Satire didn't die

Tony Blair's trials over the Iraq war have led to a new golden age at Private Eye, with rising sales and profits. Readers want both sides of the story, editor Ian Hislop tells Sarah Shannon
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The Independent Online

The declining public respect for politics has given a new lease of life to Private Eye, where sales have risen to above 200,000 for the first time in more than a decade. While the broadsheet newspaper market is in apparently terminal decline, readers are satisfying their hunger for political satire by flocking back to the Eye.

The boom in sales has been achieved without advertising, after the magazine abandoned its former policy of promoting the magazine in the national press. According to its editor, Ian Hislop, the Eye gains nothing from being associated with the broadsheets. "Advertising is a waste of money," he says. "Since we dropped the ads we used to run in all the newspapers, we've done better."

Hislop says that the confusion surrounding the war in Iraq and public disenchantment during Tony Blair's second term have given the magazine its most buoyant period since the height of Thatcherism. "We had a very good run during the war. People were thinking, 'I don't believe what I'm reading. Nearly everything the public was being told from all sides turned out to be wrong. The excuse for going in turned out not to be true. Then the experts said it was going to be a new Vietnam or Stalingrad and it was all over in two weeks. People wanted someone delivering it from both sides."

The Eye's growing confidence is underpinned by the security of having a loyal base of 88,000 subscription sales. The overall readership figure is put at 660,000.

Hislop denies that his appearances on Have I Got News for You have raised the magazine's profile. "I wouldn't be convinced that they have any effect all. Most people assume I have nothing to do with the Eye, they think I'm far too busy appearing on the telly."

Healthy circulation also means profits. The last company report shows a gross profit of a lot more than £1m - not bad for a company with only five full-time staff - although operational costs, particularly for libel, remove some of this healthy financial glow.

The greatest irony of this success is that the magazine's business methods would bring your average management consultant out in a cold sweat. Hardly any of its amorphous crew of contributors and backroom "boxwallahs" have a qualification for their job. The editor rarely looks at a computer screen, and e-mails are printed out and placed in his in-tray.

Waifs and strays waft around the office, such as the poet Michael Horovitz, who comes in to photocopy and dispense gifts of ageing organic beetroots. Fortnightly lunches are compulsory for the journalists who work there (I was one for four years), and, until the dilapidated office sofa was finally consigned to the tip, you would occasionally find a hack there sleeping off a pleasant lunch. Not exactly today's boardroom ideal.

Even the way the profits are dispensed defies normal business logic. Spare cash does go to shareholders (such as Jane Asher and Peter Cook's widow Lin) in the usual form of dividends. But money is also divvied up between the staff in an idiosyncratic annual bonus system that gives every employee double pay until the profits run out.

Private Eye may be a bastion of schoolboy humour, but it is ruled over by a woman, Sheila Molnar. She has been at the helm for six months, ever since the last incumbent, Chris Haslum, left for a job at Richard Desmond's publishing empire. Or Dirty Des, to give him his Private Eye moniker.

Molnar joined in the early Seventies, at the tender age of 24. True to Private Eye form, she started off in subscriptions and moved on to "help out" in accounts. She now runs the commercial side, along with the business manager, Steve Tiernan, from the attic of the magazine's Soho office. The pair are optimistic that the next circulation figures will be better than the current 200,639. "When I took this job I said the thing I wanted to achieve was a sale of over 200,000. We had a rather modest champagne celebration when we found out we'd done it," Molnar says.

Though the public's current dissatisfaction with politicians casts a warm glow on the Eye's sales, the staff are only too aware that one huge libel action could change all that. It won a recent case against a West Country accountant, John Stuart Condliffe, but the magazine's legal costs came to £1m. "He went bankrupt, so we did have to pay," says Hislop, "That's what our profit is - what's left after legal fees."

The magazine doesn't take out insurance against libel (the premiums are too enormous), but instead sets aside a proportion of the profits each year just in case. "We've just had a writ from Lord Ashcroft - that will be interesting," Molnar says.

Meanwhile, as with all magazines, the hunt for new readers continues. The average Eye reader is a surprisingly young 42. That compares to The Daily Telegraph's 57-year-old readers and the 45-year-olds who take this newspaper. Eye readers also appear rather posh, with more social grade As than any of the daily broadsheets, though it boasts more grade Es as well.

Despite this healthy spread, the share of women readers remains small - only 28.1 per cent, a smaller proportion than for any of the broadsheets. How should the Eye tackle this? Molnar points out that there are two women journalists on the magazine and some excellent female cartoonists. "And a lot of us didn't go to public school, either. I went to a secondary modern. I can remember Auberon Waugh saying, 'Secondary modern - oh, what's that?'"

Hislop is a little more reticent. "Women readers? Are there any? I think it's a shame there aren't more women readers, but I don't think you can actively do anything about it without being bogus." No plans for a fashion supplement, then? "No."

Instead, the Eye produces distinctly unsexy innovations such as Paul Foot's recent supplement on the tax man. Sales leapt by 8 per cent for that issue.

As it prepares to celebrate its 42nd birthday, this creature of the Sixties seems destined to survive without resorting to the constant reinvention of most publications. As Ian Hislop says: "It's very unlike normal magazines. It's a bit of a club, really."