Eye’s up

Ian Hislop explains why Private Eye's blend of humor and investigative journalism wouldn't work in the US
July 1, 2013

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.

Vice, folly, and humbug For more than 50 years, Private Eye has been making the Brits laugh and cry.

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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?”

You’ve “rudely” gone after guests on Have I Got News For You, calling former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s press secretary/director of communications Alistair Campbell a war criminal, for example, when he guest-hosted the show last year. Campbell, barely ruffled, eventually silenced your attacks by playing the bagpipes. The closest we can get to that here is when Sarah Palin walks through a carefully rehearsed Saturday Night Live sketch to try to show that she’s in on the joke. Which she isn’t.

It’s difficult for us to understand, you know. Jon Stewart interviews Tony Blair and doesn’t lay a finger on him. And I think, “That’s satire?” It isn’t, though. Obviously, it’s a chat show, and there are some other bits with it. But again, for us that’s very peculiar.

Jon Stewart is probably the closest thing America has to you, this smart-funny-attack-dog figure, but his targets are usually conservatives–and the people he’s really dug into, face to face, have mostly been conservative media figures, like Tucker Carlson and Bill O’Reilly, for example. Private Eye and Have I Got News For You have always seemed more equal opportunity when it comes to criticizing people.

Well, we had three terms of New Labour, with the Iraq War in the middle, so we were under no illusion that the right has a monopoly on “vice, folly, and humbug”–that’s the great 18th-century definition of what politicians get up to.

People say, “They have The Daily Show in America, why doesn’t someone do that here?” I think, this is very good and it’s often very funny, but it wouldn’t work here. Because, well, we don’t do it like that. We do it in a different way. I think it’s a mistake to imagine that people always do things in the same way.

Piers Morgan’s success in our respective countries has certainly happened in a different way. In Britain, he’s known as a tabloid editor who was fired in disgrace and recently cited by the Leveson Report as giving an “utterly unpersuasive” denial of his involvement in phone hacking. Here, he helms one of CNN’s flagship shows. Whose fault is he?

Oh, entirely yours. But I mean, again, he’s cottoned on to a very good cause–saying what appears to be blindingly obvious in a society that doesn’t want to recognize it. You know, it’s quite a good shtick, really. It’s difficult to criticize. And you can imagine how hard it is for me to say that!

[Hislop and Morgan are not friends. Hislop takes every opportunity to tear into him in the Eye, which refers to him as “Piers Moron,” and they exchanged heated words when Morgan appeared on Have I Got News For You in 1996. A few years later, Morgan ordered his reporters to dig up dirt on Hislop and offered readers money for any scandalous photographs of the “moon-faced midget.” They didn’t find anything.]

Who in America would make a good target for your kind of satire and commentary?

The trouble is that because Private Eye is quite parochial and I am, too, I don’t really know enough about the States. I remember when I used to work on a program called Spitting Image, which NBC very briefly in the ’80s bought a version of. [American audiences would know Spitting Image best as the puppets in Genesis’s “Land of Confusion” video.] For the NBC pilot, we sent a script in, and we got a call from someone who was vice president or one of those things at the network, and he said, “Are you guys suggesting the President of the United States is an asshole?!!?” And we had to say, “Yeah! Yeah!” That was sort of the gist of the script. Which didn’t go down very well.

Essentially, they should’ve got American writers to write it. People say, “Why don’t you do Private Eye in America?” And I say, “They should do it.” Because they know who’s lobbying; they know who the idiots are; they know the people who are sort of against gay marriage and have a string of rent boys. These are the stories that you know when you’re there. And we don’t know.

I remember meeting Harry Shearer probably 10 years before he was on Have I Got News For You [in 2012]. He’s incredibly funny and he seems to know what’s going on, so someone like him could do it. But he’s not a national figure, is he?

He’s probably best known here for doing voices on The Simpsons.

I suppose that’s how you do irreverence in America, through animation. It’s on Family Guy and South Park and all of which are, to a British audience, pretty outrageous in terms of what they can get away with saying. I can’t imagine human beings would be allowed to say any of those things.

‘Moon-faced midget’ Hislop says Americans don’t understand irreverence. (Toby Madden)

Our libel laws are a bit more relaxed than yours. [Hislop is known as “the most-sued man in British legal history.”]

But I remember the Michael Jackson/Blanket episode [South Park‘s “The Jeffersons”]. I can’t imagine, you know, had you had humans doing that instead of, it would’ve been allowed to go out.

Any American journalists/comedians/satirical anything you admire?

I remember reading Spy when it came out and thinking that was very exciting.

I think Spy was the closest thing we’ve had to Private Eye.

Yeah, when Graydon [Carter and Kurt Anderson] launched that, it all seemed very funny and sharp and rude and all those things. So I don’t know whether there’s an appetite for it. I mean, the only thing that comes over here in any consistent way is people saying Jon Stewart’s brilliant. And that’s taken as standard. It’s like people saying “The West Wing‘s brilliant, it’s the best political program that’s ever been made.” And I’m just thinking, this is a liberal fantasy about what a president might be like. I prefer my politics ruder. The British wouldn’t make West Wing. That’s not how we think politics works. We genuinely don’t buy into that. So I think it’s partly expectation.

Are Americans just too polite? Or maybe we just pretend to be too polite?

Maybe you’re polite; maybe you’re just nicer. It’s perfectly possible! You’re certainly much more positive; you’re prepared to see more good.

Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison.