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Literati, be afraid: Andrew Neil is spoiling for a fight

22 June 2008

Literati, be afraid: Andrew Neil is spoiling for a fight

Broadcaster Andrew Neil is feeling particularly pleased with himself because the "scuttlebutt" that journalists wrote about the bust-up at PFD, the literary talent agency he has just bought, meant he got it for a song.

Neil declares: "Even if we had a man sitting in a garage in Ealing doing nothing but look after the backlist of the rights, we would make enough money to cover the deal – and more."

Not bad for a small agency of 34 people, low overheads, turnover of £5m and a six-figure sum in the bank. Not bad at all considering that Neil, along with PFD's management, led by Caroline Michel and Sue Douglas and two well-known City figures, paid only £3.7m to its parent, the Stellar Group. In fact, Neil reckons that PFD could earn about £7m in revenues over the next few years without even lifting a finger.

"The scuttlebutt and missiles being fired at us through the press were bad enough for us to snap up PFD at a great price: it is a steal. This was an obvious one for the asset-strippers but we got there first," he says. "We don't even need to invest more money for our future plans – not yet anyway. This business is hugely cash generative. Quite good considering the economy right now."

No wonder Neil is feeling pleased. But he is also spoiling for a fight, and he's not going to let PFD stay in a garage. He wants money back from United Agents, the rival agency set up by top agent Pat Kavanagh (the wife of novelist Julian Barnes), who caused a storm last September when she walked out of PFD with a team of about 20 agents and her literary lions like Tom Stoppard, Ruth Rendell, Nick Hornby and Robert Harris.

In one of the most bitter battles to rock the literary world, Kavanagh quit with her agents and stars just as Caroline Michel had been hired by Stellar to turn the agency round after a troubling time. Only a few years before, Stellar had paid a handsome £12m for PFD – or Peters Fraser Dunlop as it was once known – making millionaires of its top agents. But Stellar and its stars didn't see eye to eye on the business, resulting in Kavanagh's attempt to buy PFD for £4m from chief executive David Buchler.

Helping Kavanagh put the deal together was Ed Gottesman, a New York lawyer and now a director of United Agents.

It was Buchler's decision to reject the offer from Kavanagh that prompted the walk-out just as Michel was brought in; it wasn't because of her, as many have suggested. With big egos and big money at stake, it was no surprise that the two camps then went to war over PFD's lucrative backlist of rights.

Nor has the war stopped, far from it. Now it's PFD's turn to lob a few missiles: there is a massive lawsuit still to be fought over outstanding salaries, expenses and rights to the backlist. Sources also say there are discrepancies in PFD's company accounts which are part of the litigation.

As the new chairman of PFD, Neil is looking to get back £750,000 that "United Agents has taken. They have withheld money from our backlist which makes up 30 per cent of the claims," he says, adding that many of the outstanding legal issues can be quite easily settled by the lawyers.

But not the backlist. "My first job is to get my money back. I will not do a deal on this one. I don't think United Agents can afford what it owes us and this may put it into liquidation."

Neil says he will be working on the "clean-up job at PFD on a low-key basis" while Michel and Sue Douglas, ex-editor of the Sunday Express, can forge ahead with their plans to build a "360-degree agency".

Friends with both women for over 20 years, Neil turned down their first approach to him to look at PFD. But "once I saw the figures I changed my mind. This was a great chance at a great price."

Michel is looking at the US for a lead for her 360 platform. Across the Atlantic, the literary agencies already run their artists across all forms of media – from books to TV, the stage and film, to the web, iPlayers and mobiles.

"Gone are the days when you had one book publisher, then separate serial rights in The Sunday Times or wherever," says Neil, a former editor of The Sunday Times. "Today you need a one-stop shop and we'll put our stars across the mediums."

Kavanagh's defection may have taken many of PFD's former stars but it still has an illustrious list: Simon Schama, Will- iam Hague and Margaret Thatcher are on its roster and Michel recently signed up Lord Attenborough to write his memoirs.

Neil adds that the PFD deal was also a great vindication for Michael Sissons, one of the doyens of the industry, who stayed loyal to the firm despite attempts to lure him away.

Neil's own career is more multimedia than ever: he has fingers in at least five pies. His experience of the rights world through World Media Rights, a business with 3,000 hours of film from the past few decades of cinema and TV, will be helpful at PFD. "Ownership of rights is critical today in all media. With so many new channels opening every day – in the Gulf there are now 200 channels – they are all on the hunt for content."

On the print side he runs ITP, which publishes 56 magazines in the Gulf. He is also chief executive of Press Holdings, owned by the Barclay brothers, and now runs The Spectator, having presided over the sale of The Scotsman and the closure of the Business and European newspapers.

Whether you're a Neil critic who questions his style or a Neil fan who believes he is a nuanced operator with a gift for seizing unorthodox opportunities, there's no denying he has carved a niche for himself in the British media. His BBC show This Week, with Michael Portillo and Diane Abbott, gets huge ratings even though it's on late on Thursday nights – but as Neil adds, "you can find it anytime on iPlayer".

"Politics have never been so fascinating, have they? In the space of 72 hours we had the 42- day vote and then the Irish 'No'. And now we have inflation back biting the Government's bottom. Fantastic stuff," he says, dashing off for his next filming for the BBC's One Show.

He reckons Gordon Brown will hold out for an election until the last moment in May 2010, praying for an economic recovery. "But this will be good for the Conservatives as well, as they still need time to harden up a bit, get a few more creases. They do look a little as though it's all been too effortless."

Neil is also one of the few journalists with a transatlantic reputation. And as a seasoned observer of the US, he predicts the presidential election is a no-brainer. "Unless there is an international crisis, which may persuade people to back McCain, it will be President Obama. It will be hugely symbolic, allowing the US to repair the damage of the last few years. A President Obama will make it a lot harder for the anti-Americans to hate America."

His own politics are a little more complex – one of the reasons he didn't pursue a political career following a stint as a Conservative researcher after university. "I soon found out politics wasn't for me: I don't fit into any party as my views go across the spectrum. I suppose you could say I am a Tory Marxist."

Margareta Pagano, The Independent News