Sarah Sands: The 'Eye' has it – the rest of us wish we had

Saluting an anarchic title that bucks the media trend
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The Independent Online

You may be aware that the media is not the most economically robust of industries at the moment. We are doing all we can to shape up to the new world, laying people off, devising new products, being free, trying to be cool and new and diverse and whatever else it is you want us to be. Meanwhile, each new round of circulation figures sees the big-name newspaper brands sinking a little lower beneath the Plimsoll line.

The exception to this gloomy picture is a perky little publication that has ignored every media trend and forecast. It has not marketed or redesigned itself, or thought out of the box or bothered much with digital or turned up to a TED conference of movers and shakers. It is old fashioned, male and public school in character. Yet Private Eye's circulation of a solid 210,000 is at an 18-year high. In other words, it has sat out the whole media revolution.

As other media bosses explain decline through different methods of accounting or long-term strategies, Ian Hislop, Private Eye's editor, says of his success: "The Eye's circulation figures are like John Terry's shorts. In the past they may have been down – but now they are firmly up again." By the laws of the media, Private Eye should have hit the buffers. But it should also be culturally extinct. Polly Toynbee once attacked The Spectator for its public school frivolity, but The Spectator is no longer Whiggish or waggish. It is a muscular political and business publication. Miss Toynbee should turn her ire on Private Eye, where the real enemy resides.

What is particularly annoying for those who would like to see the end of Private Eye is that it is gaining a young audience. What hope is there of progress in humanity? The other publication to prosper in circulation is Men's Health. Cover lines I have chosen at random include: 23 Sexy Things She'll Only Do in Summer and Bigger Arms. What is happening to the young?

The other week, I shared a forum addressing bright young Oxford girls about careers in journalism. I noted bitterly that there had been a decline in senior women newspaper executives and that they were scarce to the point of extinction in areas such as sport. An alpha undergraduate with a merry face asked me whether this was a fault of newspapers or simply a fact of life: women were mostly interested in art and fashion, men biased towards City and sport.

Is social engineering a generational hang-up which does not afflict the young? Maybe the generation without privileges is tired of middle-aged anguish spread over pages of newspapers. Perhaps they would prefer some investigative journalism in short sharp paragraphs and a ton of jokes.

In a way, Private Eye anticipated the spirit of the internet better than the rest of us. It is bawdy, 18th-century coffee house journalism. It takes as its first principle that those in public life are hypocrites or absurd. Private Eye is the Merry England of the play Jerusalem; it is just that it is ruled by former public school boys rather than a drug- crazed traveller.

The young readers who respond to humour and subversion believe, like David Cameron, that it is not where you come from but that you are individualist and cocky. The lesson that Private Eye can teach the rest of the media and society is to be true to yourself but do not take yourself too seriously.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening Standard