Richard Ingrams once described Peter Cook as a conservative anarchist. The one-time editor of ‘Private Eye’ also regarded himself as such; it’s a canny label that expertly summarises the curious contradiction inherent within those sons of the establishment who made a career from mocking it in the 1960s and 70s. ‘Private Eye’ was never, say, ‘Oz’; it didn’t have a counter-cultural agenda and wasn’t staffed by social renegades who equated an allergic reaction to scissors with possessing the spirit of Che Guevara. The men from the Eye were shrewd enough to know from the off that it was more effective to engage in a long-term nibble of the hand that fed it rather than settle for one spontaneous bite.
The magazine’s real strength as it gathered confidence and gained financial stability in the immediate years following its early struggles was not so much in the occasionally savage cartoons of Gerald Scarfe or its refreshing absence of deference where public figures were concerned, but its serious investigative side, doggedly pursuing organisations and individuals long before their guilt had been either acknowledged or admitted. This element of ‘Private Eye’ has continued to the present day, committed to exposing misdeeds by politicians, police, bankers, hacks & hackers, tax evaders and the like. Several regular sections such as ‘Nooks and Corners’, ‘In the City’ and ‘Rotten Boroughs’ also name and shame those whose crimes would probably otherwise never receive widespread coverage; and whilst having the bottle to put its neck on the line has resulted in the magazine being sued for libel probably more than any publication in the history of the written word, one cannot but admire its relentless tenacity.
Those of us who read ‘Private Eye’ regularly not only look forward to the middle section for a laugh, but have come to invest a great deal of faith in its ability to dig deep and unveil villains on our behalf. Yes, it might be over half-a-century old and run by men who wouldn’t look out-of-place on a pheasant shoot with Prince Philip, but we’ve come to believe it’s on ‘our side’; we’ve come to rely and depend upon it to be there before anyone else when it comes to shining a light on some of Britain’s murkiest corners and the even murkier characters that inhabit them. It does so because we can’t.
How disappointing, then, for a magazine that has always prided itself on getting to the bottom of the bullshit that pervades the produce of Fleet Street, that it has missed – or worse still, has chosen to step away from – a most scandalous and corrupt misuse of taxpayer’s money, a most criminal abuse of the legal process, and a most pernicious pursuance of the innocent based upon the confused testimony of unreliable witnesses to assaults without evidence, swayed by ruthless law firms and prompted by police tactics provoked by pressure from media moral crusaders and mediocre MPs.
This is the sort of story ‘Private Eye’ should have been wise to from day one, the sort of story the late Paul Foot would have spent months researching and months perfecting before publishing, the sort of story that contains all the multi-layered elements that the magazine once prided itself on exhaustively exploring and exposing. And yet, it hasn’t. Right from the moment the Jimmy Savile myth was propagated by a poor man’s Roger Cook, an illiterate ex-woodentop and crass exploiter of disenchanted middle-aged women, ‘Private Eye’ – the periodical that is supposed to be able to sniff something foul from twenty paces – has decided to go with the flow of the consensus. Instead of leading the search for the truth behind the sensationalist headlines like we expect it to, it has bottled out, like a pub hard-man who talks a good fight and then fills his pants when someone asks him outside.
Instead of those that get paid to do this kind of work actually doing it, the job has been left to those that do it because the injustice of it all has fired their creative juices without the lure of a cheque – those that ironically, like many PE journalists, protect their principles with pseudonyms, even if their identities are easier to discern than those who have hidden behind perceived wisdom. I’m talking about – naturally – our very own Ms Anna Raccoon. But I’m also talking about others who have devoted over two years of their time and energy to this story. I’m talking about Moor Larkin; and Retrocool73; and Rabbitaway; and a certain Victorialucas38, who reinterpreted the findings of her fellow cyberspace seekers by using our childhood puppet pals as a metaphor for the madness (but enough about her; she’s big-headed enough as it is). Hours, days, weeks and months of genuine investigative journalism has been undertaken by people more worthy of the brave and bold traditions of ‘Private Eye’ than the magazine’s current crop of spineless and timid shadows that have opted out of their duty.
But it’s not just spinelessness and timidity that has characterised the ‘Private Eye’ approach to this scandal; there’s also a far more sinister and worrying aspect to the magazine’s strange reluctance to dirty its hands. A couple of weeks ago, I spent several hours on a train reading what was then the latest issue cover-to-cover, even sections I usually bypass. This was when I came across an odd, unaccredited piece that sought sympathy for Karin Ward, star Victim of the original ‘Exposure’ mockumentary and accuser of Freddie Starr (amongst others). Poor Karin was being sued by wicked Mr Starr, and all those who had encouraged her to expand her accusations had seemingly abandoned her to her financial fate. In the newest edition, the saga is revisited and also encompasses similar sob stories concerning the ubiquitous Meirion Jones and his former Beeb hack, Liz MacKean. Nasty old Auntie has cold-shouldered them and shown them the door. About bloody time, most of us would say; so why isn’t ‘Private Eye’ saying likewise?
Sure, ‘Private Eye’ is perennially mindful of legal action; but the threat of being taken to court has never dissuaded it from naming and shaming in the past. And, having wilfully ignored this story for two years bar toeing the party line, the ingredients are all there for the magazine to cook up a soufflé of a scandal, doing in print what many of us having been doing online since 2012. But why bother now? It’s a bit bloody belated, and I know most who have put the work in on this story would probably resent PE playing Johnny-come-lately, and scooping all the plaudits by publishing material that’s been building up out there in space while they’ve been more concerned with peddling the same angle as Fleet Street. In actual fact, even the bloody ‘Mail on Sunday’ has dared to go where ‘Private Eye’ has shied away from, courtesy of David Rose. Is this what it’s come to?
I won’t be ‘cancelling my subscription’ as a result of this. ‘Private Eye’ still makes my Friday every fortnight it appears; and there’s always enough in there to warrant forking out £1.80 for. But I cannot deny I feel let down and disappointed by its absence from a story that had ‘Private Eye’ stamped all over it within 48 hours of Mark Williams Thomas’s first bid for superstardom. We’ve done what they exist to do.
Can you hear me, Hislop? Your boys took a hell of a beating.