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Private Eye
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Private Eye

Private Eye is a fortnightly British satirical magazine-cum-newspaper. It is currently edited by Ian Hislop.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Nature of the magazine
3 Sections
4 Cartoons
5 Examples of humour
6 Criticism
7 Litigation
8 Ownership
9 See also
10 External links
11 Sources


The magazine has its origins in a school magazine edited by Richard Ingrams, William Rushton, Christopher Booker and Paul Foot in the mid 1950s. They met at Shrewsbury School and, after National Service, Ingrams and Foot went to Oxford University where they met future collaborators Peter Usborne, Andrew Osmond, John Wells, and Danae Brook, amongst others.

The magazine was effectively the brain child of Usborne who had learned of a new printing process, offset lithography, which meant that anybody with a typewriter, Letraset and some glue could design a magazine. Although Private Eye was formed against a backdrop of the British satire boom and the political and social upheavals of the 1960s, initially it was merely a humorous magazine full of silly jokes - an extension of the school magazine and an antidote to other humorous magazines like Punch. However, according to Christopher Booker, its original editor, it simply got "caught up in the rage for satire".

The magazine was initially bankrolled by Usborne and came into being in the mid 1960s. It was named, after some debate, when Andrew Osmond glanced at the famous Lord Kitchener wartime recruiting poster ("Your country needs you!") and, in particular, his pointing finger. After calling the magazine "Finger" was rejected, Osmond took the concept one step further - that of being 'fingered' by a private eye.

The magazine was initially edited by Christopher Booker with design/cartoons provided by Willie Rushton. Its later editor, Richard Ingrams, was at the time pursuing a career as an actor and wouldn't take over editing for some time, initially sharing the reins with Booker upon his return around issue 10 and only taking over on issue 40.

After the magazine's initial success, financial investment was sourced from Nicholas Luard and Peter Cook who ran The Establishment satire club. This effectively established the magazine as being a professional publication.

Other people essential to the development of the magazine were Auberon Waugh, Claud Cockburn (who had run a pre-war scandal sheet The Week), Barry Fantoni, Gerald Scarfe, Tony Rushton, Patrick Marnham and Candida Betjeman. Christopher Logue was another long term contributor. Gossip columnist Nigel Dempster provided much material, before a falling-out. Political and investigative content, in particular in relation to local government and corruption, was provided by Paul Foot.

Nature of the magazine

To say that Private Eye specialises in gossip, often of a scurrilous nature and about the misdeeds of the powerful and famous, is to undervalue it. It frequently carries news stories and reporting which the mainstream press is loath to touch (for fear of legal reprisals) or which is of minority interest. "The Eye" will often print a story when hard evidence is lacking but when there is an overwhelming consensus that the story is true, and a central tenet is that truth isn't necessarily directly linked to the production of facts or evidence.

Many of the contributors to Private Eye are public figures and/or specialists in their field. Frequently many stories originate from writers for other mainstream publications who can't get their stories published by their employers. Many Private Eye contributors choose to write under humorous pseudonyms and often their identity is only revealed after their death, if at all.

The magazine is also a showcase for many of Britain's best humorous cartoonists. The magazine has also published a series of independent one-offs dedicated solely to news reporting of particular current events, such as government inadequacy over the foot and mouth outbreak, or the jailing of the Libyan Lockerbie bombers.


The magazine currently includes several regular sections:

In addition, there are several mini-sections, mostly based on clippings from newspapers sent in by readers:


As well as many one-off cartoons, the magazine features several comic strips:

Additionally, currently and in the past it has used the work of Ralph Steadman, Wally Fawkes, Timothy Birdsall, Martin Honeysett, Willie Rushton, Gerald Scarfe, Bill Tidy, Robert Thompson, Ken Pyne, Geoff Thompson, "Jerodo", Ed McLauchlan, "Pearsall", Brian Bagnall.

Examples of humour

The magazine has a number of running jokes, often accessible only to those in the know. The phrase "Ugandan relations", for example, is a Private Eye euphemism for extra-marital sex; Queen Elizabeth II is always referred to as "Brenda"; and "tired and emotional" was a phrase used to describe the drunken stupor in which 1960s Labour party Cabinet Minister George Brown was discovered one night, and which has now entered common parlance.

Some running jokes are more understandable. For example, any fictional quotations from the police are attributed to "Inspector Knacker of the Yard", a reference to knackers yards, where old horses were sent to be turned into glue. The magazine itself is frequently referred to as an "organ", providing endless possibilities for sexual innuendo.

The magazine has developed nicknames for most of Britain's leading newspapers:

Running jokes in the magazine include such staples as St Cake's school, the notoriously underperforming football club Neasden F.C (the magazine was initially printed in Neasden before being turned away by the printers, which might explain the origins of this joke), the solicitors Sue, Grabbit and Runne, and Lord Gnome who is purported to be the proprietor of the magazine and is modelled on an amalgam of newspaper magnates.

In the early 1970s its crossword was set by the Labour MP Tom Driberg, under the pseudonym of "Tiresias" (supposedly "a distinguished academic churchman"). It is currently set by Eddie James under the name "Cyclops". The crossword is frequently pornographic and, by all measures, usually intensely offensive.

A photograph of journalist, broadcaster and publisher Andrew "Brillo Pad" Neil, dressed in a vest and baseball cap, embracing a much younger woman, ran over several consecutive editions, after it became known that he found the picture embarrassing. It still surfaces periodically, on the flimsiest of excuses.

The director and satirist Jonathan Miller once described the Eye's editorial conference as like watching naked, anti-semitic public schoolboys in a changing room, flicking wet towels at defenceless victims.

Alongside jokes, the magazine frequently breaks news stories before any other outlet. It was the first outlet to name the Kray twins as the gang leaders terrorising the London underworld in the 1960s.


Critics of the magazine in the distant past have suggested that it had an antisemitic tone, perhaps because it refers to the Daily Telegraph newspaper as the 'Telavivagraph', and frequently mocks events in Israel by writing them up into mock Biblical verse ("And Sharon did smite Arafat. And the people of Palestine did say, 'You'll be sorry,'" etc.).

The magazine has also been claimed to have other racist attitudes which still occasionally surface, such as the cover showing Emperor Hirohito visiting Britain with the caption "A nasty nip in the air" [1]. Idi Amin also was characterised speaking in Pidgin English. In the 1960 and 1970s the magazine mocked the gay political movement as "Poove Power".

However, the magazine always maintains a fog of irony which often makes it hard to discern if it is being serious in intent or just joking. This even applies to readers' letters, which might be published because they make a valid point or just so that other readers can be entertained by the naive notions discussed.

The magazine's irreverence and occasional crudity can also offend some. Upon the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, it printed a cover headed "MEDIA TO BLAME". Under this headline was a picture of many hundreds of people outside the gates of Buckingham Palace with one person commenting he couldn't get hold of a newspaper, and another saying, "Borrow mine. It's got a picture of the car." This was enough to cause a flood of complaints, many cancelled subscriptions, and the removal of the magazine from many newsagent shelves (including WH Smith, though the chain has since resumed stocking the magazine).

Following the terrorist attacks on New York on September 11, 2001 the magazine's cover featured an aide briefing George W. Bush on the tragedy. The aide says "It's Armageddon, sir," to which the President replies: "Armageddon outta here".


The magazine is sued for libel on a regular basis and maintains a large quantity of money as a 'fighting fund' (although experience has taught those behind the magazine quick ways to defuse legal tensions, usually by printing a letter from those concerned).

The most famous litigation case against the magazine was initiated by James Goldsmith, who managed to arrange for criminal libel charges to be brought (effectively meaning that, if found guilty, those behind the Eye could be imprisoned). He apparently sued over allegations made about his business activities although precise details are hard to ascertain. Goldsmith won a partial victory and eventually reached a settlement with the magazine. However, the case threatened to bankrupt the magazine, which turned to its readers for financial support in the form of the Goldenballs Fund. Goldsmith himself was referred to as Jaws. The solicitor involved in many litigation cases against Private Eye, including the Goldsmith case, was Peter Carter-Ruck (or "Carter-Fuck", as the Eye referred to him).

Robert Maxwell also sued, for the suggestion he looked like a criminal. He won a significant sum. Hislop neatly summarised the case: "I've just given a fat cheque to a fat Czech." Sonia Sutcliffe also sued after allegations that she used her connection to her husband, the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, to make money. She won 600,000 which was later reduced to 60,000 on appeal. However, the initial award caused the editor, Ian Hislop, to quip outside the court: "If this is justice, I'm a banana."


The magazine is apparently owned by an odd cartel of people, although is officially published through a company called Pressdram, which was founded by Peter Cook.

Private Eye is not the kind of magazine to publish explicit details of individuals concerned with its upkeep (it notably doesn't even contain a 'flannel panel' listing of who edits, writes and designs the magazine), but in 1981 the owners were quoted in the book The Private Eye Story as being Peter Cook, who owned most of the shareholding, with smaller shareholdings by the likes of Dirk Bogarde, Jane Asher, and several of those involved with the founding of the magazine. Most people on the list have since died, however, and it's not clear what happened to their shareholdings. Those concerned were contractually only able to sell their shareholdings at the price they paid for them.

See also

External links


The Private Eye Story by Patrick Marnham (ISBN 0233975098)

The original, and still commonest, use of the term
private eye is to mean private investigator; the magazine's name derives from this. See Crime fiction and Detective fiction for details.