Now, net-shunning Private Eye outranks even The Economist as Britain’s most popular current affairs magazine

Ian Hislop, who has been Private Eye's editor since 1986

Private Eye cover, 12 April 2008

All hail Private Eye, whose circulation grew by more than ten per cent last year, when so many famous names linked to old media were — are — howling about print meeting its doom.

All hail Private Eye, not least because, as far as I can tell, no one in mainstream media has, on this occasion. There have been no laurel wreaths from its rivals, no adulatory editorials or delving into the reasons for its astonishing success since the Audit Bureau of Circulations released the latest figures in mid-February – although the media section of one broadsheet did carry brief news items on the subject.

All hail Private Eye because, in spite of its (affectionate) marginalisation as a ‘satirical magazine,’ it looks as if it could be becoming Britons’ most reliable source of printed information about what is happening in the UK — or close to that. The trade publication Media Week anointed it ‘the leading news and current affairs magazine by issue in the country, nearly 18,000 copies ahead of The Economist,’ with the minor qualifier that ‘its rival title is published weekly.’ (That qualifier is probably meaningless, since I reckon that most subscribers would be delighted to buy it once a week.)

There is no reason to disagree with the Eye’s managing director, Sheila Molnar, who explained two years ago that ‘People always turn to us in times of trouble because they trust us. With the MPs’ expenses row and the banks, people trust Private Eye and what they read in it.’

Though the Eye has no digital edition and is virtually ignoring the internet, its pages are saturated with the fearless, irreverent, outsider ethos of the web and blogging world – most obvious in its ‘Street of Shame’ column. There, as its editor Ian Hislop told Lord Justice Leveson in January at the official Inquiry into press culture and standards, his writers concentrate on the foibles of the 4th Estate — on

… stories about

journalists misbehaving. It tends to be anything from

making up stories, drunkenness, stealing stories from

each other, printing things that are totally and utterly

untrue, promoting each other for reasons that aren’t

terribly ethical, sucking up to their proprietors, being

told what to do by their proprietors, running stories

because their proprietors insist on it, marshalling the

facts towards a conclusion that they’ve already decided

on.

Private Eye’s robustness confirms these suspicions at post-Gutenberg about the secrets of media thriving in the transition to the 5th Estate – in its case, with only token contributions to its operating budget from advertisers, which is why it cannot afford to give away its contents on the net:

It is strictly non-partisan

The political left, right and centre are all flayed with equal relish. As noted here last month, highly-placed apologists for a worrying shift in 4th Estate practices feel that there is nothing wrong with abandoning political neutrality – but a reader poll on the site of The Economist shows that this is, overwhelmingly, the very opposite of what the public wants.

It is – without fear or favour – supplying the uncomfortable, true facts indispensable to government by the people, or what we call democracy

It might just as well be called The Whistleblower Wire. It tackles malfeasance as no other publication does, across a staggering breadth of public life. A small sample: ‘Called to Ordure’ (parliamentary proceedings); ‘Medicine Balls’ (mainly, the National Health Service); ‘Signal Failures’ (the railway network); ‘The Agri Brigade’ (farming and food policies); ‘Rotten Boroughs’ (local government); ‘Music and Musicians’; ‘Keeping the Lights On’ (the law and lawyers); ‘Books and Bookmen’ (cronyism in book publishing).

It relies on its readers for its peerless investigative reporting

… and did so long before the internet came along with its promise of building reader ‘communities’.  As Ian Hislop said in his Leveson evidence, his magazine

operates as a sort of club where people not only buy the

magazine, they write a lot of it, which is the principle

we work on. Broadly, the sources come from people

inside their professions, so the medical column, the

column about energy, the pieces in the back, a lot of

those are given by people directly involved.

None of its content is influenced by advertising

As it does not run on the advertising-centred business model for publishing — unlike virtually every other great name in print journalism — it has no need to court or bow to corporate panjandrums and satraps, and its articles are not distorted by their manipulations.

Its success underlines the undesirability of concentrated media ownership, as it has the extreme editorial independence only possible when a publication is not beholden to any single media mogul or proprietor trading favours, buying influence, or vulnerable to manipulation or blackmail

In some ways, Private Eye can be seen as an early prototype of the ‘keiretsu-cooperative,’ a model for post-Gutenberg publishing  in which sites are co-owned with clubs of reader-contributors. Its Wikipedia entry lists no fewer than seventeen shareholders, and says that the magazine has never disclosed exactly who has contributed what to its capitalization and upkeep.

What is an instance of this magazine’s uniqueness and indispensability? The other day, when all the broadsheets reported that the education secretary, Michael Gove, had condemned the Leveson Inquiry for its ‘chilling effect’ on the media, they failed to explain why he was complaining so bitterly about an investigation initiated by his own leader, David Cameron, and in the same tirade, lauding Rupert’s Murdoch’s launch of the Sun on Sunday. They also offered not a single example of what noble journalism the Inquiry has supposedly been inhibiting — just as he failed to do.

Mystification over all that was beginning to make me feel mildly unhinged when the latest Eye arrived. There I discovered that the education secretary is married to  — well, well, well, a journalist on the Times. And who owns the Times? Let us say, a certain Australian-born media mogul.

And, returning briefly to the subject of ownership … As diligent use of both inductive and deductive logic has yet to yield incontrovertible proof of his existence, I must reluctantly dismiss as speculation all hints to the effect that Private Eye does in fact have a proprietor — a reclusive individual writing occasionally under the rubric, ‘A Message From Lord Gnome’. The same goes for any suggestion that he is simply too shy or coy to (a) scotch rumours that his life’s ambition is to be more elusive than the putative Higgs boson particle, and (b), admit that he has no help from ghostwriters in recording his sublime meditations, as on the subject of the recent fate of bankers:

[W]here, we must ask, will this witchhunt end? Which other leading figures in the economic life of our country will be next to be hunted down, to be publicly humiliated, as their names are execrated across the land?

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