Overrated: Ian Hislop

The editor of Private Eye, once Britain’s leading satirical magazine, is no dissenter but a key member of the establishment

Robert Low

From September to next January the British Museum will mount an exhibition with the modest title I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent. The editor of Private Eye has selected 100 objects from the museum’s collection which tell the story of dissent from ancient times to the present day, ranging from an ancient Mesopotamian object right up to a pink knitted “pussyhat” as worn in the American anti-Trump demonstrations of January 2017, which turns out to have been “newly acquired” just for the exhibition. The show is, however, unlikely to feature any emblem of dissent from liberal orthodoxy, such as an item from the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum.

Who could be more suitable for this task, you might think, than the editor of Britain’s foremost satirical magazine? Well, almost anyone, really. For Hislop long ceased to be the embodiment of dissent and is now a pillar of the liberal establishment, while his magazine is a far cry from the gadfly that delighted in mercilessly mocking politicians and public figures of left, right and centre, broke exclusive news stories, and recounted gossip from society’s inner circles that Fleet Street dared not publish.

Hislop likes to have his cake and eat it. While the Eye regularly mocks the BBC (not a difficult task), Hislop earns a small fortune from the corporation as one of the two regular panellists (along with Paul Merton) on BBC2’s Have I Got News For You?  The series has now been running for an extraordinary 28 years and Hislop has appeared in every single programme, although these days he does little more than pull faces at the other guests’ sallies. But nobody at the BBC seems willing to pull the plug, although the series has long outstayed its welcome. Hislop has also made several well-received TV documentaries for the BBC and the upcoming British Museum show will be accompanied by three Radio 4 programmes — hosted by Hislop, of course.
In truth, he was never much of a rebel. After minor public school (Ardingly) and Oxford he walked straight into a job at Private Eye having interviewed the then editor, Richard Ingrams, for a university magazine. Ingrams groomed him as his successor and Hislop succceeded much earlier than anyone had anticipated, when he was still only 26. Ingrams must be as surprised as anyone that the affable Hislop is still holding down the job 32 years later, and showing no sign of moving on or promoting his own successor.

Why should he? By most standards he has done a fine job: the Eye’s circulation stands at a near-record 240,000 a fortnight, and with minimal production costs (the paper it is printed on remains just one up from lavatory-roll quality) it is a cash cow for its motley crew of owners. And thanks to the greatly relaxed libel laws, the Eye no longer has to set aside a sizeable proportion of its income to fight the legal actions which were once a constant threat to its existence.

It retains some excellent features: Craig Brown’s mock Diary (although you can read him elsewhere too), D.J. Taylor’s literary parodies, the irreplaceable Pseuds Corner, and Michael Gillard’s consistently excellent “Slicker” column exposing City wrongdoing. Gavin Stamp’s recent death put an end to his long-running “Nooks and Corners” column exposing the worst horrors of modern architecture and town planning. It seems unlikely he can be replaced, unless Prince Charles wants the job.

Much of the rest of the magazine seems stale and repetitive. The recent death of Mary Wilson aged 102 was a reminder of the brilliance of “Mrs Wilson’s Diary”, lampooning her husband Harold’s administrations, equalled only by “Dear Bill” in the Thatcher era, and by little since in the way of prime ministerial satire.

BBC TV’s dramatisation of the Jeremy Thorpe scandal recalled the waspish genius of the late Auberon Waugh, who first broke the story in the Eye with a typically mischievous item on the shooting of Norman Scott’s Great Dane, Rinka, which ended with the words: “My only hope is that sorrow over his friend’s dog will not cause Mr Thorpe’s premature retirement from public life.” Prophetic indeed, and the sort of tone now sadly missing from the magazine. Page after page on the iniquities of local government or private finance initiatives don’t have quite the same sparkle.

The Eye’s reaction to the Brexit vote was symptomatic of its identity these days. The issue after the referendum poured scorn on the winners, and the resulting cascade of letters criticising that stance clearly came as something of a surprise to its editor and his staff. Since then, normal pro-Remain service has been resumed, along with its other familiar obsessions, among them the privatised industries, Rupert Murdoch, the Daily Mail and Israel (against all of them). As a representative of the metropolitan elite, it resembles nothing so much as the Guardian with the addition of a few lame jokes. Still, as he bounces from one lucrative establishment gig to another, Ian Hislop, now 57, must be very pleased with life. Surely a knighthood is the least he deserves from a grateful nation.

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