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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

*

The great days of Private Eye and its incestuous relationship with the Daily Express and the Mail

Richard Ingrams, tweedy and patrician, always seemed to me like one of those 1950s spymasters, orchestrating nefarious MI6 mischief in between teaching Classics at Balliol.


But of course, he was much more subversive than that. As Editor of Private Eye, he was an important, if unlikely, cultural figure of the Sixties and Seventies.


Ingrams was one of a group of public schoolboys who had the idea for a scandalous, funny, Establishment-baiting magazine, which two of them – Willie Rushton and Christopher Booker – founded in 1961 with just £450.


After a failed attempt to become a theatre impresario, Ingrams joined his friends from Shrewsbury School on the magazine. After ousting Booker, he was Editor from 1963 until 1986, when he handed over to Ian Hislop.


The Eye surfed the wave of satire that defined the times and had a strange, incestuous relationship with Fleet Street and particularly with the Daily Express and the Daily Mail.


It regularly aimed cruel jibes at anyone whom Ingrams and his crew regarded as pretentious, self-regarding, hypocritical, idiotic, corrupt or morally beyond the pale. Naturally, Fleet Street was fertile territory.


But they got many of their stories from seasoned hacks who were, well, working both sides of the Street – earning handsome salaries and dining out on expenses while supplying Private Eye with embarrassing snippets about the bosses who paid them.


How on earth did they get away with it? Peter McKay, one of the Express’s finest William Hickey Editors and a long-time contributor to the fortnightly scandal sheet, sheds some light in his book Inside Private Eye (Fourth Estate, 1986), which I have just been reading.


It was a conduit, he explains, not just to Fleet Street but also to Westminster and the City of London, where editors, MPs and businessmen feared being exposed to mockery and contempt in stories that only the Eye would dare to print.


Sir David English, Editor of the Daily Mail, tolerated his gossip columnist Nigel Dempster taking stories to the Eye because his Grovel column would often lambast the Express and its management.


As when it printed this item: “Jocelyn Stevens tells me that reports that the Sunday Express magazine, ineptly edited by Charles Wintour and his flame-haired temptress wife Audrey Slaughter, has lost £3.5 million are grossly wrong. ‘It’s more like £6.5 million,’ he says cheerily.”


The Eye regularly referred to the Express as the Daily Getsworse, the Getsmuchworse and eventually the Daily Tits-by-Christmas, which made English chuckle.


Meanwhile, tycoons would send underlings to scour back copies for stories that cast their rivals in a bad light. Socialites would blab about “friends” so long as a veil was drawn over their own indiscretions.


The magazine had many enemies, chief among them Sir James Goldsmith, a cardboard cutout of whom loomed over Ingrams’ shoulder behind his office desk.


Goldsmith hated the Eye, calling it the “pus” leaking from the wounds of a sick society. He sued the magazine, which asked readers to contribute to a Goldenballs fund to offset the costs of defending the action. It raised £40,000 but costs and damages cost more than £1 million.


McKay writes that he was “drawn into” Private Eye in 1972 and adds: “I have contributed to every section of the magazine – writing stories, selecting items for Pseuds’ Corner and I Spy, as well as dreaming up, with Richard Ingrams, the Sir Jonah Junor column.


In its heyday, the Eye had no staff journalists at all. But its fearless campaigning and its sometimes cavalier attitude towards the legal consequences attracted some great reporters. As well as Dempster, who learnt his trade on Hickey, Peter Tory, another Hickey Editor, was a contributor.


Paul Foot, the fourth member of the Shrewsbury gang, was a fine investigative reporter and later worked for the Daily Mirror. And the master of irony, Auberon Waugh, was on the paper for 16 years before deciding to plough a lucrative furrow as Editor of the Literary Review and a freelancer for the Mail, Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator.


Back then, it sold about 250,000 and now, under Hislop, it still does. It is privately owned and makes money for all concerned. This is partly because Hislop’s approach is more conservative, less reckless than Ingrams’ and so attracts fewer writs.


McKay tells us that Ingrams would work one week on and one week off, though he would come in on the Monday of his week off, which was publication day.


“He spends his mornings dealing with stories, letters and meetings,” writes McKay. “The afternoons are for jokes. The door to Ingrams’ office, usually open, is closed. A group of two or three men gather, and the editor selects a ballpoint pen and a sheet of yellow foolscap paper.


“Soon cries of laughter can be heard.”


Some of the Eye’s jokes, of course, were so “in” that many readers had no idea if or why they were funny. Those who were the butt of them tended to be litigious and so their identities were cloaked in impenetrable disguises.


“While other magazines and newspapers strive to make things simpler for their readers, Private Eye behaves like a private joke club on which the public is allowed to eavesdrop,” writes McKay.


Of all the wonderful stories in the book, the one I enjoyed most was the unexpurgated version of how Express boss Lord (Victor) Matthews had his nickname bestowed. It was let slip by Mirror Editor Mike Molloy, who often had need of a dentist because he ground his teeth while sleeping.


One day his dentist told Molloy that Matthews was also a client. “Molloy expressed surprise that he had never seen Matthews in the waiting room,” McKay writes. “The dentist told him Matthews did not visit – he sent the teeth round. They had to be cleaned often because he was very fond of whelks and other East End stall food.”


From then on, not only was Matthews Lord Whelks in Private Eye, but his son Ian became The Honourable Winkle.


McKay’s book is beautifully written in the deceptively breezy style of his gossip column. You can buy it online (my copy cost £1) and it’s well worth a read, even after all these years.

*****

Imagine the sighs of despair at the Daily Telegraph after confirmation that David Montgomery’s National World might be among bidders for the paper.


Montgomery, 74, who became chief executive of the Mirror Group after Robert Maxwell died, was known by journalists there as Rommel, “because Monty was on our side”.


The National Union of Journalists plans to ballot reporters on strike action at National World – which owns The Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post, among other newspapers. The journalists complain of low pay and poor career progression.


National World said that if it took control of the Telegraph it would cut costs by using Artificial Intelligence in production processes. As a former sub-editor (like Monty) I am tempted to echo Derek Jameson’s radio catchphrase: “Do they mean me?”


The Telegraph is likely to cost £600 million and Monty’s outfit has a market capitalisation of about £50 million. So just the odd half a billion short, then.


Somehow, I can’t see him outbidding the Mail.

*****

On holiday in Croatia some years ago, I came across a sign on a wooded hillside that said: “If these trees are destroyed by fire, no building will be permitted on the land for 10 years”.


I asked around and discovered that fires had been breaking out mysteriously on recently bought parcels of land. Soon afterwards, a hotel would go up. The building ban was the local authority’s riposte.


I was reminded of this when I read of the fate of the Crooked House, Britain’s wonkiest pub, which burned to the ground near Dudley, West Midlands, after it was bought by developers Carly Taylor, 34, and her husband Adam, 44.


The day after the fire, a digger hired by the new owners several days earlier razed the remains without local authority consent. The property was built in 1765 as a farmhouse and became lopsided because of mining subsidence.


The blaze is being treated as arson, though the couple have not been identified as suspects. However, they have been accused of “wilfully dangerous and chaotic behaviour” at other sites they have sought to develop.


In a show of anger and disgust, 200 protesters gathered last Friday evening beside the rubble that is all that is left of the pub. One of their signs read: “Crime against our history”.


Whoever is responsible for this gross act of vandalism should not be allowed to profit from it. In fact, if they are caught they should be made to rebuild the wonky pub, brick by brick – and at the same alarming angle.


If that proves impractical, then the council should adopt Croatian tactics and refuse any planning permission on the site of the Crooked House for many years to come.


The culprits must understand there are consequences. I hope one of them is jail.


15th August 2023