Table of contents
The forerunner of Private Eye was a school magazine edited by Richard Ingrams, William Rushton, Christopher Booker and Paul Foot in the mid-1950s. They met at Shrewsbury School and after National Service Ingrams and Foot went to Oxford University, where they met their future collaborators Peter Usborne, Andrew Osmond, John Wells, and Danae Brook, among others.
The magazine proper began when Peter Usborne learned of a new printing process, offset lithography, which meant that anybody with a typewriter, Letraset and some glue could design a magazine. Although Private Eye was founded amid the British satire boom and the political and social upheavals of the 1960s, at first it was merely a vehicle for silly jokes – an extension of the school magazine and an alterantive to other humorous magazines like Punch. However, according to Christopher Booker, its original editor, it simply got "caught up in the rage for satire".
The magazine was initially funded by Usborne and was launched in 1961. It was named when Andrew Osmond looked for ideas in the famous recruiting poster of Lord Kitchener ("Your country needs you!") and, in particular, his pointing finger. After the name "Finger" was rejected, Osmond suggested "Private Eye", in the sense of someone who "fingers" a suspect.
The magazine was initially edited by Christopher Booker and designed by Willie Rushton, who also drew cartoons for it. Its later editor, Richard Ingrams, was then pursuing a career as an actor and wouldn't take over editing for some time, the editorship with Booker on his return around issue 10 and only taking over fully on issue 40.
Other people essential to the development of the magazine were Auberon Waugh, Claud Cockburn (who had run a pre-war scandal sheet The Week), Barry Fantoni, Gerald Scarfe, Tony Rushton, Patrick Marnham and Candida Betjeman. Christopher Logue was another long-time contributor, providing a fortnightly column of "True Stories" gleaned from cuttings from the national press. The gossip columnist Nigel Dempster wrote extensively for the magazine before he fell out with the editor and other writers, and Paul Foot wrote on politics, local government and corruption.
Nature of the magazine
To say that Private Eye specialises in gossip, often of a scurrilous nature and about the misdeeds of the powerful and famous, is to undervalue it. It frequently carries news stories and reporting which the mainstream press is loath to touch (for fear of legal reprisals) or which is of minority interest. "The Eye" will often print a story when hard evidence is lacking but when there is an overwhelming consensus that the story is true, and a central tenet is that truth isn't necessarily directly linked to the production of facts or evidence. It is also thought that the Eye avoids breaking stories of politicians' extramarital activites on moral grounds – though, of course, they have no qualms about commenting on such matters when they are unearthed elsewhere.
Many of the contributors to Private Eye are public figures and/or specialists in their field. Many stories originate from writers for other mainstream publications who can't get their stories published by their employers. Many Private Eye contributors choose to write under humorous pseudonyms and often their identity is only revealed after their death, if at all. A financial column at the back of the magazine ("In the City") has contributed to a wide city and business readership as a large number of financial scandals and unethical business practices and personalities were first aired there by the writer, Michael Gillard.
The magazine is also a showcase for many of Britain's best humorous cartoonists. The magazine has also published a series of independent one-offs dedicated solely to news reporting of particular current events, such as government inadequacy over the foot and mouth outbreak, or the conviction of Abd al-Basset Ali Mohammad al-Megrahi for the Lockerbie bombing. There was another special issue in September 2004 to mark the death of long-time staff member Paul Foot.
The magazine currently includes several regular sections:
- The cover, with its famous speech bubble, putting ironic or humorous comments into the mouths of the famous in response to topical events.
- News (previously called The Colour Section) – effectively the stories the magazine is most proud of that week or thinks most important, placed at its front.
- Street of Shame – covering journalism, newspapers and other press/publishing stories. The term "Street of Shame" refers to Fleet Street. Usually largely written by Francis Wheen.
- HP Sauce – covering politics and politicians. ("HP" refers to Houses of Parliament, as well as being an actual brand of sauce.)
- Down On The Farm – agricultural issues.
- Down On The Fishfarm – issues relating to fish-farming.
- Ad Nauseam – the excesses and faux-pas of the advertising industry.
- Court Circular – gossip supposedly from those working within royal family circles.
- Eye TV – analysis of television programmes and news/criticism of the UK television industry.
- Doing The Rounds – medical news and coverage of the National Health Service, believed to be written by the consultant (and sometime comedian) Dr Phil Hammond.
- Rotten Boroughs – highlighting local council activities.
- Signal Failures – covering railway issues.
- High Principals – examining further and higher education issues.
- Under The Microscope – looking at issues related to the scientific field.
- Nooks & Corners – architectural criticism. This is one of the magazine's most famous sections. It was originally titled Nooks & Corners of the New Barbarism, a reference to the architectural movement known as New Brutalism. The column was founded by John Betjeman, and is currently written by architectural historian Gavin Stamp using the name "Piloti".
- Letters – readers' letters section which frequently includes letters from the famous and powerful, often so that the Eye can print an apology and thereby avoid litigation. Some people use the page as a voice to express disgust at a recent Eye article and, infamously (or jokingly), end by saying they will cancel their subscription. This section also prints the lookalikes and occasionally prints the embarrassing picture of Andrew Neil described below.
- Funny Old World – supposedly genuine news stories from around the world; written/compiled by Victor Lewis-Smith.
- Letter From... – brief column written by a native person of a particular country highlighting the political or social situation there.
- Prime Minister parodies – a full page lampooning the prime minister of the day. The style of the page is always the same, and tries to sum up some fundamental characteristic of the person involved. Occasionally, formerly defunct columns of this type resurface (e.g. Dear Bill, on the death of Denis Thatcher).
- Mrs Wilson's Diary (defunct) – a chronicle of the events in Harold Wilson's life, from the more down-to-earth and homely perspective of his wife, Mrs Wilson. The series was later adapted to theatre and television.
- Dear Bill (defunct) – spoof letters from Denis Thatcher to Bill Deedes, about life in 10 Downing Street with Margaret. The series portrayed Dennis as a sozzled alcoholic staggering between snifters.
- The Secret Diary of John Major (aged 47¾) (defunct) – A spoof weekly diary entry based on The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (aged 13¾) in which John Major was typically characterised as being hopelessly naïve and optimistic.
- St. Albion Parish News – the main focus of the magazine's satire against Tony Blair, who is characterised as a sanctimonious Church of England vicar and his government as various parish officials. Blair often receives updates from his trans-Atlantic confidante, George Bush, from the "Church of the Latter-Day Morons".
- Newspaper parodies – the latter half of the magazine is taken up with parodies of newspapers; the layout and style of writing mirrors newspapers, which serve as vehicles for parody and satire of current events, plus spoof adverts. Where further content is implied, but omitted, this is said to continue on page 94.
- Glenda Slagg – self-contradictory female reporter based on the journalist Lynda Lee-Potter.
- Sally Jockstrap – a fictional sports columnist who is incapable of correctly reporting any sporting facts.
- Poetry Corner – trite obituaries of the recently deceased in the form of poems from the fictional teenage poet E.J. Thribb. The poems always begin "So / Farewell then".
- A Doctor Writes – the fictional "A. Doctor" or "Dr Thomas Utterfraud" parodies newspaper articles on topical medical conditions, particularly those by Dr Thomas Stuttaford.
- Polly Filler – a stunningly vapid and self-centred female "lifestyle" columnist, whose irrelevant personal escapades and gossip serve solely to cover column inches.
- Toy-town News or Nursery Times – a newspaper based on the mythology of children's stories. For example, Paul Burrell was satirised as the "Knave of Hearts" who was "lent" tarts "for safe keeping", rather than stealing them as in the rhyme. Nigel Dempster is referred to as "Humpty Dumpster".
- Ye Daily Tudorgraph – a newspaper written in mock-Tudor language, set in that time-period. It usually suggests Bill Deedes was a young boy at the time.
- The Has-Beano – a pastiche of the Beano children's comic, used to satirise The Spectator and Boris Johnson (who features as the lead character, Boris the Menace).
- Obvious headline – the trite and banal stories about celebrities' antics that receive extensive reporting in the national press are often rewritten as an anonymous headline, such as "SHOCK NEWS: MAN HAS SEX WITH SECRETARY". This is usually "EXCLUSIVE TO ALL NEWSPAPERS".
- Official Apology or Product Recall – spoofs the official apologies and product recall notices that newspapers are mandated to print. For example, a product recall of the English national football team, a very faulty product.
- Gnomemart – the Christmas special edition of Private Eye includes a double page of spoof adverts for useless mail-order gadgets, usually endorsed by topical celebrities or capable of playing topical songs or TV theme tunes.
- Diary – a diary written in the style of the chosen celebrity (written by Craig Brown).
- Literary Review – analysis and criticism of books as well as the publishing industry.
- Pseud's Corner – quotations from the media in which the pompous and pretentious point themselves out (based on reader submissions, which are rewarded with "the usual tenner"). Now usually includes a sub-section – Pseud's Corporate.
- In The Back – in-depth investigative journalism, often taking the side of the downtrodden. This section was until 2004 overseen by Paul Foot and is seen by many as the strongest element within the magazine. It often criticises the police. It was known as Footnotes until 1999, when Paul Foot suffered an aortic aneurism and had to spend six months in hospital.
- In The City – analysis of financial and city affairs and people.
- Classified – adverts from readers. Years ago people with odd sexual tastes would make contact with others via personal ads, using code words (using the names of motor cycles to describe various sexual acts, for example). However, nowadays it's usually more a case of people flogging wine or websites, or conspiracy theorists promoting their ideas, because sexual deviants have taken to using the Internet instead. Includes the "Eye Need" adverts in which people beg for money and sometimes, it's claimed, have their prayers answered by wealthy readers.
In addition, there are several mini-sections, mostly based on clippings from newspapers sent in by readers:
- Lookalikes – comparing two famous individuals who look alike; frequently the two have an ironic connection too which is pointed out by the reader who submits the piece. The captions relating to the two individuals are also swapped around, implying that even the magazine cannot tell which individual is which.
- Order Of The Brown Nose – highlighting those who toady to others (usually the famous and/or powerful).
- Dumb Britain – Bizarre or stupid answers to questions from British TV/radio quiz shows
- Dumb America – as above but instead highlighting bizarre or stupid answers from U.S. game shows.
- Hackwatch – highlighting the recent writing of a journalist or newspaper, to highlight ironic inconsistencies or general poor quality.
- Luvvies – quotations from thespians and other theatrical types, proving they are "Luvvies".
- Colemanballs – infamous collection of quotes from radio and TV in which commentators and other professional speakers are inconsistent, mix metaphors, and more. It is named after British sports commentator David Coleman.
- Warballs – quotations from the media in which people spuriously use the events of September 11, 2001 as justification for various actions, usually totally unrelated.
- Dianaballs – like Warballs, highlights the use in the media of invoking an emotional or sentimental response by referring to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
- Eye spy – pictures sent in by readers showing contradictory, scatological, or just plain daft images.
- Solutions – instances of companies claiming to provide 'solutions' where a simpler phrasing would seem more appropriate: for instance, describing cardboard boxes as "Christmas Ornament Storage Solutions cleverly designed so that you no longer have to painstakingly wrap each Christmas ornament in tissue paper in order to protect it".
As well as many one-off cartoons, the magazine features several comic strips:
- Bores – Michael Heath
- The Yobs – Tony Husband
- Supermodels – Neil Kerber
- The Commuters – Grizelda
- It's Grim Up North London – Knife & Packer
- Young British Artists – Birch
- Hom Sap – Austin
- Off Your Trolley – Reeve & Way
- Apparently – Mike Barfield
- The Premiersh*ts – Paul Wony
- Celeb – Charles Peatie and Mark Warren
- Snipcock & Tweed – Nick Newman
- The Directors – Dredge & Rigg
- Cloggies (defunct) – Bill Tidy
- That's it.
Additionally, currently and in the past it has used the work of Ralph Steadman, Wally Fawkes, Timothy Birdsall, Martin Honeysett, Willie Rushton, Gerald Scarfe, Bill Tidy, Robert Thompson, Ken Pyne, Geoff Thompson, "Jerodo", Ed McLauchlan, "Pearsall", Brian Bagnall.
Examples of humour
The magazine has a number of running jokes, often accessible only to those in the know. The phrase "Ugandan relations" (or "Ugandan discussions" or "Ugandan affairs"), for example, is a Private Eye euphemism for illicit sex, usually while carrying out a supposedly official duty. According to the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang by Tony Thorne the phrase is "said to stem from a party at which a female journalist was alleged to have explained an upstairs sexual encounter by saying 'We were discussing Uganda.' (Idi Amin's regime was in the news at the time.)"
Queen Elizabeth II is always referred to as "Brenda". "Tired and emotional" was a phrase used to describe the drunken stupor in which 1960s Labour party Cabinet Minister George Brown was discovered one night, and has now entered common parlance. Mohamed Al-Fayed is routinely referred to as "The Phoney Pharoah" and much jest is made of his mispronounciation of the word "fuck" as "fugg".
Some running jokes are more understandable. For example, any fictional quotations from the police are attributed to "Inspector Knacker of the Yard", a reference to knackers' yards, where old horses were sent to be turned into glue. Also, people engaging in lawsuits (especially frivolous or pointless ones) are often said to be using the services of the law firm "Sue, Grabbitt and Runne". Capita – a company allegedly responsible for delaying the start of the academic year 2002–3 at some schools by incompetent handling of the Criminal Records Bureau which was responsible for vetting teachers for convictions for child abuse and other offences and whose administration had for the first time been privately contracted, and has since featured in a number of unfavourable Eye reports, often involving PFI schemes, a regular butt of Eye criticism and jokes – is frequently called "Crapita". The Serious Fraud Office is always the Serious Farce Office. The magazine itself is frequently referred to as an "organ", providing endless possibilities for sexual innuendo.
The magazine has developed nicknames for most of Britain's leading newspapers:
- The Guardian is inevitably The Grauniad (for its reputation for typos).
- The Telegraph is either The Torygraph (for its support for the Conservative Party), The Hurleygraph (for regularly printing photos of Elizabeth Hurley on its front page), The Hello!graph (for an appearance of celebrity obsession) or, as discussed below The Telavivagraph.
- The Daily Express becomes the Daily Getsworse or the Daily Getsmuchworse, but more recently the Daily Sexpress (its owner, Richard 'Dirty' Desmond, also owns or owned several pornographic magazines).
- The Independent was described as the Indescribablyboring while its sister paper, The Independent on Sunday, is known as the Sindie.
- The News of the World is known as The Screws of the World or The Screws.
- The Daily Mail is usually spoofed for an obsession with property prices e.g. the impact of Prince Harry dressing as a Nazi on property prices in London.
- The Daily Mirror is known as The Moron. This was more amusing before Piers "Moron" Morgan (or, as the Eye often puts it, Piers "Morgan" Moron) was sacked as its editor.
Running jokes in the magazine include such staples as St Cake's school, the notoriously underperforming football club Neasden F.C.; the magazine was initially printed in Neasden before being turned away by the printers, which might explain the origins of this joke. Lord Gnome is purported to be the proprietor of the magazine and is modelled on an amalgam of newspaper magnates.
Bulleted lists are usually shorter than stated and include two final entries of "Er..." and "That's it.". The number 94 is used as a generic boringly large number, e.g. "the awards ceremony, in its 94th year" or a spoof newspaper cover story being cut off mid-sentence with "(continued page 94)"
In the early 1970s its crossword was set by the Labour MP Tom Driberg, under the pseudonym of "Tiresias" (supposedly "a distinguished academic churchman"). It is currently set by Eddie James under the name "Cyclops". The crossword is frequently pornographic and, by all measures, usually intensely offensive.
A photograph of journalist, broadcaster and publisher Andrew "Brillo Pad" Neil ran over several consecutive editions and still surfaces periodically on the flimsiest of excuses. It shows Neil dressed in a vest and baseball cap embracing an attractive young Asian woman thought to be Pamella Bordes, a former beauty queen with whom he had had a relationship. It was not intended for the photograph to become a running gag, but it became so after it became known that Neil found it embarrassing.
The director and satirist Jonathan Miller once described the Eye's editorial conference as like watching naked, anti-semitic public schoolboys in a changing room, flicking wet towels at defenceless victims.
Alongside jokes, the magazine frequently breaks news stories before any other outlet. It was the first outlet to name the Kray twins as the gang leaders terrorising the London underworld in the 1960s. This only occurred as the then editor Richard Ingrams was on holiday and proprietor Peter Cook covering for him saw too good an opportunity to miss.
Critics of the magazine in the distant past have suggested that it had an antisemitic tone, perhaps because it refers to the Daily Telegraph newspaper as the Telavivagraph (but also as the Teheranagraph), and frequently lampoons events in Israel by writing them up into mock KJV Biblical verse ("And first they visited upon the city of Jen-in in a terrible plague of fire and brimstone, so that many of the Araf-ites and Hamas-ites were slain, even men, women and children"). The fact that the previous owner of the Telegraph, Conrad Black, and his wife and contributer Barbra Amiel, are both vocal supporters of Likud party policies is a possible explanation for the Telavivagraph jibe. The paper faithfully reflected the owner's prejudices, making it ripe for satire.
The magazine has also been claimed to have other racist attitudes which still occasionally surface, such as the 1971 cover showing Emperor Hirohito visiting Britain with the caption "A nasty nip in the air" (subhead: "Piss off, Bandy Knees"). Idi Amin also was characterised speaking in Pidgin English. In the 1960 and 1970s the magazine mocked the homosexual political movement as "Poove Power".
However, the magazine always maintains a fog of irony which often makes it hard to discern if it is being serious in intent or just joking. This even applies to readers' letters, which might be published because they make a valid point or just so that other readers can be entertained by the naïve notions discussed.
The magazine's irreverence and occasional crudity can also offend some. Upon the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, it printed a cover headed "MEDIA TO BLAME". Under this headline was a picture of many hundreds of people outside the gates of Buckingham Palace with one person commenting he couldn't get hold of a newspaper, and another saying, "Borrow mine. It's got a picture of the car." The issue also featured a mock retraction of everything negative that they had said about Diana. This was enough to cause a flood of complaints, many cancelled subscriptions, and the removal of the magazine from many newsagent shelves (including WH Smith, though the chain has since resumed stocking the magazine).
Following the terrorist attacks on New York on September 11, 2001 the magazine's cover featured an aide briefing George W. Bush on the tragedy. The aide says, "It's Armageddon, sir"; to which the President replies, "Armageddon outta here".
The magazine is sued for libel on a regular basis and maintains a large quantity of money as a "fighting fund" (although experience has taught those behind the magazine quick ways to defuse legal tensions, usually by printing a letter from those concerned).
The most famous litigation case against the magazine was initiated by James Goldsmith, who managed to arrange for criminal libel charges to be brought (effectively meaning that, if found guilty, those behind the Eye could be imprisoned). He apparently sued over allegations made about his business activities although precise details are hard to ascertain. Goldsmith won a partial victory and eventually reached a settlement with the magazine. However, the case threatened to bankrupt the magazine, which turned to its readers for financial support in the form of the Goldenballs Fund. Goldsmith himself was referred to as Jaws. The solicitor involved in many litigation cases against Private Eye, including the Goldsmith case, was Peter Carter-Ruck (or "Carter-Fuck", as the Eye referred to him).
Robert Maxwell also sued, for the suggestion he looked like a criminal. He won a significant sum. The editor, Ian Hislop, summarised the case: "I've just given a fat cheque to a fat Czech." Sonia Sutcliffe also sued after allegations that she used her connection to her husband, the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, to make money. She won £600,000 which was later reduced to £60,000 on appeal. However, the initial award caused Hislop to quip outside the court: "If this is justice, I'm a banana."
The magazine is apparently owned by an odd and eclectic cartel of people, albeit officially published through the mechanism of a limited company called Pressdram Ltd [Registered No.00708923], which was bought as an "off the shelf" company by Peter Cook in November 1961. Companies House Link – Pressdram Ltd
Private Eye is not the kind of magazine to publish explicit details of individuals concerned with its upkeep (it notably doesn't even contain a "flannel panel" listing of who edits, writes and designs the magazine), but in 1981 the owners were quoted in the book The Private Eye Story as being Peter Cook, who owned most of the shareholding, with smaller shareholdings by the likes of Dirk Bogarde, Jane Asher, and several of those involved with the founding of the magazine. Most people on the list have since died, however, and it's not clear what happened to their shareholdings. Those concerned are reputedly contractually only able to sell their shareholdings at the price they originally paid for them.
- Private Eye home page
- Media Guardian story
- Ugandan Discussions (unofficial front covers archive)
- Goldenballs! by Richard Ingrams (ISBN 1897597037)
The Private Eye Story by Patrick Marnham (ISBN 0233975098)