British satirical magazine ‘Private Eye’ in rude health at 50

2011-10-06 00:00

AFTER decades lampooning hapless politicians, Britain’s leading satirical magazine Private Eye turns 50 this month with its brand of irreverent humour as popular as ever.

The Eye, as it is affectionately known, has defiantly retained its old-fashioned, scrapbook appearance in an age of glossy magazines and fast-moving news delivered via the Internet.

Anniversary celebrations include an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and a glitzy party in central London, which the invitation says is sponsored by the “Worshipful company of hacks and jokewrights”.

Largely the brainchild of four men who attended the same private school and worked on the school’s magazine, the Eye’s first edition published on October 25, 1961, was a yellow-paged booklet with the headline: “Churchill cult next for party axe”.

Fast-forward five decades, and the fortnightly publication with its mix of off-colour humour and serious investigative journalism is going strong under the watchful eye of long-serving editor Ian Hislop and fictional proprietor Lord Gnome.

Its trademark cover with a photograph and a speech bubble regularly pokes fun at prime ministers, members of the royal family and media figures, and has helped transform it into a British institution selling 200 000 copies each issue.

“I think if it did go glossy and have a very kind of modern design, readers would hate it,” said Eye journalist Adam Macqueen, who has written a book to mark the magazine’s half century titled Private Eye: The First 50 Years.

“It would not seem as authentic. It is important, that slightly studenty, ragged look,” he told AFP at the magazine’s offices, a maze-like network of cramped rooms in a ramshackle converted town house in London’s Soho district.

The magazine’s recurring jokes have become so well known in Britain they have their own page on Wikipedia and euphemisms such as “tired and emotional”, meaning drunk, and “trebles all round!”, used to mock people who have made profits with little effort, have entered popular usage.

The Eye’s regular columns range from one focusing on corruption in local authorities, called “Rotten Boroughs”, to another filled with newsroom gossip, “Street of Shame”, which makes it a must-read for journalists.

While print media in Britain is in crisis, beset by plunging circulations and constant job cuts, the Eye’s focus on subscriptions and refusal to put all of its content on the Internet have helped to keep its sales healthy, Macqueen said.

Sales of the Eye have hovered between 205 000 and 210 000 an issue in the past three years, and averaged 206 266 an edition between January and June this year, according to figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which records newspaper sales in Britain.

Macqueen also put recent success down to a string of major news stories which have given the magazine’s journalists and joke writers plenty of material.

“Bad times for the country make for good times for the Eye — financial crises and coalition governments and unpopular wars, MPs’ expenses, and phone hacking and riots,” he said.

The recent phone-hacking scandal which has rocked the media empire of Rupert Murdoch, a regular target of criticism in the magazine in which he is nicknamed the “Dirty Digger”, was the inspiration for a classic Eye front page.

It featured photos of the media tycoon, his son James and Rebekah Brooks, his top executive in Britain until her resignation, under the headline “Gotcha”, a mocking reference to a notorious front page on the Murdoch-owned Sun tabloid in the eighties.

The Sun headline celebrated the sinking of an Argentine ship, the General Belgrano, during the Falklands War.

The “Gotcha” edition of the Eye sold around 253 000 copies, about 45 000 more than average.

But the magazine has had its fair share of controversy, particularly over front-page jokes judged insensitive.

Perhaps the most controversial was the one following the death of Princess Diana in a Paris car crash in 1997, which prompted a major chain of newsagents to ban the issue from its stores.

Under the headline “Media to blame”, it showed mourners outside Buckingham Palace with speech bubbles coming out of three figures.

The first person says: “The papers are a disgrace.” “Yes. I couldn’t get one anywhere,” says the next, and the third responds: “Borrow mine. It’s got a picture of the car.”

As for the future, Macqueen believes that as long as Britain keeps producing enough juicy news stories and gossip, there will be a place for the Eye.

If government “suddenly became utterly transparent, as did the media and everything in-between, then there probably wouldn’t be much of a gap for it, but I don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon,” he said.

— Sapa-AFP.


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