Eye and mighty: 50 years on the satirical highway

From left to right, editor Richard Ingrams, Christopher Booker and Willie Rushton (1937 - 1996), members of the staff of satirical magazine 'Private Eye' pictured in March 1963. Photo: John Pratt
From left to right, editor Richard Ingrams, Christopher Booker and Willie Rushton (1937 - 1996), members of the staff of satirical magazine 'Private Eye' pictured in March 1963. Photo: John Pratt
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As Private Eye celebrates 50 years of poking fun at the rich and powerful,   Anna Burnside recalls its highs and lows

What is Private Eye?

Private Eye is a sprightly 50-year-old satirical magazine, read by around 200,000 people every fortnight. Printed on undistinguished paper stock, using bifocal-challenging type, it is unlike any other publication on the shelf.

The Eye is a funny magazine about serious things: politics, local government, books, the NHS. The cover star is more likely to be Jeffrey Archer than Jennifer Aniston. It gives the mainstream media a relentlessly hard time over its hypocrisy, banality, spelling mistakes, errors of judgment and overuse of the phrase “the new black”. Celebrities are mentioned only in passing, in a clever joke or spoof column. Even then it’s Germaine Greer rather than Lindsay Lohan (this week, Jeremy Paxman shares his cutlery-related thoughts in the regular feature “Me and My Spoon”.)

Who started it?

Private Eye began life as a school magazine, giving it an occasionally sniggery tone which it has never quite lost. Richard Ingrams, Willie Rushton, Paul Foot and Christopher Booker, at Shrewsbury School together in the 1950s, began The Salopian. They continued collaborating at Oxford and, after graduating, had the crazy idea of using the newfangled offset litho printing method to produce and sell the magazine – at that stage a slightly less fusty version of Punch – to grown-ups.

Writer Andrew Osmond, who had fallen in with Ingrams et al at Oxford, came up with £300. Writer and cartoonist Barry Fantoni, whose involvement in the magazine came later, wrote in Osmond’s obituary: “Although memories differ, it is generally agreed that Osmond thought up the name Private Eye during a meeting in Rushton’s bedroom, which doubled as the editorial office in the early days. He then helped sell the first issue, wandering through Chelsea pubs and offering it to likely-looking readers for six old pence a copy.”

Booker edited the initial editions, with Rushton in charge of cartoons and layout, done using cow gum and Letraset from his home in Chelsea. One early critic described the typographic style as “neo-Brechtian nihilism”. Rushton himself thought it resembled a betting shop floor.

Ingrams, then pursuing a career on the stage, became joint editor at issue 10 and was in sole charge from issue 40 on. Peter Cook and Nick Luard, partners in the Establishment Club, provided the financial stability the magazine needed to survive. Ingrams created the blueprint followed to this day, a mixture of topical humour, fearless reporting (courtesy of his old school chum, Socialist Workers Party stalwart Foot) and sharp-eyed satire.

Towards the end of Ingrams’ editorship, the Eye was becoming jaded and inward-looking, with Nigel Dempster and Peter McKay filling the pages with society tittle-tattle of little interest beyond Sloane Square. To the old guard’s horror, Ingrams, who was only in his late 40s, appointed 26-year-old Oxford graduate Ian Hislop to take over.

“I think the Eye slightly lost its way,” Hislop said in retrospect. “It became obsessed by very dull gossip, and Dempster and McKay were the ones who were most out of place. I tried to return the Eye to what it had been in its better period – a mixture of jokes and journalism. Reading stories about what the Marquess of Cranberry’s fourth son is up to with someone you haven’t heard of who goes to clubs – who cares?”

The new editor immediately emptied Dempster and McKay, hired fresh talent (cartoonist Nick Newman, three people to cover the work of the tireless Foot, who had decamped to The Mirror) and dragged the Eye through the decades which followed. He is just modern enough and, during his 25-year tenure at the title, has sanded down the sexist, homophobic edges that infuriated younger readers. Computer typesetting has tidied up the layout without adding endless white space, cut-outs and other visual tics of contemporary typography. The print is still defiantly tiny.

Who comes up with the covers?

The magazine’s famous covers – a topical news image with a headline, sub-heading and one or more speech bubbles added in – have poked fun at Mrs Thatcher (an impressive 95 appearances), Blair, Bush, Saddam Hussein, the Queen... the list goes on. The best ones often combine two current stories in a particularly clever way: in the week of the Lib Dem wipeout in the local government elections they used the image of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and US defence staff watching the operation to kill Osama bin Laden. Obama says: “That’s horrible,” a military commander observes: “It’s a massacre,” while a grey-faced Clinton mouths: “Oh my God, the poor Lib Dems.”

Ingrams (who now edits The Oldie), Hislop and Newman meet every second Monday to decide on the cover. “Occasionally someone comes in with a fully formed idea,” Newman said recently. This happened following the closure of the News of the World, when they used the famous Sun headline “Gotcha!” with pictures of Rebekah Brooks, Rupert and James Murdoch and the subhead “Murdoch goes down with all hacks”. More usually, they will look at several images and bounce them around for half an hour before making a decision.

The normal rules of taste and decency are left at the door. After the death of Princess Diana in 1997, the Eye surpassed itself with a cover showing the crowd outside Buckingham Palace. Under the headline “Media to blame” are three speech bubbles: “The papers are a disgrace.” “Yes, I couldn’t get one anywhere.” “Borrow mine. It’s got a picture of the car.” WH Smith took the magazine off its shelves and many readers carried out the often-made threat to cancel their subscriptions.

Rival satirist John O’Farrell, of the website NewsBiscuit, commented later: “For most people the magazine had crossed a line. It dared to suggest that people were being emotionally indulgent – both appalled by the media coverage and yet wanting to buy the car-crash pullouts. Now we’ve woken up from our drunken reaction to Diana’s death, a lot of people would say Private Eye got it right.”

Why is Ian Hislop the world’s most heavily sued individual?

When someone takes the Eye to court, it falls to Hislop, below, to front up cash for the magazine’s legal defence. Things have calmed down somewhat since the 1990s, when it was not unusual for the magazine to have 20 libel actions on the go at any one time. Private Eye has, says media law specialist Mark Stephens, “educated many a lawyer’s child”. In 2001, for example, £800,000 of the magazine’s annual turnover of £3 million went on legal fees.

Sir James Goldsmith – Sir Jams Fishpaste – tried to sue the magazine out of business over an allegation that he and others had sheltered Lord Lucan after he murdered the family nanny. Goldsmith won a partial victory and Private Eye readers rallied round to pay the costs, which threatened to bankrupt it. Robert Maxwell – Cap’n Bob – was awarded £55,000 after the magazine alleged he bankrolled a trip for Neil Kinnock in exchange for a knighthood. Sonia Sutcliffe, wife of the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, was awarded £600,000 damages for the Eye’s exposé of her dealings with a tabloid newspaper. On leaving court, Hislop commented: “If this is justice, I’m a banana.” The sum was later reduced to £60,000, paid for by the magazine’s Banana Balls appeal.

Why don’t more people sue?

Many potential litigants are advised not to bother. Geoffrey Bindman, legal adviser from 1969 to the mid-1980s, spent most of his time persuading angry people that they would be “throwing their money away” by suing the Eye. “Had some of those libel claims been pursued to trial,” he said later, “it would have gone under.”

Pain them as it must, politicians and journalists have little choice but to suck it up. Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of the Sun and a regular Eye target in the 1980s, never held a grudge because “the stories about me were all true”. They were also, he added, “bloody funny”. Former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil, left, who for years was lampooned on a weekly basis with the reprinting of a photograph of him in a vest and baseball cap, embracing a much younger Asian woman, has only commented, through gritted teeth, that he finds it a “fascinating” example of the Eye’s “public school racism”. The picture still appears around once a month.

What has Private Eye contributed to popular culture?

Several euphemisms deployed by the magazine have entered general usage. The Eye described the regularly toasted Cabinet minister George Brown as “tired and emotional” in the 1960s. “Ugandan discussions” was coined when journalist Mary Kenny, left, headed upstairs at a party with one of President Milton Obote’s former Cabinet ministers. They later claimed to have been chewing over East African politics.

Dave Spart and his sister Deirdre have become catch-alls for members of earnest, alphabet soup-named, Trotskyist sub-sects. Glenda Slagg is any midmarket newspaper’s butterfly-brained opinion-gusher, while Sue, Grabbit and Run are their firm of venal lawyers. Sir Herbert Gussett is the purple-faced Mr Angry from the Home Counties, unable to open the Daily Telegraph without spluttering. His MP is undoubtedly Sir Bufton Tufton.

Long may Lord Gnome, the Eye’s fictional owner, keep them coming.