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Andrew Neil: Britain’s most feared broadcaster

Andrew Neil and Jeremy Corbyn - Credit: Archant

British broadcasting’s big hitter who is still awaiting his rightful BBC inheritance.

The writing is on the wall for the grumpy old men who have dominated the airwaves ever since Sir Robin Day first snapped impatiently at an unsuspecting politician. In the same way that Theresa May won the election but has clearly been mortally wounded in the process, so the white middle-aged mansplainers soldier on despite, it seems, staring extinction in the face.

The fabled youth vote didn’t just produce a surge for Jeremy Corbyn – it gave notice to the mainstream media’s old guard that their time was up. There is a growing sense that grand old inquisitors like John Humphrys (73), Jeremy Paxman (67), Robert Peston (57), Andrew Marr (57) and Adam Boulton (58) are yesterday’s men.

The recent election campaign saw the elevation of a younger, fresher, more diverse breed of interrogators. Step forward Sophy Ridge (32), Emma Barnett (32), Tina Daheley (36), Steph McGovern (35), Faisal Islam (40) and Mishal Husain (44).

There is one grizzled political veteran who continues to defy the trend. With several talented young bucks being promoted, especially at his own channel, to take on a wide range of General Election shows, BBC stalwart Andrew Neil not only secured but enhanced his reputation as the most feared interviewer in broadcasting.

Paxo is old hat. Three years after quitting Newsnight the once-mighty question-repeater was, once again, defrosted from cold storage and allowed to eye-roll, neigh and snort his way through another series of grandstanding showdowns. He hasn’t, to be sure, lost his knack for the occasional withering putdown – memorably dismissing the Maybot as ‘a blowhard who collapses at the first sound of gunfire’ – but his shouty, self-parodic, music-hall turn during the leadership debates, and embarrassing attempt at comedy on Channel 4’s Alternative Election Night, confirmed the impression that the king of cross-examination was dead. Long live the king of cross-examination.

Neil, a year older than Paxman, is abrasive but polite, combative but courteous, as sharp and quick-thinking as the old king in his heyday – and far less likely to make any political interrogation about himself.

As he probed the malfunctioning May on the finer points of her ‘uncosted and half-baked policies’ during the first of five unmissable primetime grillings of the party leaders, it quickly became clear that he would emerge as the interviewing star of the campaign. The prime minister’s drubbing set the tone for the weak and wobbly performances to come. Corbyn was put through the wringer on the IRA. Tim Farron’s filibustering went down badly with viewers. In a car crash encounter, Paul Nuttall was left reeling as he struggled to deny the reality of his party’s irrelevance. ‘You’re not the man,’ Neil patiently pointed out to the delusional fantasist, ‘to save UKIP – are you?’ Nicola Sturgeon was expertly taken to task for her handling of the Scottish economy and obsession with independence.

5-0 to the working-class grammar school boy from Paisley.

It seems odd that the big-hitter who provided some of the key moments of the election campaign should still, after all these years, be awaiting his rightful BBC inheritance. This might well be because he is still seen, by the sniffy Oxbridge elite who run the channel, as a working-class grammar school boy from Paisley. Many would have expected him to have taken on the Dimbleby/Edwards role, anchoring the June 8 overnight show. And yet he did not appear until the following morning, when he took over from Mishal Husain as lead interviewer.

Despite his hard-worn eminence, Neil remains something of an outsider at the Beeb, perhaps explaining the continuing edginess of his three live shows: This Week, The Daily Politics and The Sunday Politics. The fact that Marr and Peston are higher on the Sunday morning pecking order rankles not only, presumably, with the clever, hard-working Scot himself but also with discerning audiences keen to witness the great and the good being put to the sword.

Like the Labour leader – they are the same age – he is in but not of the political class. Far from political bedfellows, they both see themselves as anti-establishment rebels. Neil edited the Sunday Times in the 1980s and 90s, plucked by Rupert Murdoch, at the age of 34, from the UK editorship of the Economist. During a renowned 11-year stint, in which he turned the fading broadsheet around, transforming it into a lucrative, multi-sectioned, mass-circulation paper, he successfully sued Sunday Telegraph editor Peregrine Worsthorne for libel. The pompous High Tory grandee, and Garrick Club regular, had written that ‘playboys should not edit newspapers’. Some, including Neil, saw this as a victory for new journalism, indeed a classless new Britain, over the old.

Having failed to attend both public school and Oxbridge, he was clearly not ‘one of us’: a snobbery believed to be behind Private Eye’s recurring in-jokes about ‘Brillo’ – a reference not only to his wiry hair but also, some have argued, to his class origins – and his penchant for dating younger women. He can clearly no longer be depicted as the perennial bachelor, having tied the knot with Swedish communications director Susan Nilsson almost two years ago, ending the longstanding, and bizarre obsession with his apparently-colourful love life.

Neil is mistrusted by paranoid progressives because he cut his teeth as a combative Conservative, regularly attending Tory student conferences, joining the Conservative Research Department in the early 1970s and, throughout his successful and high-profile reign at the Sunday Times, championing Margaret Thatcher’s economic policy. Murdoch hired him to launch Sky TV, although he fell out with the media mogul in 1994, two years later describing his former employer’s managerial methods, in a candid memoir, as ‘telephone terrorism’.

He is chairman of the distinguished right-wing weekly The Spectator and is unlikely to follow Jon Snow’s example of attending Glastonbury, let alone joining young revellers in urging the ruling party to go forth and multiply. And yet it is a tribute to his aggressive even-handedness that he is feared equally by both left and right-wing politicians. ‘You may be making assumptions about my politics that may not be true,’ he once said. ‘I have voted for all three parties in my time, and have had some very strong views in previous incarnations. But my views now are largely irrelevant. The viewers don’t want to know what they are.’

As someone on the pro-European left I have no idea where he stands on Brexit, austerity or welfare reform. Nor do I care. Ever since it was launched 14 years ago, becoming a surprise hit with viewers he enjoys teasing as Blue Nun-swilling alcoholics, This Week has been essential viewing. It is irreverent, satirical and can be, at times, influential.

Neil’s opening monologues have become the stuff of legend. Following March’s terror attack he memorably denounced Khalid Manor as ‘a pathetic Poundland terrorist in an estate car with a knife’. After the Manchester bombing, he called on politicians to show maturity. The most famous, and eloquent, rant of all came in the wake of the 2015 Paris massacre: ‘Welcome to this week. A week in which a bunch of loser jihadists slaughtered 132 innocents in Paris to prove the future belongs to them, rather than a civilisation like France. I can’t say I fancy their chances. France. The country of Descartes, Boulez, Monet, Sartre, Rousseau, Camus, Renoir, Berlioz, Cezanee, Gaugin, Hugo, Voltaire, Matisse, Debussy, Ravel, Saint-Saens, Bizet, Satie, Pasteur, Moliere, Zola, Balzac, Poulenc, cutting-edge science, world-class medicine, fearsome security forces, nuclear power, Coco Chanel, Chateau Lafite, Coq Au Vin, Daft Punk, Zizou Zidane, Juliet Binoche. Liberté, égalité, fraternité and crème Brulee.’

The sometimes strained banter with regular guest Michael ‘choo-choo’ Portillo and Alan Johnson/Liz Kendall is not everyone’s cup of tea. But the sight of the former Conservative Defence Secretary dad-dancing to the techno rave outfit Underworld will live long in the memory.

Don’t be deceived by the ‘Evenin’ all!’ bonhomie and avuncular levity. Neil is rightly lauded for his meticulous preparation, encyclopaedic knowledge and sharp-witted, forensic approach to subjects many other mainstream political shows refuse to touch with a bargepole. In the age of social media attention spans, he gives politicians and activists – last week he gently quizzed Corbyn fan Adele Shepherd about her tattoo of the Labour leader – the time to expound their policies but is quick to expose robotic soundbites.

On the day her dementia tax unravelled, without resorting to condescending sneers or shouty interruptions, he managed to inflict far more damage on the Prime Minister and opposition leader than the tiresome Paxman. ‘Four days ago your manifesto rejected a cap on social care costs,’ he told the squirming May. ‘Today you announced a cap. That sounds pretty half-baked.’ When she replied that nothing had changed, he moved in for the kill: ‘Jeremy Hunt, on the day you launched your manifesto… said, ‘yes, we are dropping the cap and we’re being completely explicit in our manifesto, we’re dropping it. We don’t think it’s fair.’ Today you announced a cap.’

It was the first of a series of devastating blows rained on May and, once again, raised the question of why Britain’s best interviewer has been constantly passed over for the top BBC jobs.

Anthony Clavane is the author of A Yorkshire Tragedy, published by Quercus.

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