Whilst of course we are all deeply shocked and saddened by the tragic events of last Tuesday, we should not be blinded to the fact that this was an attack on everything that we in the civilised world hold most dear – our money.
Thus began edition 1037 of the satirical magazine Private Eye. During the 9/11 attacks I was where I often am: in a pub. It was early afternoon and I was playing pool with two other eighteen-year-old boys. We would occasionally remember the flaming skyscrapers and turn around to inspect them on the enormous television screen behind us (the stricken towers took over an hour to fall down.) Primly, because I was driving, I had only one pint of beer that afternoon. I wish that I had laid off the beer completely because friends who are “Truthers” now tell me that there was so much on the screen that I had missed. Those dynamite charges – that news anchor who had read out the script wrong and prematurely reported on a skyscraper collapsing – that photon beam that had dissolved the falling towers into dust “mid-air.”
A whole new global war had pounced from out of nowhere and, in the days after these inexplicable terror attacks, I can remember being impatient for the next edition of Private Eye to appear. I had to wait the best part of a fortnight, since the previous edition had been published on the 7th.
To appreciate the relief that the Eye caused me to feel when it finally arrived, you have to understand just how tiny the media was back then. When compared to today, there was a practical famine of national and international news and commentary. My family took The Times, a paper in which only the sprightly music journalist Caitlin Moran struck me as being interested in writing with any power. My Dad subscribed to The Tablet and its pleasantly modulated thoughtfulness did not set my teenaged brain on fire. Everything else was the BBC, with the ITV and Channel 4 news programmes as unathletic alternatives. Ukippers and Scottish nationalists who today chant monotonously about “BBC bias” have evidently forgotten the days when the broadcaster really was such a loud and lone voice.
The internet was up and running in 2001 but I cannot recall ever using it as a news source. In the week following the 9/11 attacks, the BBC silenced its satirical shows The News Quiz (radio) and Have I Got News For You (television), leaving Private Eye with a brief monopoly over, not merely satire, but seemingly the entire anti-establishment perspective. It would not be possible for any magazine or website to achieve the same monopoly today.
If ever that coffee-cup meme “Keep Calm and Carry On” described anything, it was Eye 1037. The magazine was determined to make up for the passivity of the rest of the media. The cover mocked President George W. Bush for running away; that famous photograph of him being informed about the attacks was captioned “Armageddon outahere!” Inside, clichés, platitudes, and “mawkishness” were held up one after another for derision: “The whole world was immensely reassured today when President George W. Bush announced that good will triumph over evil. For centuries, philosophers and theologians have been engaged in anguished debate on this issue…” The TV reviewer Zapper started by ruefully conceding that “the plane crashing into the world’s fourth tallest building was one of television’s greatest moments,” before going on to criticise rolling news for transforming it into “repetitious cataclysmic wallpaper that refuses to pause for thought.”
In the next issue there were outraged letters and many readers cancelled their subscriptions. Last week I too cancelled my subscription to Private Eye, though this decision was based on outrage of a very different quality. When I try to remember what I can of the last Eyes that I have read, only two cartoons stand out. In the first (Eye 1439), a man on a therapist’s couch is told that “Your lycanthropy is cured!” and he replies “I’m over the moon!” Ouch! In the second (1437) there is a cry of “Pullover!” from a racing police car and the answer is “Thank you! It’s cashmere.” My God, they can’t treat us like this!
Perhaps it has always been this bad and I am simply getting harder to amuse. When my Dad had first seen that “Armageddon outahere!” cover, he had groaned that the joke was stolen from Spike Milligan.
Since I was a teenager, I have designated a homely hour every fortnight to reading Private Eye, but time is scarce nowadays and that hour is getting ever more inconvenient to fix. The paradox behind the high tradition of sending in a pompous letter to cancel your subscription is that you have to purchase the next edition to see whether or not your letter has been printed. It is like escaping from prison and then sneaking back to see how much of an impression it has made. Not wishing to be detained any longer (another hour!), I will have to, alas, forgo the pompous letter.
In truth, I will continue to buy the magazine on occasion. Indeed, because its mixture of cheerfulness and familiarity makes it so comfortable to read, I always take a copy on to planes with me. I am an anxious flyer and so I am usually reading it during the wobbly business of takeoff and landing (when electronic devices are meant to be deactivated). Had I been trapped in one of the planes that was flown into the Twin Towers, I would have been probably calmed by the Eye in the minutes prior to my incineration.
There is a painting by Charles Spencelayh entitled “The Laughing Parson” (1935) which is increasingly haunting me. Today, more than ever, it seems interpretable as a rebuke. The subject could be the archetypal Eye reader set in stone: an innocently chortling old clergyman, a cosy middle-class interior, God in His Heaven, the poor in their slums, and the tea in the teapot. The parson’s magazine is Punch rather than Private Eye, but the implications are just as unrevolutionary.
The last Eye that I read was droning on about the unfairness of the former Chancellor George Osborne being hired to edit the London Evening Standard. It is not much of a stretch to imagine Osborne adding the Eye to his portfolio. As the foremost hysteric on the Remain side, he would gladly persist with the Eye’s efforts to obtain a prestigious “Ordre du Nez Brun” from the European Union. He would doubtless share the magazine’s absorbed preoccupation with restructuring the Inland Revenue (these days the Eye frequently resembles a HMRC in-house magazine). A couple of cartoons and the odd paragraph from Slicker might be cut, but few readers would likely notice the difference.
After I cancelled my subscription, I was reflecting upon how the media has imperceptibly shifted around the Eye over the years, and I came up with a theory. I realised that the lion’s share of the internet – all of the political blogosphere and most of Twitter – has consciously or unconsciously internalised habits that were once unique to the Eye. The Eye‘s irreverence and gossip and prioritising of marginalised voices have all proliferated online to completely dwarf the beleaguered mainstream media. Two decades ago you would have sometimes laughed at a captioned photograph of the Prime Minister in Private Eye. Now you type their name into Twitter and you are met with a waterfall, cascading in real time, of sarcasm and ridicule, memes and endless specimens of Just-Fancy-That hypocrisy.
When Paul Staines set up the Westminster gossip blog Guido Fawkes, its USP was to replicate the Eye’s “HP Sauce” section on a rolling rather than a fortnightly timetable. Staines writes from the right, and he cannot match the Eye’s delicious prose, but he has otherwise aggressively expanded the magazine’s modus operandi. There is a traditional jealousy between the two outlets. The Eye has scoffed at “the tamed Staines” and reported of one Tory fundraiser that, “Staines even bid (unsuccessfully) for a shoe-shopping trip with Theresa May.” Guido hit back with a campaign that identified the actual age of supposed Eye exclusives and scoops, concluding that, “They were once the cutting edge of political gossip, nowadays their news is two weeks past their sell-by date…”
In recent years, the Eye has missed out on two huge establishment-shaking stories from the freelance journalist Miles Goslett, stories that it is surely the whole purpose of this magazine to publish. The revelations about Jimmy Savile’s paedophilia first appeared in The Oldie Magazine; the impending collapse of the celebrity Kids Company charity was first reported by The Spectator. Harry Cole, Staines’ former second-in-command at Guido Fawkes, has complained that, “We’ve drunk with people at Private Eye, past and present, who think that [the editor] Ian Hislop’s a bit of a sell-out and that they are extremely restricted by his BBC contract.”
Yet few blogs that are unconnected to newspapers presently run with news rather than commentary. Those that do, aside from Guido, are small beer. The Ferret, a Scottish investigative journalism “platform” that was launched in 2015, provides an object lesson in why: it is largely unreadable. Investigative journalism is probably, as The Ferret’s supporters and fundraisers piously insist, very valuable, but it remains stranded without an accommodating format. Private Eye – and indeed most newspapers – leaven difficult and protracted news investigations with humour and trivia.
When taken as a whole, the blogosphere and Twitter have ultimately plumped for supplying Private Eye on a vaster scale. We have an ocean of footnotes, often anonymous and unreliable, and intended mainly to supplement and annotate the mainstream news. Most Eye readers are possibly unaware that the magazine in fact has a website. There is something undeniably eerie about encountering it – how can a magazine that seems so big in print be so small and unremarkable online?