Private Eye raises hell. Always has done – it’s been
sued more times than anyone can count and provides much weekly
amusement, from titters to belly-laughs, at the expense of the
famous, the pompous and the crooked (preferably all three in one
person). You’d expect the former editor-in-chief, Richard
Ingrams, would not have gone gently into any future jobs. So what
controversial, high-profile publication does he currently helm? He’s now editor of The Oldie magazine, which caters for
those advancing in years. Does he think he’s done anything
to improve the image of old people through the magazine?
“No, not really. I don’t think I’ve done anything
– I’m not in the business of campaigning for certain
causes. It’s a bit of a joke.” This doesn’t sound
like someone who used to run a magazine famed for strong views on
people. The killer streak always perceptible in Private Eye’s
style seems to have mutated into the irascibility not
unassociated with the elderly. Does he think The Oldie has any
other purpose than to entertain, then? Another ‘no’:
“The purpose of all journalism and writing, I think, should
be to entertain, rather than to have some crusading ambitious
aim.” This seems strange given Private Eye’s
longenduring vendettas. Is he proud of what he did at Private Eye? He laughs. “I
certainly had a lot of fun when I was there. I’m very
pleased it’s survived so long, you know, forty years now. In
the life of any magazine forty years is impressive; most are gone
very quickly. It’s a cause of pleasure.” This pleasure seems to derive from the smugness of getting one
over one’s enemy; Ingrams‘ favourite stories from his
years at the Eye are “running campaigns against Robert
Maxwell, James Goldsmith, Jeremy Thorpe. Those are
memorable.” Private Eye was a major irritant to those
figures, who made perfect targets for the magazine’s
particular brand of pompbursting satire; in Maxwell, fame,
self-importance and criminality combined to make him a legitimate
mark (in the magazine’s view) for their unrelenting attacks. Was Private Eye a valid forum for such campaigns, in his
opinion? “It was certainly very useful for ridiculing public
figures. It’s an entirely independent organism, unlike
others which are owned by newspaper or media conglomerates; the
editor has total control, which is rare nowadays. I was there
when Peter Cook was proprietor and there was complete freedom;
Ian Hislop now has complete freedom.” Despite fond recollections, no journalist escapes without
regrets, especially true for Ingrams since Private Eye could cut
deeply. “There were lots of mistake in that long period, but
when you consider that it was such a long period, it’s not
to be wondered at. Of course, my memory’s bad now so I
can’t remember too specifically. Take the Hitler Diaries
– we were taken for a ride with those. There was nothing
else on that scale – mainly details were wrong. When I look
at it again, the Eyewas right, the people it went for were right.
There’s a danger when you attack small people who don’t
have the money to sue or defend themselves.” We move on to what seems to be a national pastime these days
– taking people to court. It is not, however, as prevalent
here yet as it is in America, where it’s practically been
written into the Constitution. On the subject of suing, does he
think the media culture today is becoming overly litigious?
“No, in fact I’d say it was the other way round when
compared with the old days. Jeffrey Archer, going to jail for
lying, has put people off suing and litigation. The media has
always been litigious, on the other hand. Journalists are far
more selfimportant than politicians and so are more likely to
sue. Take Sir Harold Evans, the former Times and Sunday Times
editor. He came to think of himself quite highly.” I sense a high–profile rivalry of the sort which
newspaper barons used to have, channelling their views through
their papers. This is an interesting line worth pursuing, and
Ingrams doesn’t seem like he will hold back. I plunge in:
does he have any schadenfreude over what’s been happening to
Harold Evans and his wife, Tina Brown (former editor of The New
Yorker and Vanity Fair whose latest effort, Talk, folded
ignominiously)? “Oh yes, tremendous schadenfreude,
tremendous. I knew her when she was an Oxford student. The way to
get in to journalism was to interview, and she was a fetching
young blonde lady who charmed many old men. She’s now a
queen bee.” Does he think her fame is commensurate with her
ability? “Well, I never had a high opinion of her as a
journalist. She was socially very ambitious. Vanity Fairand
similar, they’re puff magazines doing publicity for people
you’ve never heard of. If you become rich and famous in
America and then fail, they turn on you.” I think it’s best to move on in case the
Evans-Brown’s lawyers decide to pick up this week’s
Cherwell. An innocuous – well, less sensitive – topic
suggests itself: does he think a magazine like Private Eyewould
go down well in America? But Ingrams is in full swing. “The
thing about America is that American magazines are all about
people you’ve never heard of – rich businessmen, movie
stars and so on. Americans don’t like satire and gossip.
Graydon Carter (current editor of Vanity Fair) started Spy, which
was like Private Eye. I admired it, but it didn’t last that
long. Graydon Carter’s now a prosperous- looking man running
Vanity Fair; that’s what happens – you go from
satirical to businessman.” Moving away from America (I pray), we turn to the home front.
Is there anyone he thinks has a big future in journalism? Anyone
he currently admires? “I don’t tend to follow young
careers. I like the journalism of the Independentand particularly
its coverage of the Iraq War. Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn
– they’re extremely good.” Some positive comments.
Phew. Does he like them for their political views or for the
quality of their writing? “It’s probably a bit of both,
I suppose. I really admire oldfashioned journalists – the
problem with journalists today is that they sit in front of
computer screens. It’s old-fashioned going out and talking
to people. The problem was when all the newspapers moved into
Docklands – they went out of the centre of town and now
they’re isolated from the city.” So is journalism more
impersonal now? “It’s much more impersonal and not such
fun. Back then, the hugga-mugga journalists mixed with one
another and with MPs. It’s a very different scene.” As we’re finishing the interview, Ingrams offers the
following: “I hope that was suitably Victor Meldrew-ish for
you.” Quite.ARCHIVE: 2nd week TT 2004