subsequent escape to the south of France and the resulting legal disputes had almost broken him.

As we sit down, though, he’s telling me about The Spectator, the conservative magazine of which he has been chair since 2008. He has big plans for expanding its nascent video and podcast offerings, and points to its impressive circulation and revenue growth, the figures for which he just happens to have to hand - oh! right here on his iPad! – because he was studying them “before you came”.

This bit of theatre is undermined slightly by the fact that I was here first and he has to stab a few buttons to get to the numbers, but he’s keen to give me a bit of Andrew Neil, bullish publisher and businessman, before we have to tackle badly used presenter and journalist.

Amused

The Spectator has always been your favourite, I say. “Yes! It’s . . .well, I’m in overall charge,” he says, laughing loudly and pointedly. “The editor reports to me and the commercial [side] reports to me, so if things go wrong in the end it’s my responsibility.”

Hmm. Everything sounds like a veiled reference to GB News and if we start on that topic, we’ll never stop, I say. “Oh, we will,” he says firmly. It sounds menacing but I think it’s aimed at himself and his own self-control.

As we turn to the menus, I raise his use of the phrase “world’s smallest private jet”. What is the largest private jet he’s ever been on? He’s embarrassed but styles it out.

“Oh, I have no idea . . .I mean, anybody who read the email saw it was a joke.” He harrumphs. “Tittle tattle. Right, can we order?”

I’m worried that he’s cross but actually he seems darkly amused as he orders two starters to accompany his water. Panicking that there are 48 years of tumultuous career to get through, I ignore this signal, plump for red prawns followed by cod and decide to start in a happier place – his editorship of The Sunday Times, when he was still in his mid-thirties.

Because Neil has long been one of the nation’s pre-eminent political broadcasters, a fixture at the BBC for decades, it’s easy to forget that he has been a high-flying journalist for nearly half a century. From The Economist, where he was made UK editor in 1982, he rose through both print and broadcasting – “I presented Tomorrow’s World in the 1970s,” he reminds me – and, in 1983, took control of Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times, turning it into the multi-section behemoth it remains today.

While still editor, he was roped into the complex launch of Sky, becoming in 1988 its founding chair; his recall of the fine detail of Astra satellite deals remains impressive.

But by 1994, the relationship with Murdoch had cooled to a terminal temperature. “I was doing a lot of television, we [were getting ]in rows, too many rows actually. And he just felt I was getting a bit too big for my boots . . .Uncontrollable is not what he really wants in an editor. And you see since then my successors at The Sunday Times have been very low-profile.”

Neil was sent off to a non-job in New York - “an expensive waiting room” - to spend a little time in the wilderness. I’m starting to realise that Neil is, if nothing else, exceptionally consistent.

A reporter for GB News in London.
A reporter for GB News in London.

Launch

I suspect that it was during the Sky launch that the entrepreneurial urge kicked in. As he has said many times recently, usually in response to some brutal criticism of his hot mess news channel, start-ups are hard. This is his full insurgent mode.

Chippy and bullish. “Start-ups are fun! Well, usually fun.” Indeed, they tend to go one of two ways. “But it’s always exciting! It’s quite fun to do things that everybody says aren’t going to work. And to prove the established opinion . . .which is very sure of itself in countries like Britain, then usually wrong anyway.”

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Some amuse-bouches have arrived on giant spoons and, in a brief dispute about the greatest TV drama ever made, Neil reveals his love of the crime series Gomorrah, which he claims has opened his eyes to Italian rap music.

“The best rap music there is.” Are you an expert on Italian rap music? “I am an expert in Italian rap music.” Do some Italian rap! “No!” He’s laughing and, not for the last time, I think this lunch could have gone in a different direction with a bottle of wine.

After Murdoch came more entrepreneurship, bankrolled by the Barclay brothers, the reclusive twins determined to blow their property empire success on glory in the newspaper industry.

In the mid-1990s and early 2000s, they embarked on a series of newspaper launches and relaunches, at vast expense. Neil briefly turned round The Scotsman, but The (Sunday) Business and The European were less fruitful. “I warned them that I didn’t think The Business would work . . .But I think they saw it as a learning curve because it was all leading towards the Telegraph. When they bought the Telegraph they sold [the others].”

Our main courses have arrived – well, mine: Neil is undercutting me by paleo-ing his way through a steak tartare – so I’m ready to pivot to broadcasting. Neil left the BBC in September 2020, after 25 years at the broadcaster. Did he ever think of himself as a BBC man? “No. And I don’t think the BBC ever thought of me as a BBC man.” He pauses to swallow some raw meat.

Storm

The somewhat more Tory-friendly director-general Tim Davie joined the BBC shortly before Neil’s departure. Does he think if Davie had arrived earlier, he would have stayed? “Yes. It was a perfect storm of bad events.”

Neil’s various political shows – This Week, Daily Politics and Politics Live – and his election campaign leader interviews had made him the corporation’s go-to interviewer, admired and feared across the spectrum. But his presence had been whittled back to The Andrew Neil Show, which was first suspended, then cut, during the pandemic. He was wounded.

“Really nobody bothered to get in touch with me and talk . . .I felt I’d been cast to the outer limits.” Would you go back? “I don’t know. I’m not really thinking about anything this side of Christmas.”

Of course, I murmur respectfully - though I don’t believe a word of it, because his wistfulness is evident. “It’s been the most miserable summer of my life,” he adds.

Unfortunately the tartare has disappeared, being only starter-sized, and it’s not as if there are any other tables to distract our discreet yet attentive service. Clearly no pudding will be taken at this most abstemious of lunches. I shall simply have to toy with this cod for longer.

Chewing each mouthful so long that even the most fastidious dietitian would be impressed, I begin to extract the story of how Neil quit the BBC for GB News, rejecting Rupert Murdoch’s putative news channel in the process.

Money

During the Covid lockdown last year, Neil was approached by David Rhodes, a former wunderkind US news executive who had been hired by Murdoch to launch a rightwing-ish, news-ish channel in the UK. “I think the problem was there were big divisions at the top of [ News UK]. I don’t think [News UK chief executive] Rebekah Brooks wanted to do it, and some others didn’t want to. Whereas David Rhodes, I think Rupert, maybe Lachlan [Murdoch], they did want to do it . . .They offered more money and they offered the same kind of programme, but being offered the chairmanship at GB News was really what clinched it for me. I felt that would give me the power to shape the channel, and to implement the vision I had for the channel. All that I was swiftly to be disabused of.”

And the Murdoch channel melted away. It would probably have gone ahead if you had signed, I speculate. Neil nods. “I spoke to David Rhodes last week and he indicated as much.”

Rhodes has now left the project, resurrected since Neil has quit GB News, with Piers Morgan signing on as the star host in a multimillion-pound deal. The channel is due to be launched in early 2022.

Some advice for Morgan, perhaps? “Study my career over the past eight months, and then drive in the opposite direction. Take the fastest car you can get. Don’t even look in the rear-view mirror, just go!”

I suggest that the two of them, Murdoch’s most contentious print editors, could be reunited for the new channel. He’s laughing extravagantly. “Lawyers will be measuring up their Tuscany extension.”

Career

Looking over his career, and surveying the wreckage of the GB News arrangement, it’s hard not to conclude that his urge to run the shop has been something of a fatal flaw. “Business is a lot more difficult than people who are not in business realise,” he says.

Is it the money that drives you? “No, no, no, that would be no bad thing, but I’m in the lucky position that I can do things because I love them. Money is always good, it’s nice to have. It gives you freedom and also gives you what we used to call ‘eff-off money’ as well, which is a nice thing.” You must have that now, I suggest. You could definitely tell them all to fuck off. “Well, I did!”

Relaxed now, he mocks me for ordering a macchiato, even though I’ve actually joined him in a no-nonsense filter coffee – still, somehow he can sense the idea of a macchiato forming in my head, so to head off a tussle over whether macchiato is “woke”, I ask him if there is a big enough mainstream rightwing audience to support a channel such as GB News, or whether it must inevitably drift towards conspiracy theory and Ukip territory.

“It’s clearly a problem because broadcasting lends itself to loud voices,” he says. “And, you know, voices from the centre left or the centre right are not that loud. And there’s more drama and viewer satisfaction in louder voices. One of the reasons it was always uncomfortable for me was that I have said publicly there would be no fake news. There would be no conspiracy theories.

“Two things happen. You do get a core audience of true believers. But that stops you reaching a wider audience because you’re just preaching to the believers. And I do think it gives you problems with advertisers . . . particularly in this sort of woke age when corporate executives are very keen not to be on the wrong end of Twitter or social media, I think, the more outlandish you are, the more difficult it is getting advertising.”

Nigel Farage, former leader of Ukip.
Nigel Farage, former leader of Ukip.

Relaunch

Neil walked out after eight shows. He was supposed to return in September but never did, apart from briefly as a guest on Nigel Farage’s show, now in his slot. He says he had drawn up a way to make the autumn relaunch work with Farage, but his demands for a meaningful editorial role, his red line for a return, were rejected, so he didn’t.

He’s fairly confident that the channel will not go down in the near term. “The investors, with the exception of Discovery [Inc, which has a significant stake], they all love Nigel Farage, they regard him as huge, a big, big character. They believe it will succeed and they’re ideologically driven.” The problem is editorial. “Its big challenge will be relevance, and just to stay on the radar.”

We’ve reached the “and then the papers got involved” stage. A non-disparagement clause was shattered. There are emails that may or may not have been concocted and appearances on the BBC’s Question Time that may or may not have breached the terms. An agreement to cameo on Farage’s show was abandoned.

He says, unusually quietly, that at no stage was there ever a demand for money. He was going to do Farage through to January as part of the exit agreement “and they offered to pay me for that and, quite generously, I said I’ll do it for nothing”.

I ask him about the young staff, working intensely to keep the channel on air, who joined an operation “led by Andrew Neil” and now find themselves at what he himself calls “Ukip TV”.

He looks a little chastened again and talks about how hard they all work and pledges to help anyone who needs a reference or advice. The mood is suddenly sombre.

I can spin this coffee out no longer. It’s been a little angry, a little bitter. Inappropriately sober. You’ve had quite a career, I say, as we leave the restaurant and he heads to the Heathrow Express. “Yeah,” he says, in a strange tone. “Well, I hope that’s not how it ended.”

Menu

Il Pampero Restaurant & Bar

20 Chesham Place, London SW1X

Gambero rosso x2 £38

‘Deceiving pizza’ - beef tartare, lemon confit, cured egg yolk, chives and mustard £18

Merluzzo - black cod, carrots, star anise and pecans £30

Sparkling water £5

Diet Coke x2 £10

Filter coffee x2 £9.50

(Discount) -£47.50

Service (12.5%) £7.81

Total £70.31

– Copyright The Financial Times Ltd.

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