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UK satire's scourge of power: Private Eye hits 50

It appears once every two weeks on cheap-looking paper covered in dense, small print. It is full of jokes yet its subject matter tends to be deadly serious.
/ Source: Reuters

It appears once every two weeks on cheap-looking paper covered in dense, small print. It is full of jokes yet its subject matter tends to be deadly serious.

In an age of instant news and almost-as-instant views, Britain's top satirical magazine "Private Eye" is going strong at the ripe old age of 50, a milestone it reaches on Tuesday.

Underlining Private Eye's status as a national institution, the Victoria & Albert Museum has dedicated an exhibition to it and a new glossy history has been published.

Editor Ian Hislop, also a television celebrity for his appearances on comedy quiz shows, takes pride in the magazine's survival when so many people have predicted its demise.

"We're a fortnightly publication and people said 'you're finished - where's the instant reaction?'," he told Reuters in a recent telephone interview.

"But if you are out every two weeks, you've got time to get it right and come up with an angle and a view that people find more interesting. In one way you do get a definite advantage."

One recent example was the bestselling edition that appeared following the phone hacking scandal which rocked Rupert Murdoch's media empire and prompted the closure of the News of the World tabloid newspaper.

The cover featured the word "GOTCHA!" in large bold print above a photograph of Murdoch flanked by his son James and Rebekah Brooks, a key executive who was forced to step down.

That issue was a deliberate nod to a headline made famous by the Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper reporting the sinking of an Argentine ship during the Falklands war.

Beneath their images were the words: "Murdoch goes down with all hacks"].

"We had the most absurdly successful issue on the Murdoch story - 250,000 copies were sold in total and we have about 112,000 subs (subscriptions)," Hislop said.

Private Eye is sold both by subscription and at newsstands.

"Normally the total is about 200,000, and suddenly when the Murdoch thing broke we ran the 'Gotcha!' headline. I expect it (circulation) will go down again."


His magazine has often led the way in reporting abuses of position, be it in company boardrooms or the corridors of political power.

In the case of the phone hacking story, however, Hislop conceded that it was the Guardian newspaper, and in particular reporter Nick Davies, who had led the way.

"But we had a lot of stuff about the police and other hacking issues, and I'd claim a creditable also-ran," he said.

Private Eye is a relatively small operation run from London offices with a permanent staff of about 20 and a "huge number" of freelancers.

It began on October 25, 1961 with a yellow pamphlet that resembled a school magazine and sold a few hundred copies.

Key founding figures included Christopher Booker, Willie Rushton, Paul Foot and long-time editor as well as Hislop's predecessor Richard Ingrams. Hislop took over in 1986.

Regular columns developed, and today include "Street of Shame" on the excesses of British journalists, "Rotten Boroughs" targeting local council corruption and "Pseuds Corner" poking fun at pompous prose and corporate jargon.

Its comic strips take aim at the trend-obsessed in "It's Grim Up North London," self-centered fashionistas in "Supermodels," fading rockers in "Celeb" and the hypocritical and pretentious world of the "Young British Artists."

Newcomers to the magazine may be baffled by its in-jokes, and Private Eye is often criticized for being a playground for a small clique of privileged, middle-aged men whose views count for little to most ordinary Britons.

A handful of covers have also caused offense, including its response to the death of Princess Diana in 1997 when the front page pictured a crowd outside Buckingham Palace criticizing the media while clamoring to see photographs from the crash scene.

Private Eye has been the subject of high profile libel cases, most notably in 1976 when the late entrepreneur James Goldsmith issued more than 60 writs against the magazine and its distributors and wholesalers.

But it has survived, and, in Hislop's words, "does make money in a year when there are not too many court cases.

"I'm not convinced that print is dead or the appetite to read about public affairs is either."

To quote one of the magazine's best-known phrases: "Trebles all round!"