Uncovering Private Eye: Satire flourishes after 50 years in the Eye of a very public storm

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Editor Ian Hislop plays down the influence of his esteemed organ but Private Eye has a deserved reputation for journalism

AN EARLY, if rather bloody, birthday present has arrived at the home of Lord Gnome. The bloated, plastic mask face of Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, slack-jawed and slouched in death, has been beamed around the globe just in time for the 1,300th edition of Private Eye, which celebrates its 50th birthday on Wednesday.

Eight years older than the reign of the Libyan dictator, Private Eye will mark his demise on Monday morning when Ian Hislop, sitting on Robert Maxwell’s old chair (donated by a reader who purchased it at a fire sale following the fraudster’s death) scribbles down the best cover gags on sheets of pink paper.

We shall have to wait until Wednesday to discover what wit Hislop, Richard Ingrams, the editor emeritus, and Christopher Brooker conjure up and the picture upon which they settle. Will they go for Gaddafi pleading for his life or hulked over the bonnet of a jeep? Decisions. Decisions.

I think the cover shot will be the self-styled “King of kings of Africa” laid out in the morgue, stripped to the waist and posed for the camera phones of the jubilant residents of Misrata. It’s a sharp, vertical shot and provides plenty of people from whose mouths the Eye’s humorous word balloons can emerge.

Thankfully, the death of a dictator is unlikely to provoke the same kind of trouble for the magazine as the death of a princess. Yet both bring out the ghoulishness in us all, which I’m sure the Eye will skewer. But does the tyranny and butchery of Gaddafi’s regime provide an adequate licence for us to feverishly click on the latest images of his corpse? And, had the internet been at full speed in 1997, would we have resisted sneaking a peek at the contents of the crumpled car in the Parisian underpass? Both are images of a taboo: the face of death.

The illustration of hypocrisy has long been one of Private Eye’s many gifts to the British public, even if, at times, it is one they would rather not unwrap.

Issue 932, published on the 5 September, 1997, five days after the death of Princess Diana, was one such issue. The cover, showed the crowds outside Buckingham Palace and three word balloons: “The papers are a disgrace.”

“Yes, I couldn’t get one anywhere.”

“Borrow mine. It’s got a picture of the car”.

The issue was banned by Alldays, Gibbs, Paperchain and Dillons, while another newspaper chain wished to know if the cover had been “cleared beforehand by Buckingham Palace”.

As a result, Private Eye lost tens of thousands of sales and, as the editor pointed out, a few weeks later, was therefore the only paper in Britain not to benefit financially from the death of the “people’s princess”. The following issue carried a cartoon by John Kent which illustrated the mob outside Buckingham Palace declaring: “We are sick of intrusion into people’s lives!”, “And we want to see the Royal Family crying NOW!”.

Britain has changed greatly since 25 October, 1961 when Brooker and Willie Rushton put out a slim pamphlet on yellow paper with the front page headline: Churchill Cult Next for Party Axe and sold 300 copies of the debut issue of Private Eye. For their logo, they took the crusader knight from the Daily Express’s masthead, bashed his sword and gave him the doleful expression of a novice who has just seen a Moor make off with his horse.

The early Sixties were the crucible of Britain’s boom in satire, as Beyond The Fringe, with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett, had mocked the government of the day, most famously when Harold Macmillan, in an attempt to be viewed as a good sport, attended a performance in which he was impersonated by Cook, who then spotted him and attacked him so vigorously Macmillan’s stature was forever diminished.

The secret to its stunning success – it remains Britain’s best-selling current affairs publication, with sales of 253,704 for its Gotcha! cover on the collapse of the News of the World – can be put down to its unique mixture of humour and journalism.

It was Claud Cockburn who encouraged Ingrams to add serious investigative journalism: “Tell them things they don’t know and make fun of what they do.”

If satire, as defined by Wikipedia (whose rules Private Eye helped tighten up by revelations about its inaccuracies) is “constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon”, then Private Eye continues to hit the mark, but even the editor agrees that satire, as was previously hoped, rarely produces social change.

“I think there is a gross misconception of what satire is and what it can do,” said Hislop back in 1993. “What satirist ever toppled a government? I think [Jonathan] Swift managed to get one small tax changed in the whole of his career. You’re not there to end regimes. In a democracy, people vote, but the satirist condenses the argument and I think we’re still doing that.”

So the evangelism of Tony Blair saw him rendered as a trendy vicar, while Gordon Brown’s hulking factionalism saw him reincarnated as Stalin, the Supreme Leader, an idea which actually came from a reader.

Over the years the Eye, as with any publication, has got things wrong. It rarely wins law suits but still manages to wring a joke out of the proceedings. Hislop famously said: “if this is justice, I’m a banana” after the courts awarded Sonia Sutcliffe, the wife of the Yorkshire Ripper, £600,000 for libel, (later reduced to £60,000) and after losing in court to Robert Maxwell, Hislop said that they have had to “pay a fat cheque to a fat Czech”.

On various Scottish issues, such as the Piper Alpha disaster and the Orkney Inquiry, Private Eye led the way and has held various Scots councils to account for their spending in the Rotten Boroughs column, but it remains to be seen if its long-held view that the Lockerbie bombing was perpetrated by a Palestinian terrorist organisation in the pay of Iran and Syria, remains resolute.

Shortly after the conviction in 2001 of Ali Mohamed Al-Megrahi, the late Paul Foot wrote a special Private Eye report, Flight From Justice, arguing that he had been wrongly convicted. A few weeks ago, after years of denying any involvement, Al-Megrahi said his role has been “exaggerated”. So he did, indeed, have a role.

On its 50th birthday, Private Eye is now on the verge of entering the establishment: an exhibition has been unveiled at the Victoria & Albert museum, while next week the publication will host a lavish party at the Guildhall. The invitation is from The Worshipful Company of Hacks and Jokewrights and promises plenty of opportunity for guests to emerge tired and emotional or engage each other in Ugandan discussions.

Happy Birthday, Lord Gnome, but Gaddafi sends his apologies, he has been unavoidably detained.