How Private Eye lost its bite
Richard Ingrams, Willie Rushton, Christopher Booker and Nicholas Luard from Private Eye outside the Royal Courts of Justice in 1963. (Photo by Harold Clements/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)   

Listening to the Private Eye editor Ian Hislop paying tribute to Christopher Booker on the Today programme last week was a reminder of how the passage of time has de-fanged British satire. When Booker and the others in the old gang – Richard Ingrams, Paul Foot, John Wells and Willie Rushton – founded the magazine in 1961 with Booker as its first editor the Establishment was a ripe and juicy target. Those were the last years of the Age of Deference; respect for authority and obedience to the law were pretty much universal – a state of affairs which undoubtedly owed much to the country’s wartime experiences. But as the war receded the deference of their father’s generation began to look timid and maybe a bit gutless; unquestioning obedience might be a necessary, even admirable, virtue in wartime but in a time of peace and plenty it began to look craven.

So 1961 was a propitious moment for Private Eye to be born.

And what a time they had of it! It must have been the most wicked fun to put together a magazine whose sole purpose was to ridicule, undermine and embarrass the Powers That Be. It required, too, a measure of courage to seek out and take on rich and powerful individuals and to subject them to relentless, scornful scrutiny.

And when you look at the Eye’s battle honours from those early years you have to say they (mostly) chose the right targets. The long campaign against the scoundrel Robert Maxwell, the dishonest proprietor of the Daily Mirror, showed the magazine at its best; it had intuited that Maxwell was a rogue and stood up to all his costly and dishonest litigation. Vindication came after his death when his true perfidy – which included robbing the Mirror’s pensioners – was laid bare. It was episodes like that – and there are many others – which proved how necessary the Eye was; it devoted itself to uncovering wrongdoing, it did so with an anarchic sense of humour, and the country was a better place because of it.

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But what of today? Everything still looks the same: the front cover still carries the little cartoon figure of ‘Gnittie’, the glum looking crusader knight, some of the jokes still show flashes of wit, some of the journalism is worthwhile (some of it is very good, taking on stories that other outlets ignore), but as for the satire, it is for the most part, leaden.

The American humorist and journalist Molly Ivins put it well when she said that “Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful” and all too often, these days, the Eye seems to have lost sight of that essential truth. The Establishment that was the Eye’s original target has long since disappeared; that world where senior politicians were accorded respect simply because of the positions they held, where there was a traditional (though sometimes hypocritical) morality which held sway in the public realm, that has all vanished. In its place there is a new Establishment with a new, lax moral code but with a novel and rigidly enforced set of ‘correct’ opinions – and this has proved a much more difficult target for the Eye.

The best satire is the product of a sense of burning injustice. Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is the stand-out historical example. Swift’s proposal that the poor should sell their children for the rich to eat was coruscating hyperbole done to shame the Establishment of the day. As Private Eye reaches middle age what is lacking is any sense of true outrage impelling the attacks.

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The last edition, for instance, had a front cover lampooning (yet again) Boris Johnson; but this feels more of an affectionate cuddle than a stiletto attack. Partly, I think, this is due to Ian Hislop’s role as ringmaster and presiding genius of the BBC show Have I Got News for You – interestingly the very programme which helped turned Boris, with his artfully constructed, shambolic persona, into a media darling. In his HIGNFY incarnation Hislop has become a celebrity and that is an uncomfortable coupling for a satirist; he is himself now part of the new Establishment, which blunts his satirist’s edge. From what I know of Mr Hislop he has lived a virtuous life and is the enemy of wrongdoers but in the process he has morphed into that most paradoxical of things – an Establishment satirist.

It is noticeable for instance how anti-Brexit the Eye is; in an interview on the Andrew Marr show in 2017 Hislop agreed that he had become a ‘remoaner’ and that he fully intended to carry on fighting to reverse the referendum decision and, naturally, his own feelings on the matter colour his magazine’s coverage. By proudly announcing his Remain credentials he merely cemented his credentials as a member of the new Establishment and in doing so certainly conforms to the BBC’s view of the matter. It is clear from the polling evidence that the Remain position is the choice of the well-educated and the affluent whilst Leavers are often the left-behinds. It would seem more natural if our leading satirical publication should be siding with the underdogs instead of which on the defining issue of the day it aligns itself with the boss class.

It is not only Private Eye that illustrates the decayed state of British satire. We now live in a country saturated in satire but the Right – or at least a caricature of what the Right really is – is often the target. That governing class long ago went to its final resting place so the jokes don’t find their mark.

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The BBC, for instance, is fond of launching ‘edgy’ satirists on its radio and TV shows; in practice these almost always turn out to be the same old, vaguely leftie, Jeremy Hardy wannabes. But maybe change is in the air: after decades when all satire seemed to be in the hands of social justice warriors, a new breed is emerging. These anti-woke jokers (Geoff Norcott and Konstantin Kisin are leading exponents of the new wave) are claiming the right to make jokes at the expense of doctrinaire liberals. They’re still outnumbered by the old guard but it’s the best thing that’s happened to British satire since … well maybe since Private Eye itself was launched.

One of the motivations of Christopher Booker and the other founding fathers was, apparently, their dismay at the decline of Punch magazine. That venerable institution, founded in 1841, began life as a vehicle for sharp satire but over the decades it fell prey to a debilitating politeness, closing finally in 2002. Private Eye, a child of the Sixties, has not been able to maintain the fine, fiery contempt that fuelled its early years; there’s still just about enough in it to justify the effort of buying and reading it but – as it celebrates its 1,500th edition – it’s beginning to feel just a little tame and constrained. Under Hislop it has built a big circulation but he has now been editor for 33 years – exceptional tenure for any editor; one day, surely, the baton will have to be passed on.

Satire is a serious business; we need it to highlight our follies, failings and frauds. Mockery is the price our rulers must pay for their privileges but it is the weapon of the angry outsider; Private Eye’s problem is that it has now become too much of an insider. Time for a change?