Christopher Booker

Private Eye’s private life

The first editor of the magazine turns a quizzical eye on 50 years of a ‘national institution’

The first editor of the magazine turns a quizzical eye on 50 years of a ‘national institution’

Not long after the 50th birthday of what was once the most successful humorous magazine in Britain, one of the best-known writers of the day delivered a damning judgment. Whereas in its early days, Max Beerbohm wrote in 1899, Punch had made a reputation by its youthful irreverence, wittily lashing out in all directions, it had now become staid and respectable, ‘a national institution’. How strangely has this been echoed in the coverage being given to the 50th anniversary of Punch’s successor, similarly hailing Private Eye as a ‘national institution’. Little could its youthfully irreverent founders back in 1961 have imagined that the longest-lived survivor of the ‘satire boom’ of the early Sixties would be celebrating its 50th birthday with an exhibition at the V&A and a huge party amid the grandeurs of London’s Guildhall, while journalists and celebs queue up to pay tribute to its revered place in national life.

I confess I have viewed all this excitement through somewhat quizzical eyes. Partly this is because, despite having been the magazine’s first editor and having to this day contributed as many words to its pages as anyone, I am used to people vaguely asking, ‘Didn’t you once have something to do with Private Eye?’ A weightier reason why I have followed everything recently written and said about it with slightly raised eyebrows is the extent to which none of these tributes has done justice to by far the most important ingredient in Private Eye’s distinctive character.

Drawing most journalists’ attention have been two of the three main parts of the magazine, its gossip and investigative journalism. But these on their own would never have given Private Eye its unique role without that third ingredient, which has been at the heart of the magazine for longer than either: the parodies and spoof news items known to those who write them as ‘the jokes’.

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