The Longevity of Satire: Celebrating 'Private Eye' at 50

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Britain's satirical mainstay still steers the country's cultural dialogue

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Private Eye

In 1961, a group of young Englishmen (and they were men, graduates of Shrewsbury School in Shropshire) launched a satirical bi-weekly called Private Eye that is still Britain's leading magazine of wit, gossip, news, and mockery of public figures and politicians who can be nailed for self-importance, hypocrisy, malfeasance, and peccadilloes of various types. The magazine is carefully crafted to look home-made—a schoolboy's project—and deliberately designed in old-fashioned fonts with a cut-and-paste layout that contrasts with today's glossy periodicals. In fact, Private Eye is sophisticated and clever and has managed to stay in sync with British humor and public attitudes, playing an influential role in the country's culture and language.

Americans will see elements of The Onion, The Daily Show, and Spy (which had a successful newsstand run in the 1980s). Remarkably, Private Eye is still in the hands of its surviving founders. The chairman is Richard Ingrams, who was editor from 1963 to 1986. The editor since then has been Ian Hislop, who joined the magazine in 1981 at the age of 21. The magazine has endured a cascade of libel suits from those it has criticized, and despite paying out substantial sums in settlements it continues to make its way with the help of a large and devoted readership. What is distinctive are the euphemisms developed over the decades that makes reading the magazine like belonging to a club. To truly appreciate Private Eye, it helps to live in Britain or read it regularly. For example, since 1967, "tired and emotional" has been synonymous with excessive drinking and subsequent public display. An item in 1973 about goings-on at a London cocktail party involving a former Ugandan government minister became short-hand for sexual intercourse. "I can reveal," said an item in the "Grovel" column, "that the expression 'talking about Uganda' has acquired a new meaning":

As I was sipping my Campari on the ground floor, I was informed by my charming hostess that I was missing out on a meaningful confrontation upstairs where a former cabinet colleague of President Obote was "talking about Uganda." Eager, as ever, to learn the latest news from the Dark Continent I rushed upstairs to discover the dusky statesman "talking about Uganda" in a highly compromising manner to vivacious former-features editor Mary Kenny. . . .

That settled it.

To mark its half-century, the magazine has released a coffee table book, Private Eye: The First 50 Years, an extensive historical glossary compiled by staffer Adam Macqueen covering every aspect of its disrespectful past. This is its explanation of why it characterizes the royals as "Brenda and family":

In July 1971 the "Grovel" column revealed that the Queen was "known as Brenda to her immediate staff." The Eye inserted itself uninvited into that intimate circle and has been calling the monarch by the nickname ever since. Four years later "Grovel" added that "Margaret's new nickname in her circle is 'Yvonne' while Prince Charles is called 'Brian.'" And in 1982, Princess Diana was welcomed into the family. "She is known as 'Cheryl' in royal circles."

Over the years, the book reports, the magazine has made hugely popular figures out of such unlikely personalities as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's husband Denis, whose fictional "Dear Bill" letters beginning in 1979 (written by Ingrams and another Private Eye mainstay, John Wells) elevated Thatcher in Macqueen's account from "a very successful but fairly obscure former businessman to national treasure status, in the process subsuming his own personality almost entirely in one of the satirists' invention—so much so that when the real Denis died in 2003, the Daily Mail decided the best tribute was to print several of the fictional one's letters."

On the other hand, the magazine has scored some significant investigative coups. In 1972, according to Macqueen, "Home secretary Reginald Maudling resigns after long series of Eye stories chronicling his dodgy business associates." The same year, the magazine first appealed to its readers for help with legal costs as it accumulated libel writs from wealthy and prominent targets who could take advantage of British law that places the burden of proof on the journalists. The New Yorker took note of Private Eye's anniversary in a "Talk of the Town" item by Lauren Collins that said, "The magazine's talent for antagonism is such that many of its columns are written pseudonymously. Whistle-blowers or shit-stirrers, pass on tips." At a banquet marking the occasion in London's Guildhall, Hislop, as editor, toasted staff and "contributors who haven't told their employers."

Having made it through a half-century essentially unchanged in style and manner, Private Eye is itself something of a national institution. Aside from the book, there is an exhibition of the magazine's covers at the Victoria and Albert Museum (all the Private Eye covers can be found at private-eye.co.uk) and photographs from its extensive archive are on display at the National Portrait Gallery. Private Eye does have a website, but seems to take greatest pride in being impervious to fashion and digital upgrades. Not surprisingly, the blurbs on Private Eye: The First 50 Years are sharply critical. "Private Eye is one of the great offenses of modern life," proclaims Tim Bell, a public relations man to Mrs. Thatcher in 1985. "It has no morality. It has no honor and it does terrible damage to people. It's basically a pack of lies." Private Eye embraces that sort of opprobrium and headlined its 50th-anniversary issue: "How Satire Makes a Difference."

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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