Britain’s bestselling current-affairs magazine, Private Eye, has been producing its biweekly and decidedly English mix of satire, industry gossip, cartoons, and investigative journalism since 1961. Despite its print-focused operation (there is no digital version, and its website offers just tidbits of what’s available in the print edition), the magazine’s 200,000-plus circulation is the highest it’s been in recent years, buoyed by its recent 50th-anniversary issue and various government and media scandals. Much of the success is due to editor Ian Hislop, 52, who’s been at the helm since 1986. A self-professed workaholic, Hislop also writes for and appears on television, most famously as a panelist on the BBC’s long-running comedic news panel show, Have I Got News For You. As his profile has risen over the years, Hislop has become a regular on various power and influence lists, from The Guardian to GQ, and has been called “the king of British satire” and even a “national treasure.” CJR’s Sara Morrison spoke to Hislop about mixing satire and seriousness, and why American publications and TV shows either don’t or can’t.
How is Private Eye able to balance hard news and investigations with humor and satire?
One of the reasons why Private Eye has survived so long is that what we combine is jokes about things you know, and information about things you don’t know. Hard news is pretty hard to sell; investigative journalism is expensive, it takes a long time, and people find it quite difficult on the whole.
But the great thing about the Eye is the people who were doing it always knew that. Our greatest investigative journalist was Paul Foot, who’s a brilliant figure, but he always used to say, “Oh well, people read my stuff at the back of the Eye after they’ve read the jokes and they’re on the loo and there’s nothing left to read.” Which is typical Paul self-deprecation. But he’s got a point.
The great thing about a magazine that’s left lying around is that you buy it because you find the cover funny, and you think the cartoons are funny when you’re younger and that’s the thing you read first. And then, as you get older and you get a job, you start thinking, “Oh god, they’re writing about us!” And then the whole thing starts becoming more and more relevant. So I think it’s this trying to do two things that explains why we’ve managed to last when a lot of other print has had trouble.
America tends to put people in categories: In this corner is our “serious journalist” and over here is our “silly satirist.” Those lines are much blurrier in England. Why is that?
The audience knows what they’re getting. Or can discern what they’re getting. They don’t think that because he attempts to be funny about current affairs it means he doesn’t know anything. On the contrary, you’re presumed here to have a sufficient background. Almost a proviso for making those jokes.
If I’m going to go and be a smart-ass about education policy, then I’d better have read some books. I’d better have a view on how to teach history if I’m going to say [Secretary of State for Education Michael] Gove’s view of teaching history is a little bit insular. So, oddly, it isn’t a problem for people here. I certainly seem to get away with it without anyone saying, “Well, what’s he on for?”
American audiences have trouble accepting hard news and humor in the same publication. You’re either ProPublica or you’re The Onion.
Yes, I don’t know why that is. I remember reading The Onion and thinking, “Well, that’s very funny, those items. Um, where’s the rest of the paper?” The Journalism with a big J is very straight-faced, and investigative journalism is very, very serious and very, very important.
Private Eye has investigative journalism in the back, and lots and lots of, essentially, professional gossip. You know, people in the agricultural business, people in medicine, people in the energy business basically telling you what’s going on in their worlds. But a lot of them do it slightly tongue-in-cheek, and, I hope, write it in an entertaining way. So if the oil tariffs are being fiddled this week, then you don’t get a graph and a lecture. You get some names and you get some fingers pointed at who is taking the money.
Irreverence is something that I think Americans often don’t understand. Not because they’re unsophisticated but they just think, “Why are you being so rude?”