Ian Burrell: Rushton hangs up his scissors and scalpel after 50 years at Private Eye

'If you took away the cartoons from Private Eye it would be very boring, a worthy, boring magazine'

Ian Burrell
Monday 17 December 2012 01:00

A 19th century stuffed dog that sat for decades under the art director's drawing board at Private Eye has gone. And following the dog out the door is the art director who for 50 years has given Britain's best-known satirical magazine its "scrapbook" look.

While the rest of the world's media has spent the early 21st century on revamps and redesigns in often flawed attempts to reflect the technological revolution, Tony Rushton has just carried on with his scalpel, scissors and HB pencil.

And while most magazines are looking at plummeting circulation as they try to reinvent themselves as an app or a web-only publication, the Eye remains firmly committed to print and has a healthy 226,000 circulation to show for it.

Private Eye sits outside of the Press Complaints Commission and has yet to commit itself to any regulatory system that might emerge from Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry. Yet it commands the respect of a significant and educated audience.

Rushton has been there since issue 11, one of a clique of old boys from Shrewsbury School that included the first two editors, Christopher Booker and Richard Ingrams, the great investigative journalist Paul Foot and the cartoonist and comedian Willie Rushton, Tony's cousin.

"This is where the work gets done," says the art director, pointing to a desk covered in pieces of white card, each numbered with a small blue sticker. He has plastered them with cartoon strips and newspaper cuttings for his final edition. It is Private Eye's storyboard.

There is a clipping from the Chichester Observer referring to a "road in the hole", an illustration headed "According to Google" referring to an internet search for Anne Boleyn which apparently gave the year of her death as 1936.

"We never want to relaunch," says Rushton, who likes to compare the Eye's design "evolution" to that of a sports car which also emerged in the early 1960s. "I always say the Porsche 911 is still recognisable as a Porsche 911."

Others, such as Private Eye stalwart Barry Fantoni, would not use that sleek metaphor. "Lacking a formal graphic education Rushton invented his own rules. They show a flagrant disregard for convention and give the magazine its unique look," he says. "People often remark the style lacks even the basics of a well laid-out page. It is that lack, I submit, that has given the magazine its unqualified success."

It might be a basic approach but editor Ian Hislop will soon find out whether Rushton, after five decades, is irreplaceable. The decision to leave was "horrible, long and painful", he says. "For many years I thought I would die at my drawing board but then I thought that would be very rude and inconsiderate to other people."

His 50th anniversary in post was last June ("I don't think we celebrated at all") and he is the magazine's former managing director, advertisements director and, for one edition when Ingrams was away in 1969, the joint editor with Malcolm Muggeridge.

For many of Britain's best cartoonists, things will never be the same. All the famous Eye names, such as Michael Heath, Ed McLachlan, Tony Husband and Charles Peattie, publish their work through Rushton. "If you took away the cartoons from Private Eye it would be a very boring magazine, a worthy, boring magazine," he says.

Sifting through his inbox he compares the size of a Katherine Lamb sketch to a canvas from rising star Will McPhail. Such variation in scale means Rushton requires use of a calculator and, of course, "the ruler is very important". This is a more complex procedure than some realise.

When all the numbered "boards" on Rushton's desk are complete, he hands them to a colleague with an Apple computer who takes the publishing process forward half a century.

Private Eye is an editorial juggling act. Hislop, says Rushton, "is very hands on and would like to do the magazine single-handedly if he could". There is so much copy each fortnight that the editor is tempted to reduce the type "because he has such a rich supply of material that doesn't make it". Street of Shame, the press column edited by deputy editor Francis Wheen and Adam Macqueen, often comes in at three and a half pages and has to be cut to two by the editor.

But an upside of "the rather grim advertising situation" is the amount of editorial content in the magazine, which typically runs to 40 pages (compared to 16 in the 1960s). "Early on we had to make a decision about not running advertisements on editorial pages – you can't have parody advertisements conflicting with real ones."

Rushton, 74 next month, puts on his luxurious brown "teddy bear" coat, to head out to lunch. He purchased it "when I sold my first Hockney", which he in turn acquired with his share of the first Penguin Private Eye book. He is also wearing a brown trilby, a black waistcoat, jeans and bright red Kickers shoes. He has a 10- year-old daughter, his fifth child.

Passing the "Death Wall" in the hallway of the magazine's 17th Century townhouse, he pauses to discuss pictures of deceased members of staff, including Peter Cook and his cousin (who, he emphasises, did not get him the job). There is no image of Tony Rushton's stuffed mongrel, but then it did pass away a couple of centuries ago.

At Wapping, it's business as usual

Rupert Murdoch is desperate to draw a line underneath the hacking and bribery scandals at News International.

He has an opportunity to signal a new era as he splits his News Corp publishing division from his Fox Group entertainment business.

But James Harding's departure from The Times suggests it is business as usual at Wapping.

The paper's youngest editor in modern times, Harding, 43, made the title refreshingly hard to predict and oversaw some strong investigations.

But News Corp has called time on his tenure and is expected to replace him with longstanding Sunday Times editor John Witherow, 60. The Times still waits for the first female editor in its 227-year history.

Although News Corp has yet to make a formal application, it is believed to want to change legal undertakings to keep the papers separate, in order to create a seven-day news operation.

With or without change, his likely successor seems sure to cut staff numbers with News Corp demanding that each of its media assets "washes its own face" and the commercially-focused Mike Darcey arriving from BSkyB to take over at News International.

Twitter: @iburrell

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