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The Blessing of Gnome
Member Name: duncantorr
Date: 29/10/11, updated on 28/05/13 (198 review reads)
Advantages: Still an amusing antidote to the arrogance of power
Disadvantages: Less funny than it was?
~ Eye to Eye ~
Fifty years after its launch, Private Eye is not, of course, what it was, which may be just as well. A magazine of its kind could ill afford to become ossified, and even as I applied words like "venerable" and "institution" to it in the preceding paragraph, I did so with a slight shudder. Venerable institutions tend to lose their edge and eventually their raison d'etre, and in this respect Private Eye's predecessor Punch provides a cautionary example. Launched as a vehicle for sharp anti-establishment satire, Punch gradually retreated into a reliance on inoffensive conventional humour before entering a long decline and ultimate closure. Mind you, Punch lasted over 150 years; if Private Eye can emulate that longevity it will be quite an achievement. But I for one hope it will do so while maintaining its challenging character rather than by lapsing into a comfortable old age.
~ Eye'm all right, Jack ~
At present, Private Eye is unquestionably faring rather well. The latest figures show a circulation of 206,000 copies per fortnightly issue*, down a touch from a highpoint last year, but still higher than for most of the past two decades, higher than more conventional current affairs magazines like The Week, The Spectator or The New Statesman, and higher, incidentally, than was ever achieved by Punch. In an era when print media are generally having a hard time, this is remarkable. Adult readership, meanwhile, totals 729,000**, so an average copy is read by three and a half people, a healthy ratio. The readership is predominantly up-market (87% ABC1, to use the customary socio-economic jargon), male (69%) and middle-aged or older (61% over 45). You'd expect this demographic profile to be very attractive to certain types of advertiser (e.g. those selling cars, travel, financial products, wines and spirits), but Private Eye carries very little advertising, generally 6-8 pages of display per issue, plus a page or two of classified. Conceivably the publishers deliberately restrict ad space to maintain the appearance and feel of their product. Or perhaps potential advertisers are worried about being seen in such a controversial editorial environment. Probably the quality of colour reproduction on its off-white matt paper is no great incentive either, but here again the publishers probably feel that that's part of the down-to-earth look they want. Typography and layout are similarly unsophisticated, even makeshift, presumably by design - or anti-design, perhaps.
Editorially, Private Eye is routinely characterised as a 'satirical' magazine, and the word fits well enough, though strictly much of the content is not so much satire as exposure, which is another thing. Satire works by representing people in a distorted or exaggerated form to draw attention to their inherent absurdity, dishonesty or hypocrisy. Exposure simply tells it like it is. Private Eye does both, and does both well, but one of the ways in which it has changed over the years is that it has come to rely for its substance more on exposés and less on pure satire. And less on humour for the sake of humour too. Although the exposés are sometimes wittily presented the resultant tone is more serious than it once was; hence perhaps an impression that it is less funny now than it used to be. Or maybe that impression is simply nostalgia. I can, after all, remember from my youth people saying the same of Punch.
~ Has Eye got news for you? ~
So how much satire, exposure and humour do readers receive for their money (which amounts, incidentally, to £1.50 per copy, or £28 for a year's subscription)? It would be unrepresentative to analyse the current, celebratory offering alone, so I have looked back through half a dozen recent issues plucked at random from the pile heaped up in a corner of my lair. Characteristically, a 40 page issue includes about 32 pages of editorial and, unless the magazine is splashing a special story, the make-up and running order are remarkably consistent issue by issue. Let's see how they run:
The Front Cover always consists of a photo chosen to illustrate a topical news story, captioned with a satirical headline and usually speech bubble to hammer home the point. For example, a picture of the London riots was captioned "Olympic Rehearsal" with a bystander commenting "This is the worst opening ceremony ever". Echoes here of a front cover published during the riots of July 1981, which featured a looter appearing to say "I blame my parents". Some covers have been controversial; bad taste has never been an obstacle, nor has giving offence. Indeed, one suspects Private Eye would feel it had failed if it didn't receive a few letters of complaint and threats to cancel subscriptions every fortnight - they frequently appear on the Letters Page. At one point (I think it may have been after the death of Princess Diana) they even included a printed form for the convenience of subscribers wishing to cancel in protest at the nature of their coverage.
If you fail to be outraged by the cover and choose to delve inside, you will find the first eight to ten pages devoted to exposés, or at least news stories illustrating the dishonesty, cupidity or stupidity of those in the public eye. For many years the first of these pages was headed by a cod-editorial leader purporting to be written on behalf of Lord Gnome, the fictitious proprietor, but this practice, and the character of Gnome, seems to have been quietly dropped of late. Now the opening page focuses predominantly on politicians, with usually half a dozen piquant items to savour and to act as an appetiser to what follows. Subsequent stories are grouped under topic headings: 'Street of Shame' covers the press, 'TV Eye' and 'Media News' the broadcast media, 'HP Sauce' parliament (with a sub-section 'The New Boys and Girls' focussing on the recent intake), 'Rotten Boroughs' on local government, 'TUC News' on the unions, 'Ad Nauseam' on advertising, 'Medicine Balls' on the NHS, 'Educashun News' on schools, 'Signal Failures' on the railways, and so on.
~ Eye'll be damned ~
This may sound heavy going, but is lightened up by the individual items being kept as sharp and snappy as is compatible with the libel laws - no easy task, given that Private Eye probably has to take a lot of its information on trust from undisclosed sources. Some high-profile libel cases have in the past brought the magazine to the brink of bankruptcy, when it has been hounded by the rich and powerful, Robert Maxwell and Sir James Goldsmith notable among them. Both of these subsequently succumbed to "The Curse of Gnome", the early demise that seems often to befall those who pursue vendettas against the magazine. Despite this deterrent, there is always a danger that Private Eye will publish on the strength of insufficiently substantiated rumours, or even be maliciously misinformed at the instigation of those eager to discredit it, and to sue if it takes the bait. Although Private Eye does sometimes find itself caught out, on the whole it is remarkable how seldom that happens. Apart from which, intelligent victims know that their reputations may benefit more if they write a good-humoured letter asking for, and receiving, a retraction than if their lawyers start wielding heavy-handed writs.
The dense nature of the opening sections is also alleviated by peppering the page with other visual items, which indeed continue to run through the whole magazine: insets, more humorous pics with speech bubbles, and cartoons including some regular strips. It would, I think, be fair to say that the graphic quality of the cartoons is not always the highest, but this may again be a deliberate policy to maintain the rough-and-ready style of the whole. I have to admit that I'm not a great fan of any of the current regular strips: 'Supermodels', which guys the anorexic world of haute couture; 'Young British Artists', which guys the greed of that breed, 'Dave Snooty and His Pals', a remake of the Beano cartoon with Cameron cast as Snooty; 'The Adventures of Mr Milibean', with Milliband cast as Mr Bean; 'Celeb', mocking the aging rock star lifestyle; 'The Premiersh*ts', mocking footballers; 'Yobs' (or sometimes 'Yobettes'), mocking the belligerently uncouth; and 'It's Grim up North London', mocking the effetely couth from that neck of the woods. In the latter case there may lurk some implicit self-mockery, in that the magazine is sometimes accused of being too London-oriented and too little aware of life outside the capital. In much the same spirit, Private Eye's editor Ian Hislop in a recent appearance on the television show 'Have I Got News for You?' countered a reference to "somewhere in the north" with "What, Islington?"
Gosh, this is proving a very long catalogue of contents, and I'm not yet half way through. It all goes to show how much can be crammed into 32 pages. Next comes the Letters Page(s), including a sub-column entitled Pedantry Corner, to which excessively nit-picking letters are consigned. This is just one of several items that are effectively contributed by readers, the others being: 'Commentatorballs', to which you can send in examples of gobbledegook emanating from commentators on TV or radio (e.g. "He's seized this game by the scruff of his teeth" or "Correct me if I'm not mistaken"), and receive £10 if they are published; and 'Pseud's Corner', to which you can send in examples of pretentious posturing (e.g. "This new staircase questions the nature of power and production in Britain today" or "His voice is an emotional hologram of my soul"). Finally, before we reach the truly satirical section, I must mention Funny Old World, a compilation of reports of human folly and eccentricity compiled from news media around the world. I defy anyone to read it without raising at least an eyebrow.
~ One in the Eye ~
Ah, so now it gets satirical, starting with the regular newsletter from the New Coalition Academy (formerly Brown's Comprehensive), Headmaster David Cameron, which portrays the cabinet as the staff of a school. Telling stuff, and maintaining a long tradition of columns lampooning the prime minister of the day: one remembers Blair presented as a breezy, bumptious vicar, the 'Secret Diary of John Major aged 47¾', and the 'Dear Bill' letters purportedly written by Denis Thatcher commenting on life with his domineering spouse. Next, up to half a dozen pages of miscellaneous pieces presented in the style of the press, sometimes specific titles, sometimes non-specific archetypes, designed to bring out not only the misdeeds of those in public life but the inconsistent and tendentious style of those who comment on them. The Murdoch and Desmond titles are frequent targets, as is the Daily Mail. We find frequent contributions from Glenda Slagg (shrill, judgemental, mental, and self-contradictory), Polly Filler (vacuous, self-centred, trivial), Dave Spart (strident, red-flag-waving, dogmatic) and Lunchtime O'Booze (post-prandial). As a gesture to the online community, we also find 'From the Message Boards', which makes a valiant attempt to outdo the real thing for prejudice, belligerence and incoherence both logical and grammatical. This section culminates in the excellent Diary column, written by Craig Brown (no, not the former Scottish football manager, the other one) in the assumed manner of a celebrity or public figure; recent targets have included Joan Collins, Harold Pinter, Lee Child and Michelle Bachman, with the parody right on the button in every case.
Next comes a page or two about the world of literature, including a book review, usually utterly scathing: e.g. "hardcore prose porn with the occasional reference to Martin Chuzzlewit or quantum physics to maintain the pretence that a proper writer is at work here", or "some of the lamest faux-academic chatter ever committed to print". If you were an author this is not where you'd want to see your brainchild dissected.
'In the Back', which follows, is the meatiest part of the paper. We are back to exposés, but here more substantial and, one suspects, more thoroughly researched pieces drawing attention to corruption and injustice wherever they arise. Private Eye has made the running in numerous cases over the years, and has often, though not always, been vindicated. The current, souvenir issue catalogues 50 high profile cases from Profumo onwards in which Private Eye has been instrumental in casting light on wrong-doing, incompetence and corruption in high places, often having to fight costly legal actions or stave off attempts to smear it in the process. This is an impressive list, and makes one wonder how much sleaze would have stayed swept under the carpet if it hadn't been for the Eye's searching scrutiny. The magazine has also been vigorous in support of whistle-blowers wherever they arise, particularly in the NHS. And so we finally come to 'In the City', which turns its mordant eye on the financial sector, which has of course been a richer source of scandal than ever in recent years.
Oh, and there's a cryptic crossword, with clues as salacious as some of their solutions.
~ The Eye of the beholder ~
So there we have Private Eye: scurrilous, irrepressible, irreverent and stiletto-sharp in puncturing pomposity . Invaluable too. Every free society needs an unofficial watchdog of this kind or it will cease to be free. If Private Eye didn't exist something very like it would have to be invented. But we are fortunate in Britain in that it does exist, and has survived for fifty years. I hope it lasts at least another hundred, adapting to changing times perhaps, but never compromising its essential character.
Over its five decades to date, and particularly under the editorship of Hislop - now twenty-five years into the job and only the third ever editor - Private Eye has changed, or at least evolved. It is now much less like a student rag magazine than it was in its earliest days, and though the in-jokes and running gags persist, it is less frivolous and arguably less funny. Instead, it carries more serious, investigative analysis of the dark underside of the anatomy of power. "News," as Rubin Frank of NBC once famously said, "is what someone wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising." In this regard Private Eye is not just an entertaining read, but a great newspaper.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK 2011
Source*: Audit Bureau of Circulations, Jan-June 2011.
Source**: National Readership Survey, Jan-June 2011.
Summary: As sharp as ever after fifty years