Friday, May 21, 2010

In Conversation With Andrew Neil

This month's Total Politics magazine, out today, features an In Conversation interview between me and Andrew Neil. In the interview he reveals

* he would like to present the BBC's general election night coverage in future
* the truth behind THAT picture in Private Eye
* defends the election night boat
* why he's been so tough on Vince Cable

I talked to Andrew in his office in the Spectator building. Just as I arrived, it was announced Gordon Brown was resigning. I thought he may well want to postpone, but he was very keen to do the interview. I hope you enjoy it.

Here's an extract, but you can read the full interview HERE, or by buying the magazine!

ID: I read that you were tutored by Vince Cable at university.
AN: Only briefly, in my final year when I was doing political economy and political science at the University of Glasgow. Vince arrived from Oxford to do his PhD at the department of political economy and he did handle some of the tutorials that I had to go to.

Does that explain your aggressive nature when interviewing him? You're the only interviewer that's ever actually properly questioned him. Everyone else regards him as a God.
He wasn't the most exciting of tutors, I have to admit. He was very Labour in those days. He went on to become a Labour councillor in Glasgow. I thought it was time, since the Liberals were playing for the big time, to treat them seriously and treat them the way we do everybody else. And none more so than Vince Cable who so often had been treated by the media not as a politician seeking power but as a pundit. No one ever asked Vince: "Why are you arguing that?" They always said: "What do you think of that?" We treated him like a journalist and that helped his stature to grow. So I decided it was time to treat him as a politician seeking power like any other. All of the media has been culpable in treating him too much like an impartial pundit. When he's treated in the same way as we would treat Alistair Darling or George Osborne, I do think you see a different Vince Cable.

How would you characterise your interview style?
Some have said it's aggressive. I don't think it's aggressive so much as desperately trying to get them to answer the question. The questions I ask are quite straightforward. They're not long-winded and most of them can be answered with a yes or no. Sometimes people criticise me for being rude or interrupting too much.

When you have a particular politician on the programme and you've interviewed them before, do you change your interview style because you know what you're going to get?
Yes. You try to cut them off at the pass. By now you know what the stock answers are going to be to difficult questions so you try to frame the question in a way that allows for that. I have to say it still doesn't result in getting very clear answers. It's really frustrating to try and get clear answers from politicians. I came close to losing it with Douglas Alexander. The idea that Peter Hain and Ed Balls were not sending a massive neon sign saying: "Look, if you can beat a Tory by voting Lib Dem, do that." For him to come on to the programme and deny they were saying that was, for me, a low point of honesty in the campaign.

Particularly in an interview like that, are there any points where you feel you have to slightly pull your punches because you're on the BBC?
You cannot, unless it is demonstrably true, say: "Why are you lying to me?" That's probably unacceptable for the BBC. In the Alexander case, by the technical letter of the law of what they had said, in a sense he was right. But we all knew, in a grown-up world, what they were really saying. To accuse someone of lying is a pretty big step. But I have no doubt that Mr Alexander knew that day he was being less than honest with me, which is not the important thing. But he was being less than honest with the viewers. Viewers were as angry as I was with him.

Yours is about the only programme now on television where somebody is questioned for more than ten minutes. Is it because TV people think viewers have the attention span of a flea?
Correct. It baffles me why Straight Talk isn't run on BBC2 rather than just on the news channel. We think we're now dealing with the MTV generation, the generation that's been brought up on the two-and-a-half minute pop video. Everything on TV has to have pace and constant movement and constant changes. And of course that's true if you're talking about something where you want to get a mega audience. But if you want something that gets a decent audience and a serious discourse, I still think there's an audience for that. There are so many platforms that the BBC has now. And it's cheap television too.

Even with your fee.
[Laughs] Even with my fee it's still pretty cheap television.

Which of the three programmes do you get most out of?
This Week is fun. It has to be different because we come off the back of the network news and then an hour of Question Time, which means we've had an hour-and-a-half of traditional mainstream current affairs. John Lloyd from the Financial Times complains that This Week is too cheeky and irreverent and gets politicians to do silly things. But after 90 minutes of current affairs, you can't then give people another hour of mainstream current affairs. You have to think of a different way of doing it and that's what we've tried to do. The Daily Politics is the one that I enjoy most because it's straightforward politics. We've imported some of the irreverence and humour from This Week into the Daily Politics and that's just happened over time.

Do you think that sometimes on This Week, the production team have their meeting and think how can we top having Timmy Mallett on?
When you're trying to get different names onto a show, a different kind of person who isn't a mainstream politician, then sometimes you get the wrong person. She didn't appear in the end, but I don't think Lady Sovereign was our finest hour.

Do you ever wonder why politicians take it in interviews when you or John Humphrys or Paxman are having a real go at them? They never hit back, do they?
No. I do sometimes wonder. I try not to do this but if you ask them a question and they've barely got two words out before you've interrupted them, I sometimes wonder why they're not tougher on that. Cameron did it within the month of becoming Conservative leader and then he seemed to drop it.

How on earth do you fit in all the things that you do - all the TV stuff, The Spectator, God knows what else? You must be the most brilliant time manager in history.
Brilliant may be too strong a word but I'm good at time management and I run my own diary. I tell my PA what's in my diary, not the other way round. I book all the appointments myself and I carve it out.

It's a good job being your PA then.
Actually don't mock it, it is. Compared to working for a chief exec of a big company, it is. Because I do all my own letters.

Whenever I've emailed you, you've answered it within about three minutes. Peter Mandelson's the same.
Is that right? I haven't got Peter Mandelson's email address. If I had, I would try it out. I put together a portfolio of work after leaving the Sunday Times in 1995 so I've got used to doing it over 15 years. The other thing is I'm single. I haven't got a family to worry about. I haven't got a family to give quality time to. I haven't got a wife who's sitting at home nursign her ire saying: "Where is he? He's not home, yet again."

Do you regret that?
Yes, I do regret it. But you can't have everything, and one of the minuses is not having children and not having had a wife. The plus is that I'm in control of my diary and all the time is for me. It's quite a selfish existence.

Did you actually make a decision?
No, it just happened. If this had been even 10, certainly 15 years ago, I'd have said I would have got married and had a family life. But that's just how it is. I didn't set out not to have a family. It's just the way it's been. That's why I've always taken more interest in my godchildren because if you haven't got children and you are very fond of kids... I get on well with kids. I'm invariably the one that gets handed the baby to quieten it down. This weekend I'm off to Dubai for a board meeting and some other meetings with a magazine company out there. If I was a family man, that would be more of a diffi cult thing. My partner would be saying: "Come on, do you have to go to Dubai now? We've not seen you for four weeks." Whereas the only person that cares is my housekeeper and she's pretty glad to see the back of me. Sadly the dog doesn't get to see me at all because he's in France.

What have you brought to The Spectator?
We've brought it into the 21st century for a start. It's now a well-run business and a proper business. I inherited something that was already on the way to becoming a better business because Conrad Black had begun to do that. It's now an independent, stand-alone company. Of course we share the same owners as the Telegraph. But this is a magazine company now in its own right which is looking to grow and is a magazine that makes profi ts and that protects its independence. I lear nt a long while ago at The Economist, from Alastair Burnett, that if you make money you are independent. And with Fraser [Nelson], we've modernised it and made it very much part of the centreright debate.

Can you say what happened with Matthew d'Ancona?
No. I mean Matthew was doing a lot of other things and had a lot of other things to do. Editors are like football managers. Here today, gone tomorrow. As a former editor myself, I know what it's like.

Moving on to the election, do you think it was a good thing that the whole campaign was dominated by the debates?
In retrospect, no. The debates turned out not to have the seminal infl uence we thought they had. The whole campaign built up to them, and then came down from them, build up to the next, then down, up, down. And sometimes the campaign went dead other than for the debates.

But they are here to stay. How do you think they should be reformed for next time?
They have to free them up more. They've got to be freer. The anchorman has to have a role. Not to assert himself or herself too much but they have to have more power to do a follow-up question, or to ask for clarification, or say: "I'm sorry Mrs Smith didn't ask about that, she asked about this. Could you answer the question?"

I haven't seen the BBC coverage because I was presenting LBC's programme but there's been a lot of comment about your BBC boat on election night...
Well, it wasn't my boat.

You know what I mean.
I wish it was my boat.

Did it work?
I think it worked. David [Dimbleby] was anchoring the television centre coverage from 10pm to at least 6am, so you needed a bit of light and shade. The people who've criticised this have mainly been newspapers that have an anti-BBC agenda in the first place. So any excuse to give them a kicking. Also, the same newspapers who complained we had some celebrities on the boat are the papers that live by celebrities. The Daily Mail has endless celebrities everyday.

Do we need to hear Bruce Forsyth's thoughts on politics during election night though?
First of all you need a break. It cannot all be relentless "here's another result". The people on television themselves need a bit of a break, even just for three or four minutes, because the BBC doesn't have commercial breaks. Just a chance to draw breath and say: "Right, while Andrew is interviewing Bruce Forsyth, what are we doing next?" Of course the papers all concentrated on Bruce Forsyth and Joan Collins. Let's not forget that on that night we also had the first interview with Alastair Campbell. We had Simon Schama and David Starkey. I interviewed Andrew Rawnsley, the editor of the Financial Times Lionel Barber, Will Hutton on the situation in the markets and, at ten past five, Lord Ashcroft. It's interesting the papers have said: "Oh, we don't want to hear from all these celebrity non-entities and so on." The fact is we had an enormous mix of people.

Would you like to be the main presenter on the BBC's election night coverage next time?

Well that's categoric. I thought you might duck that one.
I'd love to do it. I don't think it's going to happen but I'd love that. The first time I did television was as Alastair Burnett's researcher in the February 1974 election which he anchored. If you see the opening shot, because they did an aerial shot when Alastair comes out, you see a young freshfaced lad sitting a few feet sunken behind him. That was me. My job was to write little notes and pass them up to him about Newcastle Central coming up, the Labour candidate's called Pickup and he's a lorry driver. I always liked the way Alastair did that. And yeah, I'd always love to do that but I feel that there are many more [people] ahead of me.

Does your nickname of 'Brillo' annoy you?
It's in with the woodwork now. It's just, to complain about that, what was it that Enoch Powell said? It would be like a sailor who complains about the sea.

How much do you hate Private Eye?
I don't hate Private Eye. Sometimes when you are in it you think: "Oh I wish they hadn't said that." Then you're not in it and you think: "Oh, don't I matter anymore?" The one thing that they get completely wrong is the picture of me and 'Pamella Bordes'. Except it's not Miss Bordes.

Isn't it?
It never has been Miss Bordes. That was a picture of a woman from New York that I was going out with in 1995. She worked at Fox and she is an Afro-American. She's not Asian, she's not Indian, she's not British. The picture was taken as we came off the beach in Barbados by [British photographer] Terry O'Neill. It's been presented now as if a) it's Miss Bordes and b) that we were in some kind of nightclub and I'm there in this stupid shirt in a nightclub. It was a beach we'd come off hence the baseball cap and the beachwear. And this woman, this lovely, lovely... I've not seen or heard from her for 15 years - she's no idea she's the most famous face in Private Eye. But it's not Miss Bordes. Anyone slightly looking at her would see these are the features of an Afro-Caribbean lady. But sometimes these public schoolboys are not very good.

That is about half the interview. You can read the full version HERE.


Irene said...

Good interview

I don't agree that Huw Edwards is ahead of Neil in the pecking order.
Edwards is one of the most boring people, he pretends he isn't reading the autocue, every so often he looks away as if he is checking his notes, I can't bear to watch him.

Andrew Neil is very good but he annoys me sometimes as does Paxman and Crick and Robinson and Laura - they all do!

We need new faces.

Wrinkled Weasel said...

What I like about Andrew Neil is his old fashioned sense of courtesy. He also expresses,in his face, all the frustration we viewers feel at not having the question answered. He is well briefed,full of good humour and never, ever condescending unless it is towards politicians. I am a fan. It's time Dimbleby moved over and let Andrew Neil preside over Election Night.

Jimmy said...

"newspapers that have an anti-BBC agenda"

Who can he possibly mean?

James Chard said...

He betrays a bit of a sense of humour failure with the Private Eye thing.

The repeated use of the image of Neil and "Bordes" is funny precisely because it perfectly obviously isn't her and is simply an arresting and amusing image which can be referred to constantly. It's satirising how journalism (including Neil's journalism) works - that it makes the point it wants to make with scant regard to accuracy.

That he doesn't really understand it tells you a lot about Neil.

Botogol said...

someones going to be tracking down that woman ...

Anonymous said...

A very good interview. Right questions were asked. I lke Andrew Neil as his preparation is always excellent and he is courteous unlike the doberman growl of Paxman, but asks tough questions. His putting down of Cable was classic. I never like the Dimbleby dynasty, and Andrew would have been so much better. I guess Alastair Burnett was his mentor and the style of Alastair Burnett was gentlemanly. After having spent best part of my youth in America watching Walter Cronkite interview politicians particualrly during the Watergate saga, returning to Britain thereafter, Alastair Burnett's style impressed me. We need more like Andrew Neil.

Paul C said...

Good interview, Iain (as usual).

I've become a big fan of Mr Neil over the election campaign; he's gives the best hard political interview in the country (with Mr Sopel in a strong second).

strapworld said...

Very good.

I do agree with Wrinkled Weasel. I think it is time for both Dimbleby's to leave the stage. I would love Andrew Neil to present Question Time and Panorama.

Suzanne Reid to take over from Marr, which would make Sunday morning's start with some pleasure.

and finally Tom Bradby to be the BBC's new political editor.

Henry Wood said...

I suppose it is OK, but I can't read it properly to judge it. Any chance of printing it in a decent colour on a decent background, please? Black on green seems strange, no? Some of us old blokes (like Andrew) have trouble sorting the wheat from the chaff though with his money he can prolly afford expensive glasses/shades/contacts to sort it all out. I cannot afford such luxuries since Brown stole so much of my pension.

Henry Wood said...

OK, sorry about bitching about print colour. I've now read it all and my already great admiration for Andrew Neil has only grown much greater after reading the interview. And I agree with "Irene" that Huw Edwards is boring. Edwards is also a crap interviewer of *anyone*. Let him just sing hymns (badly) on Sundays and that will be his true worth, just like all Welshmen.

Benny said...

I misread your first question as:

ID: I read that you were tortured by Vince Cable at university.

Benny said...

Andrew Neil has to be Dimbleby's successor. I watched a programme on Lloyd George with Huw Edwards and it was the most biased programme I've ever seen.

As my friend and I said, all Huw was saying was "Lloyd George was brilliant, anyone that disagrees is a t**t".

Irritating, irritating man.


Paul Burgin said...

I have to say I much prefer the Dimbleby style if This Week has anything to go by. The "irreverence" is exactly what annoys me about that programme and is more "Northcliffe" style of journalism than "Reithian". I mean Mark Mardell in a Batman suit in one episode! That's one classic example of exactly what I dislike and I suspect I am not alone! Audiences need to be educated, not patronised.
Sorry, this is one of my pet peeves

Unknown said...

I think the first time I began to have serious doubts about Neil was when he was abusing Phillip Hammond who was very reasonably saying that the Conservatives weren't going to produce their own fiscal projections for the next year before the Government did and I thought, if you can make me, a left-of-centre LibDem feel sympathy for the Conservative Treasury spokesman heroically resisting your abuse there is something deeply wrong with your interview technique. And then there was the Vince Cable thing, which finally clinched it.

The man's a waste of space. He doesn't interview he hurls abuse and bullies and makes braying noises; he shouldn't be in a senior journalistic position, let alone one highly paid from license fee money. I don't know whether he's not sharp enough to engage in serious debate with his interlocutors or he's too lazy or what the problem is but he's just no good. I've never (unlike, for example, Paxman) seen a Neil interview where I thought 'wow, what a great piece of journalism'. I've seen several that made me think 'what an ignorant oaf'.

Very good interview, by the way.

Unknown said...

Excellent interview Iain and Andrew Neil was very open. I do like him but wish he'd get over the Private Eye thing. They stated many, many years ago the lady in the pic was not Bordes - after Andrew pointed out the fact. On the other hand I do not see why the Eye misspells his name as most people don't know they have.Anyway he converted me to the S Times and I like This Week in particular.