Profile: Ian Hislop

Ian Hislop on keeping people angry and a new era for satire

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ian Hislop is currently enjoying an extended Christmas, long after the rest of us have packed up our tinsel and trees. He reminds me of this with a quote made by his predecessor at Private Eye, Richard Ingrams, when discussing Prime-minister Edward Heath in the seventies.

“’As a human being I am appalled, but as the Editor of a satirical magazine, its Christmas’. It’s the same case now. Trump is utterly bizarre. He can’t keep a fact from one end of a sentence to another. For that reason, it is Christmas.”

Prime Minister Theresa May is just as much of a gift to the satirical magazine, the ideal protagonist for their ‘Independent State Grammar School’ feature.

“In terms of May being a headmistress, she is the perfect fit. Cameron was very bland. He was media savvy, a fairly down-the line public school smoothie.”

Editor of Private Eye since 1986 and a team captain on the BBC quiz show Have I Got News For You, Hislop is renowned for encouraging the British public to laugh at the ridiculousness of politics and current affairs. Working at the Private Eye offices this summer, I was a little worried that the sparky sense of humour I had witnessed on television or in the pages of the magazine would fade face to face with the man himself. I was wrong.

The first time I met Hislop, he was sat behind his desk in a rather messy office, flanked by piles of papers and walls decorated with letters, front pages and cartoons. He chatted away to me, funny without trying and fuming about something Piers Morgan had written a few days earlier. He scrawled a few questions on print-outs of emails. His handwriting was like him; quick, slightly all over the place and very purposeful.

This time, I find myself in a rather different location. A good hour from Soho Square, I am in a small backroom of the Cherwell offices, freezing, sitting on a half broken wheelie-chair. My headphones are so tangled that that they are cutting in to my neck. I decide not to tell him this. Hislop, however, is no stranger to our offices. A graduate of English Literature from Magdalen College Oxford, he took no time before “plunging” into journalism at University.

“I wrote three pieces for Cherwell. The first of those was on a marijuana scandal at Lady Margaret Hall. It was during my first week at Oxford and I went along to the Cherwell meeting. They put my story on the front page and I thought, ‘Oh, look, this is journalism.’”

Hislop’s time at Oxford, however, was marked predominantly by a different publication of a perhaps less conventional name.

“I really enjoyed my time at Oxford. I ran the student magazine Passing Wind, which was set up by Nick Newman before I arrived. He has been my long-term writing partner. He’s now the cartoonist for the Sunday Times. Anyway, Passing Wind had gone defunct when I arrived in Oxford and I took it over for him.

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“I had a really fun time writing satire, although we’d go from room to room in Colleges trying to sell this paper. As it became sufficiently popular, we began selling it in shops, which solved the problem. We managed to make enough money for us to have enormous party at the end of each term, which was great.

“When I needed to pay off my debts for the magazine I borrowed £400 from my tute partner, an old Etonian. What else are Old Etonians good for, but the odd loan? I eventually paid him back, although he now runs a publishing company.”

“The name was a bit of a problem. Very few of the dress shops so few wanted to give us ads. Overall, it was a terrific experience.”

Hislop’s career at Private Eye began immediately after graduating from Oxford and his quick appointment to Editor, after just five years at the publication, was not met without opposition. Hislop recalled with fondness how he was catapulted into the world of the Eye. His first piece published was a parody of The Observer magazine’s ‘Room of My Own’ feature, it described an IRA prisoner on the dirty protest decorating his cell in “fetching brown”.

“I got my first piece into Private Eye just before my Finals. I had interviewed my predecessor Ingrams and also Peter Cook for Passing Wind. Then my mother read a piece on Ingrams in which he said he was looking for new blood. She called me up and said that’s you, you should write to him. So I did. I didn’t say my mother told me to write, I just sort of said ‘ah it’s me’ and he told me to send stuff. I sent in a few jokes and then one of them was published. It meant I had £30 quid to spend entirely on alcohol after my exams.“

Under Hislop’s editorship the magazine has grown increasingly successful in “satire’s new golden age of ridicule”. According to the latest ABC figures, Private Eye achieved its biggest ever print circulation in the second half of 2016. Sales of Private Eye are up nine per cent year on year, and its Christmas issue was the biggest seller in the title’s 55-year-history, selling 287,334 copies. Hislop plays down his own editorship thanking instead the “ghastly” state of current affairs.

“Satire is flourishing because last year was so extraordinary, what with the mixture of Brexit and then Trump. Everything was thrown on its head. We do two things at Private Eye, which is jokes and journalism. Right now people are looking for some form of comic relief. It’s absolutely ghastly but very funny.”

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Rather than losing faith in print, he points out the merits of Private Eye’s method amidst fear of fake news. He stands firm that the paper will not go online, despite the struggles of its newspaper comrades.

“What with fake news, a lot of people are now mistrusting online journalism. There is a great hunger for journalism coming from nowhere fixed. That’s us.

“Oh god no, we’re not going online. We’re committed to print and that model seems to working for us. I think our increase in popularity is because Private Eye has a very distinct identity. We are not giving away content for free. People are very good at what they do here and the old cup of coffee thing is true. I’m giving you 50 people who are really knowledgeable on paper for the same price of your £1.80 cup of coffee. Why wouldn’t you buy it?”

In Hislop’s opinion, however, the rising popularity of satire by no means entitles the magazine to a more audacious format modelled on a publication like French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which has aired controversial views about religion and current affairs.

“That is not our style,” he says, “It’s very continental.”

He’s also sceptical of the persuasive power of satire.

“In reality how effective is satire? I don’t want to flatter us too much. We didn’t convince anyone not to vote for Brexit and Trump. That said, there is still plenty of room for it.”

For all the praise bestowed upon it in this time of ridicule, Private Eye does not come without criticism. Whilst on work experience, I was struck by the number of emails from readers bemoaning the Eye’s inclination to criticise certain political figures over others. Hislop is keen to point out, however, that the Eye manages to successfully offend everyone.

“This may well be true to some extent, but for Private Eye this depends on what we’ve covered that week. One week I’ll have the Corbynistas writing in, next the SNP supporters and then the next people complaining about the ghastly liberal metropolitan wankers. Some weeks, we’re all Tory Public School. The next, we focus on Left subversives. As long as everyone is unhappy and complaining to me, I’m happy.”

Finally, Hislop’s advice to budding journalists: “Just do it and don’t buy the idea that it’s a pointless profession, that it’s dying, that the only future is sitting in a shed in Macedonia writing fake news. Keep going.”