Interview: Ian Hislop, Private Eye editor

credit Rosie Hallam
credit Rosie Hallam
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Piers Morgan believes that the staff of Private Eye “actually enjoy being unpleasant about people,” but I’ve never met a kinder bunch. During the two plus hours that I’m squirrelled away in an empty office I am sweetly asked after and offered cups of tea by staffers going about their business.

I am in the Eye’s atmospheric Soho townhouse to interview Ian Hislop about the magazine’s 50th anniversary – 25 of those years under his editorship. The V&A are celebrating with an exhibition devoted to their cartoons and covers, and there’s a superb book by Adam Macqueen – but it is heavily embargoed and kept locked up. Journalists had to schedule an on-site reading before sitting down for a tête a tête.

Joking about this with Hislop, who I crash into immediately, ahead of schedule, he giggles and says, “Oh, that’s not really important.” He sounds convincing, but if so, what were all those non-disclosure documents I had to sign?

Hislop and the magazine are roughly of an age. He was born on 13 July 1960, while the first issue of Private Eye appeared in 1961. Funnily enough, both look relatively unchanged. The Eye, particularly, has resisted the trend for ever-glossier magazines, and still prints its densely populated pages on newsprint, in monochrome. Slick it’s not, which suits Hislop.

“I will always want it to look like that. It is a lot cheaper, but also the black and white line of the cartoons look good on that paper. And it means that we cost £1.50, so when I say that students and sixth formers read it, they do. It isn’t a lot of money. Magazines are mostly expensive. We’re more like a newspaper in terms of production.”

Presumably this enables Private Eye to stand on the moral high ground, because no-one can say they’re squandering their money? Hislop laughs. “Quite! Yeah, it allows you to look noble, I suppose is what you’re saying.” Asking, Ian, asking. “No, it’s probably a fair criticism.”

Hislop was born in Wales but the family decamped when he was five months old. His mum came from Jersey, and his father, who died when Hislop was 12, was a civil engineer. David Hislop was born in Ayr and studied at Glasgow University. “Then, like lots of Scots, he joined the diaspora and got way out – Hong Kong, Kuwait and Saudi,” says his son. They also lived in Singapore and Nigeria.

“I had an extraordinary childhood and I remember some of it. I lived in Jeddah, Kuwait and Hong Kong, which I loved, full-time until I was eight, when I went to boarding school. Every holiday I went out to wherever. I was the one on the plane with my BOAC Auntie.”

He attended Ardingly College – it, along with Shrewsbury, is the model for St Cakes – where he befriended cartoonist Nick Newman, who’s a few years older. They’ve been collaborating since those dormitory days, and Hislop brought Newman on to the Eye’s staff.

People are keen to mock public schoolboys, he says. “We have our faults, but we tend to be quite good at forming and keeping friendships from an early age. Probably because no-one else ever wants to be your friend, that must be it.” There is a laugh between every word, as he struggles to finish his sentence.

“I still have quite a few good friends from school. I suppose it’s forced upon you, because you spend so much time with people, because you’re boarding, and because you are there a lot. Nick and I did revues together, magazines together, and are still working together.”

When he went to Oxford, where he met his wife, Victoria, Hislop tried following in his father’s footsteps. He thought it was the right thing to do, training as a civil engineer to get a “proper” job. It wasn’t a comfortable fit, so he changed courses to read English and French.

In 1981, not long after leaving university, Hislop wandered into Private Eye’s offices. His mum, Helen, had read an interview with editor and co-founder Richard Ingrams, saying that the magazine needed new blood. From the late 1970s onwards, morale – and some say quality – at the Eye bottomed out.

Ingrams, in the midst of a self-destructive phase, was unhappy, and it affected the publication. Infamously, Ingrams chose to announce his retirement, and Hislop’s promotion, at Auberon Waugh’s farewell lunch at L’Escargot, in 1986. Hislop promptly left on holiday, leaving the media furore to play out in his absence.

With no shortage of talent on hand, why does Hislop think he was the chosen one? “When I was younger I thought, ‘Well it must have been obvious,’ because one is full of confidence when one is younger. Now I think, ‘My God! What was he thinking?’ He’d had enough, he said so himself, and I think I was in the right place at the right time.

“I got on very well with him and wasn’t overawed, which I think helped. I made him laugh, which was very important here. And I wanted to. At that age, you think, ‘Yeah, you’re quite funny, but then so am I. I can do this.’ He and Christopher Booker and Barry Fantoni, who were the resident joke squad then, were very indulgent and I think they were quite amused that someone else should want to come in and do it. I can’t remember who, probably Sue Lawley, described them all as my ‘substitute fathers’.”

Every article about Hislop underscores the fact that both he and Ingrams lost their fathers young, as if that were enough to cement their professional bond. “Yes, and Peter Cook was a sort of a wicked uncle. He wasn’t quite a father figure, because very few people have fathers that irresponsible. I was awestruck by Cook, but I loved the fact that I ended up working both for him and with him. It was a dream come true. I’d been listening to him my entire youth, particularly Beyond the Fringe, which I absolutely loved.”

Hislop is credited with making the Eye a “bit nicer overall”, and it’s said that while Ingrams enjoyed kicking up a fuss, Hislop prefers finding things really worth fussing over. When he took over he promised to reduce the number of lawsuits, but is still referred to as the “most sued man in British legal history” thanks to a raft of expensive cases that often went very badly for the publication.

Lawsuits still occur, but far less often, though Hislop says it’s primarily because of the change in the law. “We had a very expensive privacy case, then a confidentiality case, through the appeal court a few years ago, all of which were worth doing. But to be honest, the number of libel cases generally is way down because of the change in the laws and the fact that the Guardian won three on the trot. Suddenly plaintiffs thought, ‘Oh my God we can lose’. The campaign for libel reform has done a really good job. It’s a relief in one way, but I never minded being sued if I thought we’d got it right. You thought, ‘That was worth the fight.’”

He really thought something was worth going to jail for, or bankrupting the magazine? He mulls this momentarily. “Dunno.”

How does he hold his nerve when there are good reasons to give in? “It’s just bloody mindedness most of the time,” he admits. “I remember sitting in court with my toothbrush, thinking, I really am going to go down this time. But part of me thought, that’d be fab. I could be like James Henry Leigh Hunt, who edited the Examiner from inside jail. I thought, this will be terrific, I will be in the great British tradition.” In other words, no matter what happens, it’s material? “Yes,” he laughs. “That’s what people don’t understand.”

Growing up on old issues of Punch and the New Yorker, I am a cartoon fan. They’re usually the first thing I look at in a newspaper, long before reading the content. What does Hislop think about their relative importance to a magazine, especially a satirical one?

“They’re absolutely essential. A lot of your younger readers start off just reading the cartoons. That’s how I did it. This is why I was always slightly in awe of Nick: there is something magical about an ability to be funny and to draw. You have two talents and can create your own visual world. You don’t have to set it up, you don’t have to describe everything. It’s so immediate. It gets under your skin in a way that as a humorous writer, you struggle to do, it takes a long time. Before people go, ‘That was the most amusing piece’, they’ll go, ‘God, that drawing’.”

Hislop once said that in his position, one cannot be afraid of making moral judgments. So who put him in charge? “Nobody.” So who gets to decide? “Who guards the guardians? You don’t have to buy the magazine. It’s not publicly funded. If the Eye says, ‘This local councillor should not have taken that money from the planning commission,’ that’s a moral judgment. You could say, ‘Hey, it’s none of your business, this is how the world works, butt out’. But to do this job, you have to be prepared to say, ‘I do not think that is how the world should work, and this is how it should work.’ If people find that judgmental or priggish, well, that’s just how it is.”

Who is his ideal reader? “You have to be literate. You have to be interested in the way the world works, and in particular, the way Britain works. We’re quite parochial. There’s a small amount of international coverage, but not much. It’s deliberate in the sense that there’s quite enough to say about here. They’ve got to have a sense of humour. They’ve got to find that world view, which essentially questions everything, amenable. We tell you about [things that are not working] in the hope that it’ll get better, or it’ll change, or you’ll be aware of it. Or, that you’ll go and do something about it, which happens in lots of cases.”

How is he as a boss? If someone disagrees with him, is he open to persuasion? “Yeah. Ish.” In other words, no? “Yes. No. I have quite … I have Francis Wheen, my deputy, who is a very forceful journalist and writer and has very specific opinions. Paul Foot [who died in 2004] came from a certain viewpoint. I always feel what you do is let people come from that viewpoint, provided the story they tell is one you would tell anyway. There are people here on different sides of the political fence, but I think you can feel that. The bloke who writes the medical column has very set ideas about what he thinks the NHS should and shouldn’t do, and the bloke who writes the energy column wants the lights on, rather than off. My view is I should leave them [alone] or not employ them. So do I argue with them? Not on the whole. I get very cross if we get something wrong.”

Indeed, though the man before me seems the very definition of benign, there’s a section of the book devoted to Hislop’s infamous angry memos, handwritten on pink paper.

Beyond the Eye, Hislop makes documentaries and has been a regular on Have I Got News For You since its inception. Though surprised to still occupy the editor’s chair all these years later, he never really did have a plan for “When I grow up,” just that he’d be doing something funny.

His job as a satirist, he says, was best summed up by Pope: “It’s the exposure of vice, folly, and humbug.’ From Hogarth, for 250 years, right the way through, people in Britain have been doing the same thing: you’re pointing the finger, you’re putting the comic boot in.”

One gets the message across so much faster with humour. “God yes. There is nothing, per se, that I think you shouldn’t joke about, but I’m not totally deaf. I don’t like black humour for its own sake. I don’t like that shock stuff. And I don’t like the mocking the weak. On the whole I think humour should be directed at the strong. Again, I shouldn’t quote too much, this shows my grandeur, but it was Mencken, wasn’t it, the great American satirist, who said the job is ‘afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted’. In other words, don’t put the boot into people.”

I’m not sure how high Hislop’s numerous detractors score him on that, but he’s clearly doing something right: the magazine is in robust health, selling around 200,000 copies per issue. So, happy birthday Private Eye, and here’s to the next 50 years.

Private Eye: The First 50 Years, an A-Z, and the Private Eye Annual 2011, are out now (via www.private-eye.co.uk). Private Eye: The First 50 Years, is on display in the V&A’s Studio Gallery from Tuesday until 8 January 2012. www.vam.ac.uk