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Ian Hislop on journalism, ‘privilege’ of editing and why he is committed to print

Ian Hislop on journalism, ‘privilege’ of editing and why he is committed to print
Ian Hislop on journalism, ‘privilege’ of editing and why he is committed to print

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Private Eye editor Ian Hislop has told the Society of Editors that print is “still kicking” as he accepted a fellowship of the organisation.

Speaking at a reception following the Society’s 25th anniversary conference last week, Hislop said he feels embarrassed when people thank him for doing a story because, in cases such as the Post Office Horizon IT scandal, it was campaigning groups that “did all the work”.

The satirist also revisited notable moments from his editorship, including run-ins with libel lawyer Peter Carter-Ruck and the moment he was found guilty of contempt of court.

And he said that regardless of “however brilliant” journalism is, “we have to make sure that people want to read it” — hence why, he said, the closest thing Private Eye has to a philosophy is “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down”.

Ian Hislop’s speech to the Society of Editors:

It is obviously incredibly flattering to be given this award in a lift shaft talking over lobby music. It’s always very good for journalists to realise where we come in the pecking order.

Thank you very, very much to the Society of Editors. Indeed, I have been editor of Private Eye for 38 years, which is about 250 times longer than Liz Truss made it in one of the other top jobs. 

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I’m very flattered to be asked here today because the Prime Minister himself was here earlier. I didn’t know who it was — it was a mystery guest, I was wondering whether it was going to be Keir Starmer — but no! It’s the current prime minister! And apparently he didn’t take questions. Well, there’s a surprise.

He did say, however, he was a Swiftie. And indeed I am too. I’m a Jonathan Swiftie — the great satirist and journalist who was driven by indignation and bad temper. He didn’t write much about ex-boyfriends, more government inadequacies and miscarriages. 

I have been here 38 years, and in 1986, when I became editor, I was incredibly lucky to have the great journalist Paul Foot, the campaigning and investigative journalist, working for Private Eye. And if people say to you journalism achieves nothing: I looked it up, and in 1986 Paul wrote a piece about an infected blood scandal. 1986 — so we sorted that one out quickly.

He was a great inspiration to me, and indeed to many other people. And at Private Eye I’ve been incredibly lucky — we’re all on the shoulders of giants. I found, in my early days at the Eye, that working with him and with the other journalists there was a great inspiration.

Secret of investigative journalism

Paul Foot was once asked: ‘What’s the secret to great investigative journalism?’ And he said: ‘People ring you up and tell you things.’ Which was incredibly modest of him and, in fact, incredibly true. I always bear his words in mind.

Thank you very much for going through some of the Eye’s greatest hits. If you think about Paul’s words, this is exactly what happened with the postmasters and mistresses story — Computer Weekly was the first in there, two years before we took up the story, and then they came to us. 

And Alan Bates is, as many of you will know, a terrifically funny, tough individual, and in the first piece we ever wrote we had Alan Bates on board. I saw him two weeks ago, and he said to me: ‘I’d like to complain about the current Private Eye.’ I thought, ‘Oh no…’, and he said, ‘There’s a whole page in it without a mention of the postmaster scandal’ — proving that he’s funnier than us and better at journalism.

Another of the postmasters is a man called Lee Castleton. I was walking down Oxford Street, again, about three weeks ago — someone shouted ‘Oi! Ian Hislop!’ And I go: ‘Oh, God, what have I done now?’ And it was Lee, and he said ‘I wanted to thank you’ — which is incredibly embarrassing, given they did all the work. 

I said: ‘What we can do for you is be a megaphone.’ And it is literally that — we can expand these campaigning groups. They are the people who come to you, they are the people whose story it is, and what we do is get it — if we’re lucky — to a wider audience.

And I am conscious that a number of those cases, and a number of the stories we’ve run, are entirely down to the groups who came to us. What Paul tried to achieve, and what Richard Brooks — our brilliant journalist who wrote [the Eye’s Post Office coverage] and also wrote the Teesside story (obviously good luck to the mayor [of Teesside, Ben Houchen] in the local elections up there) — Richard said what you have to provide is an environment where people will come to you, and they will tell you things that they’re worried about or that they feel they can’t get in elsewhere. 

SLAPP’d down by Carter Ruck

A little bit of history: when I was told I was being given an award I thought, ‘Oh, shit, damages.’ But no, not that sort of award.

You were kind enough to mention libel over the years. I was very pleased to see the government taking action on two fronts. On SLAPPs which, again, the SLAPP problem involves one of my favourite legal firms, who I’ve spent 40 years countering. They’re a firm called Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners, and for some reason, when they appear in Private Eye, the R always gets changed into an F, so they end up Peter Carter-Fuck. 

In the early days, Peter Carter-Fuck — a very senior lawyer in London — he rang me up and said: ‘I do not want to appear in your pathetic magazine as Peter Carter-Fuck.’ Yeah, we printed that too.

Anyway, I like the idea of action on the SLAPP orders, and SLAPP teams, who would be like SWAT teams and go into top London lawyers’ [offices] and arrest all of them and put them in jail. Or maybe I’ve misinterpreted what the current legislation is.

[The repeal of] Section 40 – again, which is very good news for journalists. This is about whether we have to pay all the costs in any libel, even if we’re right.

You were kind enough to mention the Sonia Sutcliffe case, in which the damages were originally £600,000 with another £700,000 costs, which was about £1.3m, and more or less bankrupted the magazine shortly after I took it over.

Any help on who gets to pay the costs — particularly when you win — is very welcome from the government, so I was delighted to see that.

Hislop’s Contempt conviction

Nothing on contempt of court, which I’m afraid I was guilty of once. I’m sure none of you have ever had trouble there.

I went into a lower court and I was found innocent by the very brilliant Justice Popplewell. But unfortunately they appealed, the Attorney General asked for a two-year committal, and the Court of Appeal — there were three judges, and they did the full X Factor on me. They said: ‘The Attorney General’s asked for two years, and in this case, we find Ian Hislop… [he makes a heartbeat noise].

‘Guilty — but he will have to pay a fine of £20,000.’ So I didn’t go to jail, I just wanted to make that absolutely clear, in case anyone thinks I have a criminal record, which would rather ruin this award.

Hislop on editing

I won’t go on too long. I would just like to say: being an editor is an incredible privilege. The reason I’m still doing it is I can’t think of a better job. It is fabulous to have the privilege — and I appreciate what a privilege it is in this country to be able to publish top-quality journalism without fear of arrest, harassment, torture…

And I’m always slightly embarrassed when people say [about a story]: ‘It’s great you’ve done this’. There’ve been hundreds, literally hundreds of years of journalists in this country who have taken the risks to bring us to the state we are in now. And any timidity in the face of what our international colleagues are doing, I think, is always worth remembering.

I enjoy being the editor and I enjoy the chance, in our very particular publication to, as you very kindly put it, produce this slightly odd mix of jokes and journalism.

I had an earnest PhD student who asked me recently: ‘What is Private Eye’s reason? What is your philosophy?’ And I quoted the British philosopher Mary Poppins, who said ‘a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down’. And that is, more or less, it.

I think it’s true of an awful lot of journalism — however good it is, however brilliant it is and however important it is, we have to make sure that people want to read it, and provide a way for them to do so that doesn’t put people off. And you all know that is the great challenge.

Committed to print journalism

So I am incredibly flattered to be here. I’m very, very privileged to still be in the job. I did give a speech after I became editor saying I would probably do the job for a couple of years — I didn’t realise it would be 38, but I also didn’t realise I wouldn’t get any other offers.

I am committed to journalism. I’m still committed to print journalism. At Private Eye, post-Covid, we are selling more subscriptions than we’ve ever done. And the newsstand trade is still there.

I still think that print is alive, I still think it’s kicking, and I still think that journalism is really, really important.

And if it’s important, then it’s worth paying for, and I do think what the next generation will have to do is convince their peers that, if you are prepared to pay for everything else to be delivered, everything else to be given to you, then journalism should be a higher priority, and should be [something] which people are prepared to [pay for] — pay journalists, pay writers, pay illustrators, pay cartoonists, pay all the people who make journalism, as a package, as a deal, worth doing. 

So that’s about it, really. Thank you very much indeed.

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