A few weeks ago BBC television news announced that the Barclay brothers were the new owners of the Daily Telegraph. It has since become plain that they may not be. They hope to acquire Conrad Black’s 30 per cent stake in Hollinger International (owner of the Telegraph newspapers, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Jerusalem Post and this magazine) which carries 73 per cent of the voting rights. Hollinger International is applying to one court in Delaware to block this sale. Lord Black has asked another in Ontario to approve it. No party to this dreadfully tangled affair feels comfortable without issuing several writs.
On behalf of Hollinger International, Lazard bank has just issued an investment memorandum inviting bids for the Telegraph Group. Although it is by no means clear that Hollinger International is in any position to dispose of any titles, several suitors, from the Daily Mail to various investment trusts, are preparing bids. Perhaps one of them will be successful. The more likely outcome, however, is that the Barclay brothers will make an offer for the remaining 70 per cent of the shares in Hollinger International. Twenty dollars a share has been mentioned as a figure which might secure the deal. They would then sell on the Chicago Sun-Times, the Jerusalem Post and various odds and sods, and retain the Telegraph newspapers and The Spectator.
So it does not seem premature to ask what kind of proprietors the Barclays might turn out to be. In particular, one wonders whom they would put in charge of their new empire. Might they keep on the present directors? Possibly in one or two cases, but they are bound to want to bring in their own chief executive, who will in turn expect to have his own team. Who might this be? Step forward Andrew Neil, former editor of the Sunday Times, and the Barclay brothers’ senior newspaper executive in this country, responsible for running their small stable of titles, which include the Scotsman and the Business.
Just as what used to be called Fleet Street is divided as to whether Mr Neil is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, so there are two schools of thought about the likelihood of the crown passing to him. One lot of people points out that Mr Neil was excluded from the Barclays’ recent negotiations with Lord Black. They also ask how the brothers could possibly appoint a man whose career as a chief executive has been somewhat chequered. Under Mr Neil’s watch, millions were lavished on the European before it closed; smaller, though not insignificant, sums have been spent to no obviously beneficial effect on the Scotsman; and the Business, after a promising start, has never taken off. But a second school of thought says that Mr Neil has not done such a bad job if you consider that he combines his employment with the Barclays with writing a media column for the London Evening Standard and introducing (very well, I would say) regular current affairs programmes on the BBC.
Mr Neil has been coy about whether he thinks he will be chosen by his employers for the job of running the Telegraph Group, saying only that he has risen too far in the firmament to be considered for the role of merely editing the Daily Telegraph. My feeling is that, whatever reservations the Barclays may have about him, they are unlikely to turn to anyone else. In the first place they know him and trust him. In the second place they do not know and trust anyone else who could do the job. Their long periods of absence from these shores, as well as their relative inexperience as newspapermen, constitute something of a handicap. They could take a chance, and recruit someone whom they have heard spoken highly of. But it would be a risk, and probably a greater one, at any rate in their minds, than that of sticking with Andrew Neil.
However, if the Barclays do acquire the Telegraph Group, Mr Neil’s talents may be of greater use to them as editor of the Daily Telegraph than as chief executive. (Interestingly, he was considered for the job in 1995 after Max Hastings threw in the towel.) It is a pity that he appears to believe that being an editor is a step down from the eminence he presently enjoys. No one could deny that he was an effective editor of the Sunday Times. I do have some reservations: Mr Neil is right-wing, the Daily Telegraph is part Tory, part ‘small c’ conservative. More specifically, he is a social liberal whereas the Telegraph is socially conservative. He is also a distinctly metropolitan figure who may have a rather vague idea as to what happens between Watford and the Scottish border. Nonetheless, he would bring a great deal of energy and knowledge to the job. By contrast, I do not think he is cut out for the role of chief executive, which involves many detailed and sometimes rather tedious activities for which Mr Neil is not suited either by background or temperament. Even more important, perhaps, he would probably ‘second guess’ any editor, as he has done on the Barclays’ existing titles. No self-respecting person would put up with that — certainly not Dominic Lawson, the editor of the Sunday Telegraph, who for some reason has been singled out by Sir David Barclay.
Of course, all this may be academic. The Barclays may still fail to get the Telegraph Group. It could be Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail whose writ runs at the Telegraph, or Stephen Grabiner of Apax, or some other dark horse whose name we do not know. But the Barclays remain the favourites, and Mr Neil in turn must be favourite to be their chosen man. My advice to him is to remove his jacket, roll up his sleeves, sharpen his blue pencil, and take on one of the greatest of all journalistic jobs.
Andrew Gilligan could be forgiven for being rather low in the water at the moment. Even many of those who defend the BBC tend to exaggerate his errors, while the worst of the Blairite toadies have called him a liar. It was particularly odd that his former employers at the Sunday Telegraph should have attacked him so viciously. The leading article was merciless, and could find no virtue whatsoever in his reporting. I very much hope that the paper’s tone was not affected by its failure to persuade Mr Gilligan to write an article for it. He decided instead to write a piece for the Sunday Times, whose own editorial was much fairer towards Mr Gilligan.
But Mr Gilligan does have his defenders at the Telegraph Group. I was pleased to hear Kim Fletcher, the company’s editorial director, to whom the editor of the Sunday Telegraph technically reports, robustly defending Mr Gilligan on BBC’s Radio Five Live. Mr Fletcher was once deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph, where he saw a lot of Mr Gilligan. According to him, Mr Gilligan was far from being the gung-ho, scoop-driven Sunday newspaper journalist caricatured by his enemies. He was liable to rein in his editors when they tried to persuade him to ‘sex up’ a story.
The trashing of Mr Gilligan by journalists has been a disgrace. But I believe that Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell will one day be exposed, and Mr Gilligan’s reputation will recover.