In the pages of Britain’s scathingly satirical magazine Private Eye, public figures are not always known by their real names. Sarah Ferguson is called the Duchess Fergiana of Yorkie-Bar, Queen Elizabeth goes by the cryptic Brenda, and publisher Rupert Murdoch, a favorite object of scorn, is known as the Dirty Digger. Then there’s the bizarre lexicon of Private Eye-speak. If an article says that a member of Parliament has been spotted “talking about Uganda” with a comely party guest, what it really means is that said politician has been engaging in extra-curricular activities that have nothing whatsoever to do with Uganda. “Tired and emotional” is the Eye’s winking innuendo that someone has had one too many at the bar. And short lotharios are described as being “small but perfectly formed.”
For 28 years Private Eye has served up a saucy mix of outrageous gossip, investigative reporting and acidly funny news commentary that has managed to outrage England’s high and mighty while amusing a fiercely loyal readership, which now numbers about 200,000. Housed in a creaky four-story building in London’s Soho district, the five editorial staffers sit down every two weeks to set their sardonic sights on the newsworthy. “Private Eye is very frivolous, schoolboy humor, which originates in the desire of schoolboys to make fun of the masters,” says Richard Ingrams, 52, Private Eye’s co-founder and, subsequently, editor for 23 years. His successor, Ian Hislop, sees the magazine as part of “the long English tradition of satirical, abusive writing that goes back to Swift, Pope and Gay.”
Making the cover of Private Eye, which is printed on appropriately pulpy comicbook paper, is the worst kind of exposure. After Princess Beatrice was born to Fergie and Prince Andrew, the magazine splashed the Yorks on the cover, with Mum saying, “She’s got my looks and his brains,” and the swaddled baby Bea exclaiming, “Oh, no!” Regular columns inside include “True Stories,” a compendium of strange news items clipped by readers, and “Street of Shame,” which makes a habit of lambasting media titans like Robert Maxwell. “Robert Maxwell’s mental condition is more unstable than ever,” began a typically hyperbolic recent entry, “following the leaking of a secret report showing that morale at Mirror Group Newspapers is at rock bottom and that he is to blame.”
The magazine’s unflinching style makes its lawyers familiar figures in libel court. Last May Private Eye was ordered to pay $972,000 in damages to Sonia Sutcliffe, the wife of a convicted murderer known as the Yorkshire Ripper, who objected to the magazine’s allegation that she had received $405,000 from a newspaper for her life story. “If this is justice,” Hislop said at the time, “then I’m a banana.” Last October the Court of Appeals awarded Sutcliffe a tenth of the original amount, but the ordeal still enraged Hislop. “Libel is like playing poker,” says the Eye’s 29-year-old editor, who as a student at Oxford edited a magazine delicately called Passing Wind. “It’s merely a game in which you’re trying to bluff the other side into some sort of settlement or deal.” Devoted Eye fans raised more than $150,000 for the magazine’s defense.
The fearless spirit and tone of the Eye was exactly what the editors at Spy magazine, the American equivalent of Hislop’s publication, had in mind. “The United States had long forgotten what a satirical magazine could be,” says E. Graydon Carter, one of Spy’s editors, who co-founded the Eye’s slicker American cousin in 1986. “Private Eye’s very existence was an enormous beacon of light that you could do this consistently over a long period of time.”
Preserving the Eye’s acerbic sense of history was important to In-grams when he decided to hand over the editor’s reins to Hislop 3½ years ago. Fortunately, Ingrams saw a number of “weird” similarities between himself and his young protégé. Both men had performed in satirical revues at Oxford, where they had edited comparable magazines, and both lost their fathers at early ages. Hislop was also working for the caustic TV series Spitting Image, so he was well-versed in the art of lampooning. “Ian knew what Private Eye was all about and understood how it worked,” says Ingrams, who is married with two grown children and lives in Berkshire. Hislop leads a quiet life in London with his wife, Victoria, 30, a businesswoman.
Ingrams remains a real presence in the Eye’s Dickcnsian headquarters at 6 Carlisle Street. He and several others—including major shareholder Peter Cook—attend the biweekly bull sessions in Hislop’s office that determine each issue’s makeup. The rule, says the editor, is that “you have to make the other guys laugh.”
As long as there is an England (and especially a monarchy), Ingrams and Hislop agree, Private Eye’s job will never be done. “Everything rides on the back of satire,” says Hislop. “People are made to laugh first, and the premise is that nearly everything has its funny side.” Of course, Brenda et al. might not agree.
—Andrew Abrahams, Laura Sanderson Healy in London