Terence Blacker: Have I got news for you: satire is the new establishment

In the alternative establishment, whose house magazine is 'Private Eye', mockery is both a lethal weapon and an impenetrable defence
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The Independent Online

We are now such a knowing and ironic culture that it would not be entirely surprising to find that the famous Lord Gnome of Private Eye, also known as Richard Ingrams, had been awarded a real peerage. The veteran satirist has become something of national treasure, as we have been reminded this week, exactly 45 years after his magazine was launched and 20 years since he stepped down as editor. "Someone should give him a prize for still being around, just for still being Richard Ingrams," as one reverent profile-writer put it.

It is difficult at first to know what it is about this sentimental affection that niggles uncomfortably. Private Eye, after all, serves a useful social and political service. Pomposity is pricked, hypocrites unmasked, spivs and reprobates are brought to book. As long as there is an establishment at the heart of British life, the argument goes, there will be a need for the Eye.

But there is a dangerous illusion, almost a marketing trick, at work here. The brilliance of the Eye has been to maintain the image of a scruffy little magazine representing a sort of basic morality in a wicked, cynical world. The truth is that, since the mid-1960s, this David-against-Goliath pose has been something of a con. The low production values, the air of copy of being written on the hoof, the apparently reckless disregard for libel laws disguise the fact that Private Eye is, in spite of all appearances, a significant power-base of influence.

For there is now an alternative establishment. It is peopled by those who work in the media, and the kind of politician or high-profile lawyer or business type who can turn out an op-ed piece when required or do a turn on Have I Got News For You. In the past, it was a poor cousin to the mainstream establishment, where the real muscle was to be found, but all that has changed.

In a media-obsessed age, those who control the image of the powerful have their own kind of power. No one in public life can afford to be seen by the world at large as dull, shifty, pompous, bent, greedy, stupid or - this above all - lacking in a sense of humour.

In the alternative establishment, whose house magazine is Private Eye, mockery is both a lethal weapon and an impenetrable defence. No one who has attempted to retaliate against vilification in Private Eye has ever so much as landed a blow on it. An attempt to respond with humour will seem like collusion with the original joke; anger or recourse to law invites more derision.

The Eye has an honourable record in its dealings with thugs like Maxwell or Goldsmith but its position of power is that of the school bully. "Can't you take a joke?" it asks its victims once every two weeks, and the few hundred thousand readers who feel as if they are part of the Private Eye club join in the jeering.

Although I read Private Eye and often find it funny, I have recently been wondering about this capacity it has to claim the high moral ground, to mock any opposition into silence. Its satire and jokes are often not entirely pure. There are vendettas being pursued, personal scores being settled against those who have dared to cross the Private Eye gang. The running joke about "the Curse of Gnome" descending upon the magazine's enemies could more accurately be described "the Rage of Gnome".

I am influenced by the fact that I am writing the biography of a man, Willie Donaldson, who was a genuine outsider, who had no particular power-base but who fell out with Richard Ingrams in the 1960s. He was pursued and harried in the pages of Private Eye over subsequent decades. It occurred to me that the hypocrisy of attacking a personal enemy in the name of the public interest is as great as any presented in the magazine's pages.

The Eye is "a sort of weed-killer," a champion once said. "In order to apply the weed-killer, you have to know who the weeds are." There is something faintly chilling and unpleasant about that image, and the assumed moral superiority it reveals.

Miles Kington is away

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