An Interview with Ian Hislop
For those of you without taste or eyes, Private Eye is a fortnightly satirical newsprint magazine that contains more actual news than all the other newspapers made in Britain during the two weeks it takes to put an issue of Private Eye together. In fact, it is one of a very small number of news publications that remains worth a shit.
Not only is it consistently hilarious, informative and subversive, it wields a mighty punch. Private Eye has acted like a sharpened pin to the whoopee cushion of incessant lies and deceit that has become the common currency of modern British politics. Its relentless and savage satire remains perhaps one of the truest checks on UK executive power. As if to prove that, today its editor Ian Hislop will give evidence at the Leveson inquiry, as the British press tries to figure out how best to regulate itself in the wake of the phone hacking scandal.
It is no coincidence that, as the longest-serving editor of the magazine, Hislop is the most sued man in Britain and that the magazine keeps a “fighting fund” on hand to payroll the endless litigation they face.
Back in October 2008, we met him in his offices in Soho and drank tea with him while staring at all the amazing stuff on the walls and trying to concentrate on asking the questions. (He has a piano in there on which they play Mozart while they’re coming up with jokes.)
VICE: So what is the day-to-day of doing this job? I’ve always been fascinated by how Private Eye works. It’s so consistent.
Ian Hislop: Nearly everybody works somewhere else. The journalists tend to have other jobs, and most of the writers do as well. The week before we go to press people turn up in batches, really, and the journalism tends to get done in there [the main office down the corridor] and the jokes tend to get done in here [his personal office]. The jokes are collaborative. There are usually three or four people doing it.
Who’s in charge?
Which other papers do your journalists work for? Do they write under different names?
A lot of them don’t admit they write for us, which is fine.
Why do they write for you, though?
I think it’s about the mischief really. And they can write stories they can’t write in their own papers really because most of the national press have some other agenda depending who owns them or how friendly they are to the people you’re trying to write about.
Who owns you guys now?
We used to be owned by the comedian Peter Cook (Bedazzled, Derek & Clive) but then he died and he left most of the shares to his sisters and to his wife.
So it’s still completely independent.
The rest of the shares are owned by a sort of rag-bag of people that Peter borrowed money off in the 60s, so people like Jane Asher and Dirk Bogard, but he died so it’s now his nephew. It’s a pretty odd bunch.
When Private Eye was started, what do you think was its purpose? Was it set up to be a counter-culture magazine?
Well, no. It was started by a group of friends who went to college together. They thought they were funny, they made each other laugh and they thought: “This is better than working.” I think that’s what it was about. No one consciously starts a counter-culture because they’re not aware of being counter-culture, it’s just what they are. I think they were basically bolshy and quite rebellious people. Most of them didn’t have fathers. They’d either died in the war or died early and the sons didn’t get proper jobs and so they thought, “We can do this.” The essential component was making each other laugh and then as it developed [founder] Richard Ingrams said, “We don’t only want to make people laugh we want to tell them things that they didn’t know,” so a sort of journalism culture attached itself, mostly because they had this brilliant man called Paul Foot. He was a very good journalist.
He was the guy who really brought the journalism into it?
Yeah, and sadly he’s not with us any more.
Who’s taking care of that now then?
I had to hire three people to replace Paul. One is a man called Richard Brooks, who is absolutely brilliant. He used to work for Customs and Excise and we lured him over to the dark side because most journalists are illiterate financially. He isn’t but his record on public finance is just fantastic. He’s done some extraordinarily good stuff. I don’t want to be that specific, but a lot of the best columns we run are by people outside the office. We run a health column that is entirely written by pissed-off doctors.
So your contributors are mainly people who have contacted you with dirt on people and you’ve kept them on as contacts.
Absolutely. There’s the local council column that is written by local journalists who can’t get stuff in their own papers so they send it to us. Council advertising is quite heavy and you know what you can’t get in, but all that stuff comes from them. The TV column is also written by an insider.
Is he a secret insider?
Yes, and he would definitely be fired if they knew who it was.
Ha ha. Who is the person who writes from inside of the Houses of Parliament?
That’s a couple of people. Most of whom we don’t say who they are.
And so how many is your core team of contributors?
And that’s in the UK only. Have you ever thought of exporting Private Eye in to different countries?
No, we’re not like you. We stay inside this country. It’s what we do well. We know this place. We don’t sell outside.
Private Eye covers from years gone by.
Your circulation has gone up recently, hasn’t it?
It’s about 200,000, yeah.
What do you think drives people to keep buying your magazine? I thought British people were only meant to buy trashy crap about TV stars or interviews with footballers’ girlfriends?
I think the intelligence of audiences in this country are always underestimated, especially with television and newspaper magazines. People say: “They’ll only buy Heat or Nuts”, but it’s not true. If you provide something better people will go and get it. The worst times for our circulation figures were the height of Blair’s rule — when the economy was booming and everyone said he was marvellous and nobody wanted to read us.
Ha ha. Everybody was doing cocaine and listening to Oasis and going, “Waheeey!”
What did the circulation go down to?
We were slipping down to sort of 180s, 190s. There was a sense of: “You guys you just complain all the time. You are a bunch of whiners”. Over years of the magazine you can see those public perceptions change. They are periods of satisfaction.
How was it in the 80s, AKA “the decade of excess”?
In the beginning of the 80s it was very good for us. Society was very polarised with Thatcher and the miners’ strike. There was all that aggro around and that was good for us. Then the complacent 80s weren’t very good for us. That’s when I took over the mag actually.
So human suffering is great for circulation?
Ha, yes. It is on the whole. And so is dissatisfaction. When people start asking questions again they read us. When everything’s fine, people don’t really care.
I’ve met a lot of kids in the past few years. They were supposedly “underground” or “alternative” kids and they all want to vote Conservative in the next election which, before Blair, was anathema to a kid like that.
I think there are a lot of those kids about.
I remember saying things like: “But do you not remember what the Conservatives were like? I mean, they really weren’t that great.” And they came back to me saying things like: “We don’t like Blair’s stance on the war.”
And that’s enough for them.
Ha ha, yeah. They would have preferred the Conservatives’ stance on the war which would have been a lot more cool or something. What do you feel when you hear kids making statements like that?
Well, a) It’s quite funny, and b) I think the current lot of Tories also don’t remember what they were like before, so they don’t know what they’ll be like when they get in either. I think that is why people are prepared to give it a punt. Politics are very peculiar now, with the Conservative leader David Cameron saying “green taxes” and you’re thinking, “Hang on, you’re a Conservative, aren’t you?” and then you have Labour leader Gordon Brown saying: “We’ll build the power plant and we’ll have some more nukes as well.” It’s no wonder the kids are very confused.
But they have more access to information than ever before now.
Yeah, they have a lot of information but there’s less analysis. It’s sort of a tsunami of information really and no way to work out which bits of it matter.
From your insiders and knowledge of the workings of the Houses of Parliament, do you think the Conservatives will win the next election and, if so, what do you think they’ll do?
I think the Tories will win the next one. I think they’ll be exactly like Blair when he started. When you take over you don’t do much, you sit there for a bit and see how the land lies. They’ve said things about keeping up the spending programmes. All the scare stories – about the Tories coming in and slashing the NHS and giving up on teachers – I don’t think they’ll do any of that.
Do you not?
No, those sort of Tories, on the whole, aren’t there any more.
You don’t think they would get rid of the National Health Service?
No, I think they would be no more keen to privatise it than the current Labour lot are. I don’t think they’ll do that, particularly because Cameron’s got a personal invested interest in having his child born in the NHS. That has done him pretty well.
What have you found out about that guy then?
About Cameron? Does anybody know anything more than: “What you see is what you get”? He’s had one job working as a PR man for a television company, which is not the greatest CV you have ever seen, but then Brown’s never had a job either. They’ve been full-time politicians all their life, that’s what we get now. Politicians used to be people who had jobs first then went to politics but they don’t now. They’re all sort of the people you met at college who were very interested in politics very early. And you have to think: “Why?”
I always thought it’s a weird thing to want to be a politician.
Being a politician is the thing that defines them. It’s no more weird than wanting to be on TV or be in a band.
What about Boris Johnson?
Boris is the ultimate showman, but very effective. Very popular with your lot, I would guess.
What do you mean “our lot”?
Well, that younger readership. That seems to be where his base is.
I guess so, yeah. Are you pally with him?
It comes and goes. He’s furious with me sometimes depending on what we’ve written about him. I’ve done three, four television shows with him, which were hysterical. I don’t know how much he knew why they were funny but he is innately entertaining. There is something very appealing about him.
Private Eye covers from years gone by.
His mayoral acceptance speech was something else. I watched it a few times.
Well, the Beijing [his big speech about Britain hosting the Olympics] thing was really funny too. There is part of you that thinks it’s a mass-organised, synchronised display, and then you have this man who comes on who can’t even do up the buttons on his suit.
Here’s another thing I need your insider knowledge for. That must have been a prank at the Olympics when they flashed up the portrait of Myra Hindley during the “Come to England, it’s lovely” video?
No, it’s one of the Brit Art paintings.
Yeah, I know that but surely it must have been a prank?
No, no, they were very serious about that. I promise you the cultural community think that a big portrait of Myra is absolutely terrific.
But when they flashed it up on the screen for a short time it just looks like the original mugshot of Myra.
It looks like someone that killed children, I agree. It certainly wasn’t top of my list of what’s to be proud of in Britain.
What is top of your list of what’s to be proud of in Britain?
Obviously a tradition of questioning authority, that seems fairly high. Personal freedom. An ability to organise things. Lots of things that don’t happen in Beijing. I do quite like this country and that’s one of the reasons I’m very quick to jeopardise any deviation of the good things we have.
When was the last time you got sued. I guess it doesn’t happen as much as it used to?
No, because people don’t do it as much. We’ve got two as of last week.
That’s how often?
This latest one is a copper.
How often do you get them? Every week?
We don’t get them every week but they come in. A lot of them disappear nowadays. A lot of people we get rid of, but on the whole, there’s always something outstanding.
We’re probably running 70 stories a week which people don’t particularly like and at a certain point some of these people will sue. But it’s nothing like the mad days of libel in the late 80s and early 90s.
Why do you think it changed?
Well, the law changed. The amount of damages came right down and the fees went up, so it costs a fortune now. It really costs a fortune now so people have become hesitant.
Have you had the same lawyers throughout the whole period?
Yes, and they’re very, very rich.
Ha ha. So what stories are you working on right now that could get you sued?
The big stories we are working on are about Brown’s reputation for economic competence. Our theory is the things people are known for are usually the things they can’t do at all. I think he was useless at economics and most of the public finances are unravelling because of that.
How bad do you think it’s going to get, “credit crunch” and recession-wise?
I’d like to think of myself as an optimist but when the Chancellor of the Exchequer says,“It’s the worst thing for 60 years”, you think, “Oh shit.” I think it’s going to get quite serious. Partly because we had a stupid obsession with the value of houses in this country and in the long-term I think that houses being worth less will be a good thing, but it will be very painful when you get there.
Is there any story you could pass on to us because you can’t print it or you’re scared of getting sued?
There’s nothing I would give you, absolutely nothing, and I’m not going to tell you what we’re going to print obviously because that would be pointless printing. People say to us, “You must know stuff that you don’t print”, and I say, “Well, if it’s any good then I’d put it in.” If I don’t believe it I don’t put it in because otherwise why would people buy you?
What were some of the things that people have told you that were true that weren’t put in there?
People are always telling you that politicians are gay, usually ones who aren’t, and on the other hand people who knew John Major really well would come up to you and say it’s very interesting that [Conservative MP] Peter Lilley was gay, which he wasn’t. Him and his wife couldn’t have children, and politicians are so unpleasant they spread the story that he was gay.
Anyway, the same time they were telling me this story, John Major was actually screwing Edwina Curry. No one knew it. On the whole I find the really good stories you find out afterwards because no one has told you.
You must have met Edwina Curry?
I have met Edwina Curry on a number of occasions, yes.
Have you ever imagined what it’s like to screw her?
I’m just not going to comment on that.
How old are you now, if you don’t mind me asking?
Has anyone ever offered you another job, or offered to buy you out?
They have done, yeah.
Buy you out or offered you another job?
Both. I can’t think of a better job, though. We are one of the few companies where the views of the shareholders aren’t very important.
Do you think that’s important?
There was a point when the widow was very unhappy with me and she said she might sell the magazine to Mohamed al-Fayed and I said that was fine, but I would torch the building. So she didn’t.