The glittering launch of The Spectator Australia magazine at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music last night ended farcically when a fire alarm went off causing A-list guests, chefs and catering staff to surge outdoors and into Macquarie Street.

Minutes later two siren-blaring fire engines arrived and “firies” conducted a search of the premises before leaving. False alarm. Or was it a supernatural warning of the fate of the Oz edition of the High Tory British mag?

Andrew Neil, chairman and editor-in-chief of The Press Holdings (The Spectator) Group launched the magazine after a short speech from his local editor, Oscar Humphries, the dissolute son of Bazza.

Neil, known to Private Eye readers as “Brillo pad” because of the unusual arrangement of his hair, believes the right-wing conservative publication has a future among the elite white settlers of the colony, and he has been given generous time to spruik his commercial message by Leigh Sales on the ABC’s Lateline and Frank Kelly on Radio National.

He amused the crowd, which included the next federal Opposition leader Peter Costello, with a self-deprecating story of his journalistic disasters. Writing a travel piece from Jerusalem he described it as “a Mecca for tourists”.

Launched in October last year, The Spectator Australia replicates the UK weekly publication and may be followed by The Spectator India where there is a large expat community and an enclave of Brit wallahs — Indians who are more English than the English.

The expansion is being financed by the rather eccentric, reclusive Barclays brothers, the billionaires who launched The European weekly newspaper in the 1990s and lost a small fortune on it. Under Neil’s tutelage The European became a “Eurosceptic” publication which rather took its readers and advertisers by surprise.

He launched The Sunday Business which has gone out of business, but remains as an online operation. He turned The Scotsman, one of the great British newspapers, into a version of the right-wing Daily Mail, complete with sub-Thatcherite views, and ran through eight editors in eight years.

In the course of his stewardship, he helped to transform the 85,000 circulation paper into one now selling less than 60,000.

Private Eye relentlessly pursues Neil by publishing a picture of him wearing a singlet, and posing with an Asian babe.

He continues to describe The Spectator as “champagne for the brain” but judging by the latest Oz edition — with excruciating articles by John Howard, former federal MP Neil Brown, Kathy Lette, Christian Kerr and Tom Switzer — it’s more like a pint of flat, warm Theakston’s Old Peculier.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey