“PRIVATE EYE: THE FIRST FIFTY YEARS, AN A-Z”
AUTHOR ADAM MACQUEEN published by Private Eye Productions 312pp £25.00
REVIEW by EDWINA CURRIE for THE TIMES
The Eye fifty years old? Nothing could seem less likely. A cheap satirical magazine with virtually no advertising and no deep-pocketed proprietor, printed on tatty paper, appearing only fortnightly, so its commentary is always out-of-date? The latest edition as I write is still banging on about the riots, which finished – ahem! - some weeks ago. The fall of Tripoli doesn’t get a mention. Hardly a winner in a world of instant media.
Yet the anachronism that is Private Eye continues to flourish, long after NOTW, Today, the Daily Sketch and even Punch have passed into history. In fact it’s doing rather well, with a 300,000 print run, a claimed readership of 700,000, and is steadily profitable, even taking into account the numerous libel cases it has faced. An envious situation, largely due to its impish editor Ian Hislop, a gaggle of sharp-eyed hacks and legions of fans.
One of those reporters is Adam Macqueen (sic), who at various points in his career has “cleaned toilets, packed mail-order baldness cures, led canoeing holidays for teenage drug addicts, toured Europe in the worst production of Richard II in history, and been one of the people answering the phones in the background during Watchdog,” before settling on journalism. He’s also the author of The King of Sunlight – How William Lever Cleaned Up The World, a delightful biography of the soap manufacturer and creator of Port Sunlight.
I’ve been on the Eye front cover four times, one of which graces our downstairs loo. As I left the government in 1988, issue 705 showed me handling eggs; one had a speech bubble, “I’m off”, and over my head was another: “So am I.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Most politicians, in reality, are terrified of appearing in the Eye. It may confirm that their pronouncements have attracted public attention, but either their efforts will be ridiculed, or it will be pointed out that they said the opposite sometime in the past. Richard Ingram, one of the founders and editor from 1963 to 1986, was fond of quoting his hero William Cobbett, that any “candidate for public admiration, esteem or compassion” should expect that “every action of his life, public or private, becomes the fair subject of public discussion.” As Macqueen points out, this has led to some spectacular fallings-out even in the Eye office, when it teased some who worked for it such as Jonathan Miller or Nigel Dempster (“The Greatest Living Englishman”). Its main targets however richly deserved the exposure, like Sir James Goldsmith whose tsunamis of libel writs tried to stop the Eye mentioning his name at all, or my humbled former colleague Jonathan Aitken, who sued, was convicted of perjury, landed in jail and went bust before he could repay the magazine’s legal fees; the £14,000 cheque sent by his bankruptcy administrator, reproduced in this book, was unsigned, making it “not worth the paper it was written on.”
This is one of many gems in this sumptuous coffee-table production, which is sure to be a Christmas best-seller (and why not? Ed). It’s arranged as one huge index, an A-Z of Private Eye since the beginning, with articles on the first edition, its founders (Paul Foot, Ingrams, Christopher Booker, and Willie Rushton), and the origins of just about every spoof by-line and column for which the paper is famous.
Look up the alleged proprietor “Gnome”, for example (“born in 1863 as Klaus Anatoli Koch” – which just happened to be Robert Maxwell’s surname), and you’ll be seduced into hilarious snippets from “Grovel” (based on the Charles Greville gossip column in the Daily Mail, on the antics of minor royals and mini-celebs). There’s "The Grocer” (Ted Heath, who believed the nickname revealed Ingrams’ snobbery, strongly denied), “Goldenballs,” the long history of the Eye’s fights with Goldsmith, and “Little Gnittie”, Willie Rushton’s cartoon of John Wells as the Express Crusader complete with limp sword, which now graces the Eye’s own masthead.
The leading lights are still “minor public schoolboys who’ve never grown up”, in the words of John Cole, former BBC political editor who resented their poking fun at his Ulster accent as “ungentlemanly.” But the pricking of the pompous and the censure of the corrupt is in the glorious tradition of the English press; Swift, Gillray, Cobbett and Wilkes have a worthy successor. Happy Birthday, Lord Gnome, and Many Happy Returns.
If none of the above paragraph makes sense to you, then you’ve never read the Eye; reflect instead on how important a fearless lampooner is in a free society. As the author shows, they’re often right long before the event. The Prince of Wales’s liaison with Camilla Parker-Bowles was headlined in 1977, years before his marriage to Diana. The Bristol heart scandal was revealed in 1992, but it was nine years till the public inquiry exonerated the whistle-blower. Record producer Jonathan King was mocked for his “two under-age drivers” a quarter-century before his conviction for sex with under-age boys. They got it wrong on MMR vaccine (Hislop admits they’re “not good on science.”). Mostly however one wishes more notice had been taken of their reports, not less. And when Sonia Sutcliffe, the wife of the Yorkshire Ripper won a whopping £600,000 in libel damages, only to see this reduced to £60,000 on appeal, Hislop gave away the substantial sum raised for their legal defence to the victims and families of her husband. Malice can be appropriate; these are the good guys.
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