Private Eye remains committed to the paid-for print model despite deputy editor Francis Wheen describing its advertising revenue as ‘hopeless”.
In an exclusive interview in this month’s edition of Press Gazette to mark the Eye’s 50th anniversary, Wheen said: ‘We have a website. We tend put a few things from the magazine on it and then say right that’s your lot if you want to read the rest of the magazine go and bloody buy it.”
For the last 25 years editor Ian Hislop has been the public face of Private Eye, with the suspicion that hacks like deputy editor Francis Wheen are left to do the real work of bringing the magazine out.
But Wheen claims this suspicion is completely wrong. ‘I’m more on the news side of the thing but Ian is the editor and not a page escapes his attention,’he said.
‘I write stuff and it’s up to Ian to decide what goes in. Although I’m technically deputy editor, in practice it only arises when Ian’s away. When he’s editing he doesn’t really need a deputy because he’s so hands on.
“When he’s around I’m just a hack in the office basically doing stuff and suggesting things.”
Wheen’s career in journalism began at The Guardian in 1974, where he was ‘a glorified office boy”, before joining The Independent at its launch in 1986 and leaving to write a book a year later.
He became involved in Private Eye after bumping into Hislop at a party.
‘I started bunging in the odd piece and he kept asking for moreâ€¦Ian said you can’t possibly live off a book advance so why don’t you come into the office?’he said.
‘I started coming in a few days a fortnight and I never left, no-one ever does.”
Wheen claimed the reason why he stuck around so long was simple: ‘it is such a nice place to work”.
‘It’s one of the few offices I can bear to work in any more,’he continued. ‘I rather gave up on newspaper offices once they became computerised.
‘I used to like the general noise and chaos of newspaper offices in the days of typewriters banging away and general mayhem. When computers came in they all turned into fitted carpets and air conditioning and people would come in and log on and all you would hear was the low hum of the computer.
‘Private Eye is still noisy and quite scruffy and has battered old armchairs and a piano in one room. We have singsongs occasionally.”
Wheen said the magazine is inundated with tip-offs, but despite its reputation as scourge of the establishment surprisingly few fall into the category of ‘nutters”.
‘Hilary Lowinger who usually answers the phone is terrifically nice and polite and is very good with the nutters. She is always very polite and sympathetic. But even things which look as if they might be a bit like that… quite often lead to a story.
‘You get letters from someone saying ‘I’ve been the victim of a monstrous injustice’ and you think it’s going to be electrodes in the brain and the Archbishop of Canterbury is plotting against me, but then now and again you look into these things and actually there has been some injustice done.
‘If somebody got in touch with the Eye in the early 1970s and said ‘Hello, my name’s Norman Scott and I’m a former male model and I believe I am the victim of a conspiracy to murder me led by the leader of the Liberal Party and they’ve shot my dog and it involves Welsh carpet salesmen as well as other leading liberals’ – you’d probably think ‘Oh God,’ another nutter, but actually it was largely true.”