Ian Hislop has just returned from a two-week holiday to find – as is customary at Private Eye – himself featuring as a lookalike in his magazine’s letter pages.
On this occasion, his staff – led by deputy Francis Wheen – have tracked down an image of Hislop as a schoolboy with a blond mop-top, and compared him with the frontman of Britpop band The Charlatans.
Shortly before he went away on holiday, ABC figures showed that the Eye has recorded its highest average fortnightly circulation since 1986 – the year Hislop succeeded the magazine’s co-founder Richard Ingrams as editor. With an average circulation of 228,264, it has the highest sale of any current affairs magazine in the UK.
Hislop says he was “incredibly pleased… and somewhat surprised” by the performance.
How has it been achieved? Surely Hislop and the Eye are above clichés such as “content is king”? No, in fact, he uses this exact phrase, adding:
“The thing we’ve done recently is upped the print size, after complaints for a very long time about ‘it’s too small’. Which meant that we had to make the magazine bigger.
"And I thought, if I’m upping the print size, I’ll put more cartoons in. So there are now about 40 cartoons, instead of 25.
“Essentially, we’ve invested in content. There’re a lot more cartoons, and the journalism is bigger and more readable. That’s what we’ve done…
“If you’re looking for reasons why I think the Eye’s still selling really well, it’s because we invest in more journalism…
“And what we’ve continued not to do is to put anything online.”
I was going to ask about the Eye’s digital strategy…
"One thing we did last week – and I gather while I was away it did terrifically well – was this map of offshore holdings… it’s almost like a video game – you go to your street and find out who’s got offshore holdings.
“And I thought that’s exactly the kind of online thing I am interested in. Because it’s not taking away from what the magazine does.
"And you won’t be surprised that that was put together by some people who are quite young.”
Do you have the Eye’s web figures to hand? Are they important?
“I’m sure it is very important. I don’t have them to hand. They’re reasonable – but all they’re doing is saying: ‘This is the sort of thing we’re doing, go and buy the magazine.’”
Asked if any Eye front covers did particularly well, Hislop says the post-election “Hands up all those who thought I'd win” issue was the most popular. He was most proud of the cover marking the Charlie Hebdo January massacre: “Je suis charlatan” (both pictured).
“I wanted to do a Private Eye cover – not a Charlie Hebdo cover. And I was incredibly flattered by one of the survivors, who gave an interview, saying: ‘What we would have done, had we all survived, for the next issue, is attack the march.’
“And I thought: Hooray, at least we got something right. Because they were hugely offended by any of those people claiming to be Charlie Hebdo.”
Are there concerns for Private Eye following the Charlie Hebdo attack? Have you introduced any extra security?
“No. One is concerned, but I’m not sure there’s a vast amount one can do… there was a camera on you when you came in, though, which we didn’t used to have. That’s pretty high tech.”
Private Eye currently has a record number of subscribers – 136,000, according to ABC – which Hislop says is a “huge part of the model – ‘model!’, that’s very good jargon”. But the Eye makes no secret of the fact its coverage often leads to subscriber cancellations.
“There are a lot of people who’ve discovered politics recently but haven’t got the idea that – in the world of politics – it’s possible for the opposition A) to have a point and B) to offer criticism.
“So a lot of UKIPers cancelled their subscriptions earlier in the year because they thought the jokes about UKIP were not funny and not fair. This was followed by a very similar vein of Scots nats saying: ‘These jokes aren’t funny, and they’re not fair.’ And I think we’re about to get the Corbynistas, that’ll be the next wave saying: ‘You’ve no idea what you’re talking about.’
“A different sort of politics has just arrived – whether it’s Farage or Sturgeon or Corbyn. And any criticism – and certainly any jokes – are not welcome.”
People written about in Private Eye are “not automatically” given right of reply. Why is that the case?
“That’s one of the things I learnt from my predecessor, and one of the things that during the injunction stage became very clear.
“We found that if you put your story to people they’d then take out an injunction against you and then you couldn’t then run the story.”
But would giving a right of reply lead to fewer mistakes?
“I don’t think we make a huge amount of mistakes at the moment and the mistakes we make I’m very happy to put my hands up to. But I don’t think they come from failing to put the story to people.”
In January 1994, when you appeared on Desert Island Discs, the Eye’s average annual legal bill was said to be £200,000. Has that now changed?
What is it now?
“Rather more than that… I don’t know what I was doing quoting figures. That sounds quite low. Nowadays, it’s not the libel bill so much – I mean there’s a certain amount of that. But everything that’s cost us money is confidentiality, privilege, privacy, those are all the things.
“I think we’re actually more effective at fighting off libel now. We’ve got a really good lawyer. And a better pre-defence than we used to have. And he’s more aggressive.
“So I think we’re slightly better at fighting it earlier. But I’d be lying if I said we don’t have any costs and I’ve brought them down – because I haven’t.”
Do you often get angry calls from people who are featured in Private Eye?
“Yeah… and occasionally I run into someone. The last was I bumped into Lady Rothermere at a do, who said that she’d rung up to complain about some piece we’d written about the Rothermeres and apparently I wasn’t in.
“And she said: ‘Oh, you weren’t in.’ And I said: ‘Well, that’s a pity, because I could have pointed out to you the sort of stuff they’re running in the Daily Mail nowadays is terrible – I mean, you really should have a look.’ Which I thought was very funny. And she didn’t.”
I would imagine lots of people are on bad terms with Private Eye. But are many people on good terms?
“Yeah. Really, the quality of the stories depends on the sort of people you’ve encouraged to give you stuff. So quite a lot of the Eye’s success – I would say particularly over the last few years – is encouraging people, not necessarily high-profile people, but encouraging people who’re well-informed and expert in their own world just to tell you stuff. Rather than just saying: ‘Well, the Eye’s absolutely useless on, you know, nuclear energy, or you’re hopeless about farming', you just say: ‘Alright, you write it…’
“The received criticism about the Eye is loads and loads of journalists work for us, which is perfectly true… but it’s also true now that loads and loads of people in different industries who aren’t necessarily journalists equally give us the stuff. And that, again, helps you not make mistakes.”
Are these people protected from criticism in the Eye?
“It hasn’t arisen. Or it hasn’t arisen and we haven’t done it [written a story about someone]. Because usually they’re not people people know. But I suppose if they were in the industry and they fucked up, we would have a go anyway.”
A good message to the contributors.
“Yeah. Contribute to us and we’ll turn you over. But, no, I trust them not to.”
What are you like as an editor? I can’t imagine you getting too angry, but are you a Dacre figure?
“Yeah – it’s all double-cunting in meetings…
“No, I’m told… that I’m very bad tempered. And short. Which maybe I am – but only, obviously, for everyone’s good. And I do hate getting things wrong – I really, really hate getting things wrong.
“Which is probably just vanity. But I feel that was one of the things that I hated: the idea that the Eye was shoddy and didn’t mind – which, I don’t think it should be because why would you read it?”
Have you ever sacked anyone?
“I have. I sacked people in the early days and I have sacked people since. Yes.”
Could you be sacked?
“I should think it’s very difficult. I do hope I’ve made it impossible.
“No. The board could, yeah.”
Are you on the board?
In addition to editing Private Eye, Hislop is a regular on Have I Got News For You and also presents documentaries for the BBC. Can the Eye cover the BBC impartially bearing this in mind?
“Oh, yeah. Because my first job was Spitting Image, which was ITV. And I used to do documentaries for Channel 4… I mean, I don’t want to sound like Auberan Waugh, but I will work for anyone.
“No, providing you don’t pull back, no. I feel, you know, John Wells [an original Private Eye contributor] used to do a quiz show on the BBC – with Richard [Ingrams], actually. But I think it made no difference to them at all…
“God, I mean, the amount of BBC stuff per issue – were they having a major objection, I think it might be registered by now.
“The most obvious way to avoid it is to work for an independent production company – so I work for Hat Trick [which produces Have I Got News For You]. And then I work on documentaries for Wingspan. So technically they can’t say anything to you.”
In July, a number of celebrities wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron warning him that “a diminished BBC would simply mean a diminished Britain”. It has been dubbed the 'luvvies' letter'. Were you asked to sign it?
But you didn’t sign it.
“Had I seen my own name on the list, I would have thought: ‘You overpaid wanker – why should I care what you say?'”
Who asked you?
“That I’m not going to say.
“But God no – entirely inappropriate. And it does no good. I mean if there was a letter from 50 midwives saying: ‘The only thing that makes our lives bearable is watching Poldark’ – that’s a worthwhile letter. To have a letter from a load of famous people saying ‘I like the BBC and I get paid by them’, I mean, so what?”
Are you worried for the future of the BBC?
“Mm. I think it’s playing all its cards very, very badly at the moment. And I think the BBC has a huge amount of things going for it. And, you know, I’m a huge fan of the Proms – I think paying for four orchestras is fabulous – I like a lot of radio, which I think is very, very good.
“But it’s allowed itself to get into a position where everything it does appears to be self-defeating. And I hate the thought that that’s going to end up with them emasculated and feeble.
“In our business you know pretty well why the Mail and the Murdoch empire, every time the Beeb do anything, they get slammed. But there’s a feebleness and a lack of robustness about the Beeb – and obviously cack-handedness – that has allowed it to be in this position of people going: ‘Ooh, the BBC, it’s a big worry.’
“I mean, you look at what the [BBC] does week after week and it shouldn’t be a problem. I watched two documentaries last week alone, which I think were worth the licence fee.
“The quality isn’t a problem. But I think the management is.”
What newspapers do you read and like?
“I’d probably buy The Times, which I like as a first read – which is shocking given it's Murdoch-owned. I read The Guardian, which again is incredibly useful. I read The Indy, which I like. And I think they do an amazing job, given how under-resourced they are. I do read all the other papers.”
Who are your favourite journalists or editors?
“Oh God no – I’m certainly not [going to answer] that. No. Absolutely not. None. No admiration at all.”
“No. Even less.”
You have previously described Private Eye as the best job in the world. Do you still believe this?
“Yeah. Particularly having come back and watched someone else do it so well. Bloody Wheen!”
How long do you see yourself doing it for? When you were first made editor you said you’d do the job for five years. You’ve now been at Private Eye for nearly 30 years. How many more years do you see yourself staying?
“At least another 30!”
Have you been offered any other jobs?
“No, depressingly. I keep imagining that someone’ll come up with some brilliant offer. But, no. The Barclay brothers have not been on the phone, amazingly. Nor Murdoch. I mean, I can’t imagine why, but none of these people seem to want to give me a job.”