I have never seen into Ian Hislop’s eyes. But I can see into his soul, and I know he’s a good man. A grumpy chestnut mushroom of a man, with a receding patch of fluff on his bald spot, the Have I Got News For You panellist’s face is nearly always screwed up, either in anger or with laughter. Lately, though, his grimace has made way for a more mournful, drooped visage. Because if we’d all listened to this remarkable man’s mutterings, moanings and gripes, and followed his suggestions, the UK wouldn’t be in such a state right now.
Ian is just another nasal-voiced, white, middle-class guy in a suit on a panel show. On paper, he’s why panel shows are awful. But he’s the exception that proves the rule, in part because of his chuckles, in part because he’s spent all of his working life speaking truth to power and, in the process, risking financial destitution via a bunch of libel cases (don’t sue me!).
If Have I Got News For You is the gateway drug, news and current affairs magazine Private Eye is the hard stuff that Ian’s hooked me on. Ensconced in its editor’s chair for over 30 years, Ian was an obnoxiously young 26 when he started in the role. Though private schooling and an Oxford education can be thanked for forming the sturdier rungs of Ian’s career ladder, he deserves credit for his bravery.
Because in both his roles, Ian calls out everything and everyone from Vivienne Westwood’s tax dealings to ex-police chief Gordon Anglesea's paedophilia, from the Conservatives’ inability to posit an election policy beyond “Jeremy Corbyn is Labour leader” to the murkiness of the UK’s arms deals with Middle Eastern countries. A furious critic of the European Union’s leadership, Ian still thinks that the result of the EU referendum doesn’t mean Remainers should hush up now. Under Ian’s editorship, Private Eye has launched investigations into everything from offshore companies buying up British property to MPs’ expenses, from phone-hacking to various officials’, companies’ and publications’ hypocritical conflicts of interest.
More British people than ever realise that traditional pillars of society like the government and the press aren’t always to be trusted. And many readers have flocked to Private Eye, which is now at a 55-year high in its circulation. Unlike the nonsense fake news sites which peddle damaging myths both left and right, the Eye has no agenda other than to prod at, and make fun of, people who are doing, objectively, the wrong thing. Also unlike fake news, Private Eye is not online.
Its website, a bunch of banners telling visitors to buy the magazine, is as sparsely populated and poorly decorated as a Cotswolds branch of Budgens. This is down to Ian, and it should annoy me; does he not care about Private Eye’s future in a digital world? But instead, it endears me: reading Private Eye is not only as old-school as using a Moleskine diary, it renders you part of a secret club.
There are times when Ian may exclude certain people, though. In a recent item satirising the endless trend of female journalists reviewing new wellness routines, The Telegraph’s columnist Bryony Gordon was mocked in Private Eye for her appearance while running. But Bryony was training to run the marathon in aid of a mental health charity; was it really worth sniggering at her body? Similarly, another recent item grumbled that an award for writers of colour was somehow discriminatory. A glance at Private Eye’s letters page shows that it's got its own work to do regarding diversity.
Perhaps I’m giving Ian the benefit of the doubt here, but I’d hope he’d not make these mistakes again. He’s got spectacular previous form for punching upwards, not down, and I’ve got a hunch he’d be on the right side of any fight if he knew enough about the subject. Plus, when it comes to latching onto Generation Z-level woke interpretations of what is objectively good and bad in the world, Private Eye is getting stuck in. As well as criticising companies offering or auctioning unpaid internships, the magazine has directed snark towards both that Pepsi advert, and Sadiq Khan’s apparent forgetfulness in light of another Kardashian-Jenner’s advertising. Remember when Protein World’s “Beach Body Ready” signs provoked the London mayor to promise an end to sexist adverts on the Tube? The very same company, via posters of trim spokesmodel Khloe Kardashian, is flogging the same products, under the slogan “Can you keep up with a Kardashian?” On the Tube!
More seasoned journalists than I can vouch for Ian’s purity: after embarrassing Piers Morgan (long-nicknamed “Piers Moron” in Private Eye), investigators were ordered by the then-Mirror editor to dig for an exposé on Ian, soon finding that he’s totally clean. But it doesn’t take a genius to know that Ian is one of our brightest minds. Maybe that’ll give him something to smile about again.