Magazine article The Spectator

Let's Have No More Offensive Attacks on Andrew Neil. He Is Obviously the Right Man for Newsnight

Magazine article The Spectator

Let's Have No More Offensive Attacks on Andrew Neil. He Is Obviously the Right Man for Newsnight

Article excerpt

Over the years this column has not always been sympathetic towards Andrew Neil (aka Brillo Pad). It declined to celebrate his 11-year editorship of the Sunday Times. It has occasionally questioned his record as chief honcho of the Barclay brothers' newspaper empire. It has even teased him in his role as Rector of St Andrews University and as prospective mentor to Prince William.

Nor has Mr Neil been uniformly well-disposed towards this column. I seem to remember a summer's evening not so long ago, when the bees buzzed drowsily and the long shadows stretched across the garden. The telephone rang. It was Mr Neil, haranguing me for some alleged misdemeanour and threatening, as I recall, never to speak to me again.

But never let it be said that this column burnishes its old resentments. In the matter of Andrew Neil and BBC2's Newsnight there is no doubt where truth and justice lie. The BBC is looking for someone to replace Newsnight's Jeremy Vine, who is taking over the Jimmy Young prog on Radio Two. Various names are in the frame, one of them being Andrew Neil's. Last week he was given a try-out and performed more than creditably, boosting the audience to 1.3 million which, according to whose account you believe, is between 150,000 and 400,000 more viewers than you might expect on an August evening.

However, the odds are said not to be on Mr Neil being chosen. The favourite is someone called Gavin Esler, who could easily be a slightly botched clone of Jeremy Vine. Mr Esler is the main anchor on BBC News 24 which, according to a government report leaked this week, has an average audience of 80,000 and an annual budget of L50 million, which works out at L625 per viewer. That, of course, is not Mr Esler's fault but, without wishing to be rude, one can't help feeling that although he is obviously a tremendously able reporter, he may not be the best person in the world to tear into politicians on Newsnight.

The BBC likes Mr Esler, partly because he is one of their own, partly because he looks good on television. It does not hugely like the less photogenic Mr Neil, though he has anchored BBC2's late-night political programme Despatch Box, which sadly is destined for the chop. The reasoning seems to be that Brillo Pad is known to be rightwing. If he were left-wing, there would be much less of a problem. Kirsty Wark, another Newsnight presenter, is a bit of a leftie. Jeremy Paxman is widely supposed to be so, though Private Eye alleged many years ago, without ever being contradicted, that he was on the Tory party's candidates' list during the 1970s, and he recently confided to the editor of this magazine that he was in favour of hanging. Nonetheless, Paxo has repackaged himself as a leftie, which you more or less have to do if you wish to be a senior presenter on the BBC.

This explains why down at Television Centre executives have been sticking pins into Mr Neil's effigy. Meanwhile he has been subjected to a torrent of abuse, particularly in the left-wing press. This is what Jim Shelley wrote in the Daily Mirror on Tuesday of this week: `Andrew Neil auditioned for the prestigious job of presenting Newsnight looking like a bug-eyed, weird-- wigged, pock-marked, jowly-faced baked bean stuffed into a suit; an oily toad with a Shredded Wheat on his head. If he gets the job he may have to start using the Crimewatch sign-off: "And remember, don't have nightmares."' I confess that the corners of my mouth may have trembled when I read this, but it was of course outrageous and gratuitously offensive. …

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