From Juvenal to Blair: things can only get worse

30 October 2008

The first thing I notice about Ian Hislop is the limpness of his handshake. Oh dear. This is not a good sign. The last person to comment on this was tabloid editor turned professional twat Piers ‘Morgan’ Moron (apparently Hislop was just trying really hard not to shake his hand).

Anyway, putting the sort of rampant paranoia aside that results from too much time reading press cuttings, we move into the Private Eye offices. Hislop, editor of the satirical magazine since 1986, is in a frenzied mood. “Capitalism is collapsing, so we’ll have to keep this short”, he says, running up the stairs remarkably quickly for a man with such short legs. Still, he was once famously described as a “pushy midget” so it’s probably not that surprising after all. He speaks quickly, and animatedly, with a touch of the fevered energy more characteristic of his Have I Got News For You co-presenter Paul Merton.

The problem with this interview is that we both want Ian Hislop to like us. We both obsessively watch his TV shows and read his magazine and harbour some bizarre fantasy in which he is so impressed by our line of questioning that he instantly offers us jobs. Or at least I do. Now this is all fine except we have in front of us down a list of extraordinarily irritating questions that would make any normal person promptly tell us to fuck off. Luckily, Hislop spends most of his time asking irritating questions that make people promptly tell him to fuck off (or at least want to), so he seems to not really mind.

Hislop became editor of Private Eye only four years after graduating from Oxford, where he read English Literature. He quickly made enemies among established contributors, who he sacked as soon as he got the top job. His magazine regularly attacks the upstart editor of The Daily

Telegraph, Will Lewis, for sacking his experienced correspondents. If we hadn’t worried about Hislop liking us, we would have asked him if that made him a bit of a hypocrite. Unfortunately, the thought occurred towards the start of the interview, before we had plucked up the requisite courage to say something vaguely offensive to one of our childhood heroes. We may as well have brought it up, given that he ends the interview by saying “write whatever you like”. Oh, and we also asked him lots of detailed hypothetical questions about what he would do if he were caught by the tabloids with his trousers down. (There was a good reason for this). Of course, these scenarios are highly unlikely to come to pass, since Hislop is happily married to a beautiful novelist, with whom he has two children. But it must be a source of tension in their household that when you Google ‘Hislop’ she comes up first. And no, we didn’t ask about that either.

In fact, we start by talking about the comparatively anodyne topic of Peter Mandelson, who has recently been re-appointed to the cabinet. Hislop’s magazine has been calling the soon to be three time resigner “The Prince of Darkness” since the late 1980s. He refers to the notoriously devious Business Secretary as “the man who knows where we all live”. When we ask what he thinks of Gordon Brown’s madcap scheme to bring Mandelson back, he answers frankly. “It’s extraordinary: we’ve got a world crisis based on huge dodgy loans and duff mortgages, and he gets Mandelson in, who had to resign because of questions about his own mortgage. It’s a very peculiar decision, and it seems very desperate to me.” Later, he describes the controversial appointment as “great news for comedy”, before immediately adding “but god knows what it means for the rest of the country”.

We go on to talk about the gradual re-appearance of former spinner-in-chief and fellow destroyer of public life Alistair Campbell, and what impact this might have on the political landscape. “It’s like a terrible tribute band from the 90s”, he says. “They’re back, this ghastly crew.”

But Hislop doesn’t think that this means the age of spin is upon us again. Turning the conversation straight back to the credit crunch, he answers: “We’ve hit a period of hyper-realism, haven’t we? Literally, at the moment, you can’t spin it. Brown’s only attempt has been to say ‘this is all the fault of the Americans’, which is pushing it. When you’ve been sucking up to the banks for the last ten years, you can’t really say ‘good grief, how has this happened, aren’t these bankers awful?’ They’re all his mates, bankrolling him. I suppose Brown has to spin his own role in the last ten years, but I don’t think even Mandelson can do that. The only thing the public is going to buy at the moment is honesty.”

Quite a lot of the interview is spent discussing the global financial crisis, for which Hislop apologises. “We’re all slightly obsessed at the moment”, he says, as the conversation understandably turns to the same subject again and again. “There is only one story, which makes me very mono-focus, I’m afraid.” Still, he doesn’t think that any of the fiscal turmoil has done Brown much harm (yet). “You look and you think the one person who has been saved by the crisis is Gordon Brown. He’s got a real spring in his step”, he says, incredulously, “I’ve never seen him look so happy. The world’s going down the toilet but he’s still in.”

Hislop talks about the crisis with a weird mixture of optimism and pessimism, which is probably an inevitable consequence of spending your time editing a satirical magazine and berating people all day. One of the consequences of the markets collapsing might be “a return to sanity”, he says. “If we do own 25% – or whatever it is – of the banks, perhaps we could see some return now, and tell the directors not to take all the money themselves.” Shortly after sounding this carefully qualified note of hope, though, he reminds himself that “this morning it all looks completely bonkers again: the markets have fallen another 10%, so god knows. I don’t know if you’ll have a university to go back to.”

Later we talk about the personal ambitions of Brown’s deputy, Harriet Harman, with whom Hislop recently appeared on Question Time. He repeatedly asked her if she would stand if there were a leadership contest, and she repeatedly refused to answer. “I couldn’t believe it”, he says, in his special tone of voice reserved for condemning self-preserving politicians from parties that have fucked up badly. “It was a day almost as bad as today in terms of what was going on, and she still somewhere in her head was thinking ‘I could be leader, so I’m not going to deny that I would be’. Everyone else was thinking ‘you must know the game’s up: you lot aren’t coming back, and you definitely aren’t’, but she wouldn’t do it.”

One can hardly imagine there being much love between Hislop, and Commissar Harman, as his magazine calls her. Apparently, she “wasn’t too thrilled with him” when he unwittingly implied that she was ugly by saying in front of her that Sarah Palin was the first good looking person in politics for a long time. She probably wouldn’t be too thrilled either to learn that Hislop concurs with Observer interviewer Lynn Barber in thinking she’s “thick, docile and acquiescent”, but hey. When we ask if Barber’s summing up is fair, he says “She’s been quite acquiescent to get to be deputy leader, and she was very Blairite, wasn’t she? She’s managed to swing with the wind. It’s a reasonable description, isn’t it?”

He sums the hapless Deputy PM as the one “they always put up to take the flak”, before adding “I feel that it’s my job to deliver the flak”.

We go on to talk about just what he thinks his job is, and with that, his alleged pessimism. “Satirists always take it as read that things are getting worse”, he says, in answer to a question about whether British newspapers are in a state of terminal decline. “That’s the default position, though sometimes it isn’t true. Still from Juvenal onwards, that’s what satirists say.

“I think at the moment that there is a desperate trend of newspapers to try and interest people your age, and the assumption is that you are only interested in pop music and celebrity, and that you have no genuine interests. Newspapers are doing this awful thing which I think is equivalent to your parents dancing, and unsurprisingly, you’re thinking ‘oh god, please don’t.'”

When we ask him how much inluence Private Eye has, Hislop admits, “It’s difficult for me to say without either sounding pompous or admitting my life is pointless.” He points out that the magazine does occasionally have success in penetrating the mainstream – or at least in being proven right. “The great thing about the Eye is that you bang on about stories very boringly for years and nobody takes any notice, until eventually someone looks at it and says ‘oh, that’s right'”. He points out that Gordon Brown had recently taken the a line from Private Eye to use as a barb against David Cameron. “I think the agenda that week had been set or at least nudged by us. I hope we have some influence, obviously, that’s why one carries on.”

And what does the most sued man in English legal history think about the trend of the “rich and devious” using European privacy laws to suppress stories? “There are real problems that we’re beginning to run into.” Inevitably, the name Max Mosley is mentioned. (The Formula 1 boss and son of the fascist Oswald Mosley who allegedly had a ‘Nazi-style orgy’ with five prostitutes; a court ruled this summer that the News of the World breached his privacy). “It’s odd with Mosley, because basically people want to try his dad in retrospect. There was a flavour left over from history that people were still interested in”. Was it the correct judgement, to say that the story should never have been published? “The judgement was very odd. It basically said it was his private life, yet if it had been proved that it was Nazi then it wouldn’t have been his private life. It’s an odd judgement, because you can’t have it both ways. If it’s entirely up to you what you do, then you can presumably have Nazi S & M gatherings round your place…Whether the head of Formula 1 racing is a moral post or not I’m not sure.”

Private Eye’s ‘Street of Shame’ column consists of vicious attacks on journalists found guilty of hypocrisy, or contradiction. Recently singled out was BBC politico Andrew Marr, who prevented several papers from running a story about his private life, and then tried to stop anyone from mentioning that such an action had taken place (Marr had previously spoken out against celebrities using the law in such a way). We ask Hislop if he would ever be tempted to get an injunction on a story about his private life. “I wouldn’t. Of all people I would be in a very very poor position to complain. No, I think that would be pretty grotesque.”

And would he give his daughter work experience on his magazine? “That would be difficult. I think it’d probably be fairly flattered but I’m not sure it’s going to happen.” Sensing his refusal to make an outright denial, we ask again. “It’s not an absolute no”, he says, thinking on his feet, and clearly a tiny bit uncomfortable. “Come back to me and see what I’ve done, and then put the boot in if I have.”

This is refreshing, at least: the knowledge that if he were to do something hypocritical he would take the resulting flak with good grace. (When he committed a particularly egregious misuse of the word “literally”, he allowed it to be printed in Private Eye’s Colemanballs column).

There is a sense of ambivalence running through his attacks on the hypocrisy of journalists.

He often seems unsure as to whether he’s included in the criticism. “Journalists are incredibly thin-skinned: they’re fantastically good at attacking everyone else, but they’re furious of any tiny criticism of themselves. That’s why we have at least two pages a week spend attacking journalists, because we’re so thin-skinned.” It’s perhaps telling that he switches from “they” to “we” in mid-sentence.

Hislop’s dilemma is how, as a journalist, he can continue to make a living by monstering other journalists and keep the moral high ground. He is grappling with the difficulties with which satirists since Juvenal have contended: of how to pour scorn on human foibles whilst staying human, and how to avoid that most human trait, hypocrisy. How to resolve this, we’re not sure. But one thing that does seem increasingly clear now. We probably shouldn’t have made a crack about his short legs and limp handshake after all.