No democracy exists without the freedom to mock those at the top; satire is the cornerstone of a democratic state. That makes Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye and Have I Got News For You team-captain, a pretty important cog in the democratic machine. You might expect a cut-throat, stop-at-nothing vendor of grime and gossip, when you imagine the man behind the fall of Jeffrey Archer and Robert Maxwell. A world away from the middle-aged, chuckling man sitting opposite me.
Don’t be fooled; Hislop’s dogged determination to sniff out the truth from the lies has landed him in court countless times, earning him the dubious title ‘the most sued man in British history’. Emerging from the extended court case with the wife of Peter Sutcliffe (The Yorkshire Ripper), who tried to claim up to £600,000 from the Eye, Hislop cheekily quipped ‘if that’s justice then I’m a banana’. His flippancy concealed relief; he appeared in court that day prepared to be sent to prison, toothbrush in briefcase.
Hislop sits behind a large wooden desk in Private Eye’s musty head-quarters. His slightly grizzly appearance merges with the office around him, as though over eighteen years as editor-in-chief, it has become an extension of himself. Private Eye cartoons hang haphazardly on the walls, winking cheekily down at the piles of papers and randomly-placed chairs which litter his editor’s den.
‘Satire should mock the strong’ he begins, speaking firmly and directly, unlike the politicians he pokes fun at. ‘There’s a strong tradition of it in Britain, which aids freedom and democracy’.
Hislop agrees with one of his few heroes, Alexander Pope; satire is the ‘exposure of vice, folly and humbug’. Some examples?; ‘fiddling expenses’, deceiving shareholders…’ Politics hasn’t changed much in 300 years then. Hislop speaks angrily about the way politicians treat the public like they are stupid; and equally, praises the British press’s ‘rumbustious attitude’ towards authority figures. ‘This government has an authoritarian streak, but the press are always there to expose them’. Exposing people is at the heart of Hislop’s job; ‘my duty is to ask ‘Is that true?’ and to investigate’.
Hislop talks about his former self with a wistful admiration; the quick, sparky Oxford graduate who controversially became editor at 26. ‘It is good when you are younger because you are more confident. This is one of the advantages of youth. They asked me if I wanted to edit the magazine with hardly any experience and I said ‘no problem’. Now I am a lot more careful.’ He claims, at least; there have been times when the magazine has had to appeal to its loyal readers to save it from being made bankrupt by under the weight of libel cases.
Has he lost his nerve then, over the years? ‘I am more keen to get things right now, to run the correct stories and target the right people. Some stories turn out not to be true and you think ‘I wish I hadn’t run that’.
All of which has its consequences. ‘Its reasonable that people should dislike me. You have to develop a thick-skin. I am much more thick-skinned now than when I first took the job.’ The resulting feuds can be public; mocking Piers Morgan on Have I Got News certainly brought Hislop more than he bargained for.
I ask him whether he’s ever stumped, especially on television. Appropriately enough, his answer comes without hesitation: ‘Never’. Both Private Eye and Have I Got News, he explains, provide a means to release pent-up frustration. ‘I often listen to the radio seething with irritation; Have I Got News is a platform. I’ve always fancied a platform where I could mouth off. Its a way to vent steam’. Hislop, who never misses an episode of the quiz show, hosts a team opposite co-star Paul Merton. He is the ‘witty one’, coming in with cutting quips and clever puns. I ask him whether he has a TV persona. He replies carefully that it’s an exaggerated version of himself; ‘friends and family will tell you that I’m just that bit more boring normally!’ Surprisingly, Hislop does admit that he’s ‘always nervous beforehand’.
Hislop is an efficient mix of ruthlessness and steely determination when it comes to exposing lies. If I were Brown I would be quaking in my boots, for Hislop- master satirist- is not a fan. ‘Labour government?!’ He scoffs. ‘This is not what people expect from a left wing government’. He is staunch in his opinion. ‘The people of Britain are badly served by the government. There is nothing to grab them, nothing to choose from. Little surprise they are becoming more apolitical.’ I know better than to ask his own political leanings; though he does let slip that ‘Vince Cable seems at times to be the only sensible person in parliament’. When I suggest that flow of speech in this country isn’t as free as it could be, he immediately puts things into perspective, showing a level-headedness which balances his taste for scandal. ‘Lets put it this way; there are no satirical magazines in Beijing.’
But is satire dying out? ‘Political correctness’, Hislop spits, ‘is a term used by the Right to get people to shut up, and by authoritarian governments to insure that nobody writes anything bad about them’. Ironically, another pet-hate of Hislop’s puts him on the same side as arch-nemesis Piers Morgan. ‘The tightening of privacy laws are a threat to freedom of speech. Its difficult to see yourself on the same side as the Daily Mail, but these laws make it easy for the rich and powerful to get away with things. They will be able to control what we know about them’.
As he starts to talk politics, Hislops frustrations emerge. ‘Since 9/11 there’s been a steady erosion of civil liberties under the pretense that its necessary…Terrorism isn’t a new phenomenon. I remember when the IRA bombed Oxford Street’. A stiff-upper lip is all that’s needed then? ‘Yes.’ And the same goes for the credit Crunch. He refers to the last economic meltdown; ‘In a similar climate of unemployment in the thirties, Oswald Mosley (founder of the British Union of Fascists) failed to spread fascism, simply because people’s reaction to him was one of laughter: PG Wodehouse turned him into a ludicrous figure of fun in the novel ‘Code of the Woosters’, and he was forced off the scene.’
Hislop’s frank manner is refreshing, rather than blunt, cutting through the proverbial political bullshit; ‘Why is the government blanketing the whole population in the name of wiping out terrorism? Why are they clamping down on protests?’ Why indeed.
Hislop is optimistic about young people, blaming flaws in the system rather than laziness for the apparent lack of political zest amongst the youth. He rejects the belief that youngsters are only interested in reading about film and music celebrities. ‘We do not believe in ‘catering’ for young people. Its condescending to think they only want to read about popstars – the number of them involved in organisations like ‘Liberty’ and ‘Amnesty’ demonstrates this.’ Do you target any audience at all, young or old? ‘No, what we put in the magazine comes from things I like and find funny.’ This apparently simple strategy works. Private Eye is read by over 700,000 people, and sales are increasing.
Hislop is a moralistl, not a gossip; dedicated to truth, not lies. When I ask him whether he isn’t sometimes just a little tempted to make use of his position to finish a grudge or two, his answer is honest: ‘I try not to’. Does he ever think about giving it all up, trying something different? ‘Sometimes. But then I think, what else would be this much fun?’