A Visit With Andrew Neil, Spectator Publisher and Boris Johnson’s Old Boss

Andrew Neil. Photo: Tom Nicholson/Shutterstock

One stormy afternoon in December, inside an apartment within Trump World Tower nearly 80 stories in the sky, the British were plotting. A long dinner table was set and Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A major, D. 959, played softly. Fog clung to the floor-to-ceiling windows so that the United Nations Secretariat building and the East River, just beyond First Avenue, were impossible to make out. A knock at the door brought a delivery man with a pungent block of Stilton. The mince pies and flaming pudding were still on the way.

The place belonged to Andrew Neil, the most feared broadcaster in Britain and the chairman of Press Holdings Media Group, which owns The Spectator, a 191-year-old weekly magazine out of London. Months prior he had launched an American print version, and he was here, just three days before his nation’s election, to give a proper “British Christmas lunch” to his U.S. team as thanks for putting out this new edition “on a shoestring budget.”

“We thought we’d try dipping our toe in the water,” explains Neil. He’s 70, dressed not in his usual navy suit from Jermyn Street but looking cozy in a black fleece and trousers. “Now, there may not be a gap in the market, in which case, under cover of darkness, we will quietly leave without many people having noticed we were ever here. But we only need a small niche in the market to make this work.” Ten thousand subscribers, he says, is what it will take to break even. “I’ve not come in here to spend millions.”

The Spectator has been Britain’s leading conservative magazine for centuries. It’s not a Murdochian banshee like the Sun, but an erudite, often naughty weekly publication. Boris Johnson, who would be reelected as prime minister later that week, was its editor-in-chief from 1999 to 2005, until he was pink-slipped by Neil. (More on that later.) Johnson and The Spectator share many outward eccentricities — the foibles, occasional wickedness, love for exaggeration, half-sincere provocation, sense of cultivated irresponsibility. If The Spectator were a person, it too would be an Etonian who eschews a comb and worships Evelyn Waugh. In American publishing and politics there is no analog for the socially proscribed role that this magazine embodies: the allegedly outrageous yet indisputably Establishment.

But can the Yankee ear be attuned to the Cantabridgian? Neil wants his new edition to have “a sense of humor, which all of these magazines from The Weekly Standard to The National Review lack. We would not make it ideologically pure. It has its own strong views but there would be a cacophony of voices. For example, in the U.K. The Spectator’s editorial line was in favor of Brexit but the top four columnists were against it. And I thought we’d try elements of Vanity Fair.” One rule for the U.S. edition: In order for a cartoon to appear in its pages, it must first have been rejected by The New Yorker.

About that increasingly humorless weekly: “It suffers from the disease of American journalism of prolix. It’s just too long … Sometimes my heart sinks and I just think, ‘Oh for a good Fleet Street sub’ — Britspeak for a staff editor — ‘to just cut it down.’”

This isn’t the first American expedition for the “Speccie,” as it’s sometimes called. “We lost a large chunk of our English readership by supporting the North over the South in the Civil War, but that didn’t put us off,” noted the first American issue in October, its cover story a takedown of Meghan Markle by Rod Liddle. (“Meghan has dragged across the Atlantic a garbage truck full of the emetic U.S. wokeness … The sort of stuff which, in the end, convinced your people to vote for Donald Trump, as a kind of blessed relief … Beware of being lectured on poverty by a woman whose engagement ring cost almost $370,000.”) Benjamin Franklin cited an earlier manifestation of the Spectator, first published in 1711, as the inspiration for his writing style. In 1902, the magazine’s then-editor formed a bond with Teddy Roosevelt and stayed at the White House.

It is a ridiculous time to start a print magazine, let alone one that aims to be conservative and intelligent. On the right, nothing less than total fealty to the president is tolerated. The Trump takeover has been so complete there’s now talk of running of Don Jr. for Peter King’s old seat on Long Island; last week, he hit the stage to chants of “46! 46!” Resistance seems futile. The Weekly Standard tried but folded a year ago. No one has heard of The Bulwark. Shepard Smith couldn’t hack it at Fox News. The National Review has basically rolled over. The Wall Street Journal’s increasingly febrile editorial page continues to bend, almost phototropically, toward Trump. The Washington Post still publishes a raft of self-flagellating neocons on its opinion pages, but their Never Trump movement never coalesced into much more than a couple of MSNBC contracts for the people who brought us the Iraq war.

The Spectator shrugs. “It’s seen many changes in political thinking, and at times what it stood for was not the consensus of the day,” says Neil. “If you’re a Reagan Republican, or even a Reagan Democrat, these are pretty dark days in America. Everywhere you look, we’re in an era of strongman economics. If you believe in the market, if you believe in limited government, if you believe in relatively low taxation, these are not your times. There are very few people standing up for that — certainly Mr. Trump’s never met a strongman he doesn’t like. But we’re in it for the long haul, and I think an intelligent, center-right moderate conservatism will have its day again.”

Earlier that morning, some 3,500 miles away from Manhattan, at a fish market in the English seaport of Grimsby, Boris Johnson was being surrounded by people wearing masks of Andrew Neil’s face and holding pictures of a chicken.

The hecklers were inspired after Johnson refused to sit for a primetime interview with Neil on the BBC, even though — or perhaps because — his opponent, Jeremy Corbyn, had done just that, to disastrous effect. Neil filmed a brutal riposte, in which he wheeled an empty chair meant for Johnson into his studio, that went viral. (“The prime minister of our nation will at times have to stand up to President Trump, President Putin, President Xi of China. So we’re surely not expecting too much that he spend half an hour standing up to me …”) “It did make me laugh,” Neil says of the Grimsby incident. “Don’t tell me that media stories don’t cut through.”

An interview with Neil can be calamitous. In May he julienned the right-wing wunder-brat Ben Shapiro, who stormed out of the studio after huffing, “I’m popular and no one has ever heard of you.” Again, viral. (Shapiro later allowed that he was thoroughly “destroyed” by Neil.)

And Johnson’s battle with the BBC has escalated significantly. Last week, reporters from across the British press corps walked out of a briefing at 10 Downing Street in protest of Johnson’s treatment of the network. “Many new governments in the past have set out to ‘get’ the BBC — Thatcher, Major, even Blair,” said Neil by email. “They all hit the same two problems. First, they run into a major crisis … and suddenly realize they need the BBC to give them a platform to explain how they’re handling the crisis — and suddenly ‘getting’ the BBC slips way down the agenda. Second, they soon realize that, whatever its faults, the BBC is way more popular than the government.”

Andrew Neil and his former employee, Boris Johnson. Photo: Shutterstock/Shutterstock

Neil says he plays his own politics close to the vest. “They all make guesses depending on who I happen to be beating up any particular time, but they know nothing.” He says his own wife, Susan, doesn’t know if he voted to leave or remain, or even if he voted at all. And he was part of a group of tenants in his apartment tower here in New York in favor of tossing the gilded TRUMP name off the front of the building, to no avail. Yet Neil’s conservative-world bona fides are unimpeachable. He rose to prominence in the 11 years he spent atop Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times, from 1983 to 1994. Before his arrival, the paper’s reputation had taken a huge hit after Murdoch published, against the wishes of his lieutenants, the fake Hitler diaries. When Neil came in as editor, he brought in a series of irresistible scoops — the Brits say “marmalade droppers” — like Andrew Morton’s palace intrigues on Princess Diana and stories on Israel’s nuclear weapons program. But there was balderdash, too. His Sunday Times notoriously published articles contributing to the moral panic and science denialism of the AIDS crisis, even arguing that HIV did not cause AIDS.

“I actually met Donald Trump for the first time in Aspen in 1986, when he came to Rupert’s Christmas party,” says Neil. “He had some glamorous woman on his arm. Rupert introduced me, he said, ‘This is the editor of the Sunday Times in London’ and he said immediately ‘I should be on the cover of your magazine.’ I said ‘Why would we do that?’ and he said, ‘Well, because it’s a prestigious magazine, and I should be on the cover.’ And I said ‘But nobody knows you in Britain — nobody’s ever heard of you.’ And he said ‘That’s why I should be on the cover,’ which made me laugh.”

Neil stayed with Murdoch through the birth of Fox News in the early ’90s and was meant to come to America to host a show on the fledgling network, though it never panned out. “I think Rupert’s never rated [Trump] as a businessman,” he says today, “and doesn’t rate him as a politician. But he’s used to having someone in Australia or in Britain that he’s pretty close to and he’s never really had that in America, and now he has.” Neil, who was born in Scotland, says he last saw Trump at Mar-a-Lago, in 2015. “He was at a table with Rod Stewart, and he came over and said ‘We need a picture of three Scotsmen together.’ And I said, with full confidence, ‘You’re not going to run, are you? ’Cause you’ve got no chance of winning.’ He said ‘I know, but think what it’ll do to my speaking fees. I’ll get more than Bill Clinton!’”

Neil’s history with the prime minister is a smidge more complex. When Boris Johnson edited The Spectator, a web of extramarital affairs enveloped a columnist, editor, publisher, receptionist, the British home secretary, and of course, Johnson himself. The magazine more than earned the nickname The Sextator. All the shagging even inspired a 2005 play called Who’s the Daddy? set in Johnson’s fictional office, in which a painting of Margaret Thatcher folded away to reveal a double bed. Once Neil acquired The Spectator’s parent company, he splashed some cold water on Johnson’s hothouse. “No one can babysit the Boris,” he says. “We both agreed that if he wanted to develop his political career, which clearly he did, and I wanted to build The Spectator into a major commercial success as well as an editorial success, we probably needed a new editor. And so within a year he had gone.”

Johnson never changed his philandering ways and, as with Trump, it never caught up with him. “The one thing that Boris Johnson and Donald Trump have in common — and they don’t have as much in common as people think — is that rules that apply to nearly every politician don’t seem to apply to them,” says Neil. “It’s bizarre.”

In some ways, it’s the perfect moment for a pirate ship of Brits to drop anchor on American newsstands. The U.S. media has been so warped by the presidency of its Frankenstein’s monster, it makes for a target-rich environment for a couple of skeptical outsiders. “Trump has been the best marketeer ever” for the media, Neil observes. “I love the quality of American television, particularly news, but I get here and turn on Fox and Friends and there are six people telling me how wonderful Trump is. I switch over to Morning Joe and there’s six people telling me how terrible Trump is. The Morning Joe thing now has just become an absurdity,” says Neil. “I think [TV news] is in a strange position at the moment because the money is coming in in ways they never thought imaginable, but they could be doing a lot of long-term damage,” he says. “It’s all very unhealthy because the major newspapers now just write to their base,” he says, eliding the fact that the British papers have done exactly that for decades. “The base has become a bigger threat to their editorial independence and integrity than advertisers ever were.”

The first few issues of the U.S. Spectator have not failed to mine our moment of peak political outrage. Some articles seem designed for cheap provocation, like a piece in the December issue in which Chadwick Moore wrote that “My neighbors in the poor, mostly black areas of New York City do not think you’re evil if you’re a Republican … That’s because they don’t listen to white liberals, as no one should.” Others are funny, such as Lionel Shriver’s writing about her regrettable decision to accept an invitation to speak as a lone pro-Brexit commentator at the New Yorker festival. Elsewhere in the issue, James Ellroy writes that “Citizen Kane is a crock of shit.” The November issue argued for Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in Syria and against his crackpot Deep State conspiracy theories. It also included an essay from a writer who appeared in two episodes of Sesame Street as a child and now argues absurdly that “Sesame Street progressivism is the default ideology of an achingly liberal society.”

“We’re just like little mice at the edges, but having fun as well,” says Neil. “’Cause the great thing about America — I’ve come to the States since ’76, the Carter-Ford election — is you walk around the corner and a story hits you. And everybody talks. Americans speak in sound bites.” And, he adds, “People may not be listening to us too much at the moment, [but] at some stage strongman economics will come to a crash; it always does, whether from the left or the right. And we will have been there.”

A Visit With The Spectator’s Andrew Neil, Boris’s Old Boss