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  • Writer's pictureJonny Ainslie

Ian Hislop - The buck does stop here

Sex, libel, and divided times: I explore the satire of the modern world with Ian Hislop.

In your recent exhibition in the British Museum, I Object, there’s a number of penis-related items including a terracotta rendering of a phallus-tailed crocodile penetrating Cleopatra. Are all these willy jokes in a museum a bit out of proportion?

Um, no, I thought it was a very good corrective to the official and authoritative narrative that you usually get in museums. And I was entertained that a number of these items had never been on display before – despite being culturally, I think, as significant as some of the other stuff they’ve put on. So there was a certain amount of filth, but dissent often expresses itself that way. The first, if not the wittiest thought, is up yours – here’s my arse, rich and successful people also have sex – which is quite amusing, and then beneath that, there's a skull. It’s a way of demystifying authority.

In the 1991 Private Eye documentary your predecessor Richard Ingrams described how the office was forced to adapt when computers arrived, but kept the same cut-and-paste magazine style. Today, Private Eye is beginning to include a few devices of the internet age – emojis and photoshop are creeping in occasionally, how do you decide what to adopt?

Just what seems to add. Does it make it funnier? If you put that in, is it more amusing; and if it is – we do it. We had a young designer in this week, and he said the cut and pasting is actually quicker than moving it about on the screen and then referring it upwards. A slightly fogie-ish decision has now worked out quite well, if I’m looking at a spread – it’s got to be interesting.

Looking back over the 40 years you’ve been active in the zeitgeist: from 1984-1996 Spitting Image, for which you were a writer, brought politics to a mass audience in a way that was thoroughly tabloid. Then, as The Thick of It was very good at pointing out, the 2000’s were blessed with so many spin doctors and airbrushers that politicians became almost as boring as they were awful. Today, politicians are all falling over one another to appear sincere, trustworthy, nice, down the pub, up the wheat-field kind of people – and we’re not buying a word of it. How would you turn this into good television?

I think that’ll be for the next lot to do. Have I Got News For You does what it does in a fairly straightforward way. But the great thing about Armando Iannucci when he came in was that he covered the process. On Spitting Image we did personalities, and we tried to explore policy through that very English tradition of head-on. I remember we did a joke about Norman Tebbit putting the unemployed in a blender and eating them which was just stolen from Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal, I just did it straight and thought this would be funny.

I think if satire is to survive it has to keep changing – and Armando attacked the messenger, the media – and how it’s done, and then looked at all the people behind the scenes and said “the reason you get all this nonsense is that these people have a collective neurosis that drives the lunacy”. So that was brilliant. We’ll see – it always does it in waves. At the time, I think that felt ruder than Spitting Image did when we were at it in the 80s, but it wasn’t as uptight as late 50s early 60s Britain. What was amazing was that you could do a sketch about the cabinet and people would know who they were. The very vainest politicians there’s very little you can do about it, if you ignore them – you haven’t covered the subject, if you put them on – they love it. It’s a quandary.

Sex...doesn’t influence things anymore. It used to be one of the ways of bringing down the great and good

Satire, like many things, can now be in the hands of the many – depending on how witty you find some of our online trolls and YouTube sensations – mockery of a television elite has never been so accessible. However, amidst the absolute typhoon of news around, your circulation’s higher than ever: why?

Because it’s edited. The thing that makes me laugh the most at the moment is everybody saying, “the new thing is curating – what we’re doing is curating things”, and I say “isn’t that the same as editing?” Because it looks very very like it to me. It means somebody decides out of all this cacophony of noise what it is you should concentrate on. And suddenly everyone says that’s a very good thing – because it’s always been a good thing. The reason I like print, and a concentration of effort, rather than saying all these things have been done on Twitter, is that a) they haven’t. b) Lots of people haven’t seen them, and c) where do you find them in an order that has some sort of coherence.

Is it done by the many? If the same 1,000 people repeat the same slightly altered photograph and say “ok we’ve done it now”, I’m not sure you’ve done whatever it is. You have to do it again, and remember you’re interested in the story next week – that’s the other thing about social media, it just forgets. We did a joke about the woman who was locked up in Iran, we did that a year ago – it’s all over? No it isn’t, she’s still there –you’ve got to do it again, and find another way of doing it, and probably do it again. You’ve got to remain interested.

When I caught up with Rob Orchard, we explored whether viral stories have the philosophy of the physical virus – burning through their victims so fast until they’re dead.

I hadn’t thought of that, but I think that’s true. If somebody says “this is an online story”, it often happened online, survived online, and ended online – and didn’t influence the real world at all, all it influenced was itself. The last one that actually interested me was the Owen Jones Andrew Neil spat, which was sort of on television and then appeared online… It was an absolutely furious row, but about how someone had been on television referencing two other publications - whether Owen had any right to have a go at the Spectator, and Andrew Neil looked very discomforted. I enjoyed it, he was entertainingly undeflectable – Owen, that’s what he does.

You hurt a lot of people’s feelings, which, I think, is forgivable when you’re funny, or what you say is true. Have you ever felt responsible for getting it wrong?

Yeah – I hate getting it wrong. If I’m printing seventy stories a week and probably thirty jokes, some of it, inevitably, is going to be wrong. But I hate it every time, and I hate all of it. What I want is for people is to read things in the Eye and believe them. I don’t get any pleasure at all out of it – because as you said the justification for doing it is because you’ve got it right, and it’s important, and therefore the fact that someone’s hurt or upset, well they should be, because they’ve behaved very badly. That should be the justification, and if you get it wrong, that goes.

On the Michael Parkinson show back in 2002, you describe the relationship between yourself and Paul Merton rather politely: Paul “thinks I’m a rather stuffed-shirt twit, and I always think he was quite lucky to get GCSE metalwork.” Do you think your relationship today still has much to do with class?

Um, no it’s more mellow. Partly because we’ve known each other so long. I think he still basically thinks I’m a stuffed shirt, and he’s not overly keen on public school Oxbridge people in comedy. His world, and all his heroes, come from a very different take; I love TW3, and Peter Cook, and Private Eye –he loves Bruce Forsythe, black-and-white comedy, music hall, and he channels Max Miller half the time, who I agree is one of the most brilliant comics ever. So we come from different worlds – and that’s the point of it, that’s why they put us together.

These are not uniquely divided times

It was great to see Bruce Forsythe come on and to watch you squirm, almost, because you never see his game.

And a) he was brilliant, and b) he accused my parents of having a TV without ITV on it – which was probably true… Watching someone like Bruce who’d spent forty years in front of audiences, he wasn’t very bothered by ours, and they ended up loving him.

As far as the audience is concerned, they too will come from very different worlds.

Yeah. And because we’re BBC1 and still unbelievably allowed on at prime-time, we have a very broad audience. The thing I’m most pleased, and probably secretly rather proud about, is that we have a really big younger audience – and a really big immigrant audience, who really like the news presented that way. They’re still thrilled that you can be that rude about public life, because where they come from – you can’t. So I’m constantly told by people who I thought would not be satire’s obvious demographic how much they enjoy the show. There’s a man in a coffee shop down the road who gives me free coffee for life because I was once rude about Katie Hopkins – that’s a good deal!

Angus Deaton introduced a Christmas episode of Have I Got News For You from 1992 as “another half-hour homage to the God of drivel”, and although the panel that week was truly exalted, you were joined by Peter Cook and Paul by Douglas Adams, I did begin to wonder: is drivel meant to have a long shelf life?

I’m always amazed when things are repeated and people still like them – I think it’s because the news probably doesn’t change as much as you think. The last time I looked at a very old show, the first round was about NHS funding and winter flu – you could have put it out yesterday. And it’s quite reassuring seeing old news, because you think the present is impossibly awful, and then you’re reminded that it isn’t.

People at the moment with Brexit always say to me “God, it’s very toxic – Britain, it’s very divided”, and I think, well when the poll tax riots were up there, and those buildings were on fire, and there were police charging that way – that was quite toxic. And then the miners’ strike where we had mounted police attacking the working class with raised batons, that was quite divided. People dropping concrete pillars on top of taxi drivers – these are not uniquely divided times.

What do you think the value is of serious robustness to humour?

I don’t want to get into the default position of older people who say, “well you’re not allowed to say anything nowadays, so I’ll say something really unpleasant – and see what happens”, or that period when stand-ups all did rape jokes because they thought that it was really edgy. For my generation, who decided it wasn’t edgy but very unacceptable, you start to think “why are they doing this?” I don’t think robustness means total insensitivity and offensiveness for its own sake – but it is useful to say “I don’t think you’ll like this, but I’m going to do it anyway.”

When you gave evidence on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, Cheryl Gillan MP suggested that the lines between the public and private spheres were getting so merged that it was hard to tell which was which. Your answer was pretty snappy: “who’s paying for it? The taxpayer.” Do you think of your own job on HIGNFY as a taxpayer funded endeavour in the public interest?

Oh god, only at my most pompous. Usually I think it’s just entertainment.

Who’s paying for it?

The license payer’s paying for it – and I suppose the people who are buying the repeats. It’s produced by an independent production company so it’s not an in-house direct – but eventually the license payer’s paying for it.

So, on the same committee Paul Flynn MP said you were doing a job “politicians have failed to do” by providing proper scrutiny. Behind the laughter, and even on select committees - you do still manage to be funny, would you agree?

Yeah but I wouldn’t give myself the credit. What I do is publish it. Richard Brookes’ analysis is absolutely brilliant. He’s one of the reasons the Eye’s had a renaissance. He was a fairly senior tax inspector in the civil service and we lured him over, made him join the dark side. He’s fantastically well connected and well informed, but also, unlike most arts graduates, he can read a balance sheet. So he actually knows who’s paying and where the money’s coming from. What he identified is that if you want to build a bridge with taxpayer’s money, you’re allowed to know how much it costs, if it falls down, or if it’ll be delivered on time. If you sub-contract it – you’re not allowed to know anything. They’ll say it’s commercially confidential. And that’s it. There’s no freedom of information – there’s nothing, you are just there. There’s another journalist called Solomon Hughes who works for us: and the probation service has all been privatised, so no one will tell him what anything costs. He had to go through the accounts of every single one of the private companies to work out how much probation costs us – which as you can imagine is just unbelievable. And I thought he got all the figures wrong. That’s another part of my job, just saying “I don’t believe this. It can’t be another £50m down the drain?” and they say – yes it is.

Sex is no longer taboo – money is.

That again was Richard’s perception. Sex isn’t really of much public… not interest – it’s always vaguely interesting – but it doesn’t influence things anymore. It used to be one of the ways of bringing down the great and good, where we started. Those German satirists in the thirties, their main interest was describing how these pompous preachers who are telling you about national purity are shagging everyone they can find. There’s all that tradition, and the Victorian lot, and the Georgians before them…

I enjoyed your piece about the chair in which Christine Keeler was sitting, there’s humour to be had – it’s just not a weapon as such.

No, because a) it’s blunt –

Pretty big chair.

Yeah, but if you look at someone like Boris, I don’t think anyone actually cares. The things that’ll doom him are the lies and the laziness and the casualness - not, oddly, the personal life.

Beating Peter Carter Fuck, err, Ruck, in a libel action sounds like a very proud day for you in court. Your hit-rate however, is 40-1. Losing 39 times and still libelling away does, to me, show a phenomenal sense of top-down, personal responsibility for your content.

Well I am. The buck does stop here. And journalists appreciate that, and they know if they publish it – I won’t just hang them out to dry and say “you’re shit, go and take the rap yourself”. And you know, people do do that, as the younger generation will know: when they haven’t invested much in you they don’t care much about dumping on you. There are a lot fewer libel cases now – you get sporadic confidentiality and privacy ones that come our way. The one we had to fight against Lord Pannick – it was just phenomenally expensive, and you don’t get it back, you think you’re going to get your costs back and you never do.

It’s just nice to see that Lord Gnome’s bottom line isn’t the bottom line.

And that’s partly just attitude, but it’s partly because we’ve got a lot of readers and our readers pay. So every week 220,000 people are giving us two quid – that gives you a certain amount of whack. And as you can see the production values are not hugely high.

Should the editors of full-page newspapers be rather less cowardly and join you in the docks?

Yeah. I think so. Investigative journalism is not hugely popular because it takes a long time and it’s expensive – and often it doesn’t come to anything. That’s what people never get. I can go to an editorial meeting and everyone says “Oh I’ve got this idea”, and three weeks later you say “well what happened to that”, and they go “sorry it didn’t work out – it wasn’t true.” That’s their time down the drain, and you don’t even have a piece out of it. But you just have to suck it up really.

The thing that’s really exciting about journalism is being interested in other people

You’ve talked several times about how it’s people who are new to politics that get the most angry - the SNP, young Corbynites, or UKIPers, and although you sometimes seem to rather enjoy this, is there a better way for journalists to incite an interest in politics other than stirring the bucket?

Well, I think I was trying to identify a specific problem of people who are very, very angry because they’ve got interested in one issue. A lot of people are invested in their vote over Europe – they don’t appear to have been interested in any other issues, they don’t appear to have voted that often about other issues. They say, “well I voted”, and you think – well you voted once, that’s it, is it? They don’t, I think, having come to politics where they had no interest before – they don’t get how it works. And they don’t get argument, and they don’t get tolerating other opinions.

This really speaks to how you run stories – because they go on and on, and you’re damn proud of that, because it’s through longstanding comment and needling that things change.

The same with a group of younger readers who are absolutely furious that there should be any criticisms of Corbyn in the pages. I know you’ve got interested recently and you’re committed, and you think he’s great – but he’s not always great, and there are decisions he makes that may be questionable – and we’ll put that in. That doesn’t mean we’re Tory wankers, or even Nazis, it just means that it is possible, and it should be for you too, to think critically about the leader of the opposition.

You have actually written a TV series designed for young people, My Dad’s the Prime Minister, which aired back in 2003-4 on CBBC. Do you think the children of today have a good ear for satire?

My children are late-twenties, so I’m beyond the stage of knowing. And we wrote that when our kids were nine and ten – and we wrote it for them really. It was a way of turning being a parent and what you’re experiencing at that point into comedy. And partly for me writing about how weird it is for children to have a famous parent anyway – which I knew about.

I was talking to a group of sixteen to eighteen year olds yesterday – which is terrifying. They’re at A-Level, Media and English students at a conference. And because my range of reference is very long, and theirs is very short because they’re sixteen – they don’t remember anything, because they weren’t there! It’s very difficult to try and go into what they know, but the main thing I was trying to say to them was what I feel.

The thing that’s really exciting about journalism is being interested in other people – and the thing that’s really boring about a lot of modern journalism is that it’s about yourself. I don’t want to read many more columns that start “my reaction to this news event is this, because I’m me”. You think, “Alright. Could you tell us about what happened in the event? Why it happened and who was responsible, or who was there?” It’s that sort of thing that makes journalism live. Identity politics may have its place, but it does focus everything inwards – and I’m interested in what’s out there.

What do you think about modern comedy, is that similarly individualistic?

Um, no actually. It’s refreshingly not. There are certain stand-ups who only talk about themselves, but that’s partly the nature of stand-up. You end up talking about your fridge and your flatmates and your girlfriend, but loads of people are more interesting in that. I see a lot of it because my son’s in the business, and there are endless good people. But that’s the live and bubbly thing. There’s yet to be a big next breakthrough of all the next lot – Flowers and Derry Girls and these things are all very funny, it’s all beginning to be the next lot who are slightly different from that big stand-up crowd – the Apollo live, that wave. Which all looks pretty good to me. I refuse to be old bore. There’s nothing more dreary than people saying “in our day it was really good” – usually it wasn’t, or it was much the same.

Finally, you’ve done an awful lot of plush-chair interviews in the last few years: that Orwell lecture - fine, the Sheffield Docs festival – fine, the Market Research Society? Seems an odd one. Are you getting cash-strapped in the build up to another lawsuit?

I made a video for the circulation executives. If you’re interested in print, you have to keep around the people who do your world. So, the Orwell thing was lovely, and I felt very grand, but I do do a certain amount of industry stuff because they’re selling the Eye and they’re flogging it, putting ads in it – you know, it’s a business. I suppose I’ve done quite a lot of pompous interviews, but this’ll be a less pompous one.

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