Punching above its weight

When a venerable funny magazine decides to go into investigative journalism, what are we to think, asks John-Paul Flintoff
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The Independent Online
It's as if Bob Monkhouse had put aside his joke book for a stint presenting World In Action. Punch, the fortnightly magazine, has ditched a century and a half of humour in favour of extended pieces of investigative journalism.

Occasional jokes and cartoons may survive, but the magazine which hitherto specialised in producing gentle chuckles among its complacent readership now routinely finds itself on the receiving end of solicitors' letters and the occasional writ.

The editor, James Steen, could hardly be more delighted.

Steen is the fourth man to edit Punch since 1996, when Mohammed al Fayed's Liberty Publishing brought the magazine back into circulation, four years after United Newspapers had closed it down. His predecessors include the gossip columnist Peter McKay, the former Mail on Sunday editor Stewart Steven, and the journalist Paul Spike. For Steen, investigative articles, and the resultant publicity, are the key to reviving Punch.

Forget Mr Punch, the Victorian puppet whose likeness was knocked off the cover by Spike last year. Think instead of writing that, er, packs a punch. A recent advertising campaign emphasises the new approach with the slogan: "If we catch you at it, you're in it."

The first major triumph appeared last month. Punch revealed that high- street banks routinely abandon confidential information inside bin-bags deposited on the street, rather than shredding it. "How your secrets are left on the street", blazed the coverline, and a seven-page report detailed exactly what was found in bags left outside a handful of London banks. This included two direct telephone numbers for the chairman of Royal Bank of Scotland, loan applications detailing the occupation and income of bank customers, hand-written notes listing internal bank security codes, and six pages analysing the performance of a company involved in a pounds 32m acquisition.

It was an excellent story, presented in a highly digestible format which wouldn't have looked out of place in the News of the World. On the back of it, Punch earned lead-story status on Channel 4 News, Radio 4's Today programme and Radio 5 Live.

Another big investigation was a 10-page special about Peter Mandelson. This probed the minister's close relationship with the ad agency M & C Saatchi, asserted his homosexuality, informed readers that Mandelson had been called as prosecution witness in a case against his own former election agent, and examined why he was so disliked by his colleagues. When Mandelson and the Press Complaints Commission turned on Punch, the magazine spun out a reasonable story raising questions about the minister's relationship with the newspaper watchdog.

Less successful was an interview with Ashley Roy, former companion of Lady ("Bubbles") Rothermere, who died in 1992. "Her sexual demands could overload me", ran the headline, and over five pages Roy poured out further gobbets of seedy history. Naturally enough, Lord Rothermere was upset, and he took Punch to court and won.

Together with a cover story about the gossip columnist Nigel Dempster, the "Bubbles" piece indicates a mild obsession at Punch with Associated Newspapers. Not surprising, perhaps, as both Steen and his deputy editor Dominic Midgley worked at Associated. That's not the explanation Steen gives: "Punch runs the stories Fleet Street refuses to publish," he says.

To find such stories, Punch runs a strangely compelling page inviting readers to phone in if they can help with forthcoming features. Subjects such as "lobby groups" and "London's art world" could be regarded as valid targets - but Mr Motivator? "Have you worked with GMTV'S keep- fit presenter?" the magazine demanded last year. Steen admits that Punch has a quirky choice of victims.

It recently assailed the reputation of two executed men whose cause has elsewhere been supported vigorously by journalists. An article by Midgley on Ken Saro-Wiwa bucked the trend by showing that the late Nigerian dissident was in fact less than saintly. And a piece by John McVicar declared that James Hanratty was indeed guilty of the crime for which he was hanged in 1962. This was an undisguised attack on Hanratty's principal defender, the investigative reporter Paul Foot: "It was a good noose that killed Hanratty," asserted McVicar. "Foot doesn't think so, and he blew a gasket telling me why."

Why pick on Foot? Because he writes investigative stories in Private Eye, the successful magazine against which Punch continues to be judged. Steen is obsessed with Private Eye, and his superiors, Al Fayed and Andrew Neil, both frequent targets of the Eye, are likely to share the obsession. "Whenever you talk about Punch," he explains, "people bring up Private Eye. I want to reverse that, so that whenever you mention Private Eye, somebody brings up Punch."

Sticking to his guiding principle - to make a stir at all costs - Steen has done his utmost to rile Private Eye and its editor. Last year he ran a story suggesting that Hislop gave money to a donkey sanctuary. Hislop phoned Steen to point out inaccuracies. "I tape-recorded the conversation," said Steen, "so readers could call in and hear him grovelling. We kept on writing about him being an animal lover - and there's nothing worse you can say about a journalist, especially one who hates everything and everyone."

Steen claims that Punch has better coverage of Fleet Street than Private Eye, and observes that Punch devotes up to 5,000 words to investigations which get just 300 in Private Eye. Hislop, however, is unrattled. He graciously concedes that the story about banks was good. "But I'm running hundreds of investigations each week." What's more, he adds, investigative reporters on Punch "have a problem" if "the most interesting story is their proprietor" Mohammed al Fayed. "Have we read [in Punch] about the boxes in Harrods? About the behaviour of Michael Cole? [al Fayed's former press secretary]. About his football clubs?"

But it isn't Hislop who is giving Steen sleepless nights. His most pressing concern remains the magazine's circulation, which is still too low to qualify for Audit Bureau of Circulation figures. Without those, it's hard for Punch to bring in advertising revenue, and, as Steen explains: "Mr al Fayed is a businessman, and this has to succeed as a business."

Hislop claims that the readership of Punch is 6,000. "That's less than Ventilator Weekly. And even if their subscriptions are three times that figure, they're selling less than Tribune - and that really is a good magazine."