I have been reading Private Eye on and off since I moved to Edinburgh the first time. I had heard rumours of it before then, but all I knew was that it was supposed to be funny. I remember picking it up for the first time and taking it back to the Bed and Breakfast where we lived at the time, glancing through it and not understanding a thing. Except the occasional cartoon.
I had expected something along the lines of The Onion, which I had already been reading for some years and never found particularly hard to follow. What I got instead was a slightly disorienting mix of the serious, factual minutiae of British politics and the absurdist satire that I had originally expected (as a result I found it quite hard to separate fact from satire). Not to mention a number of in-jokes which made it quite difficult to to know who and what they were talking about at times. Wikipedia has a separate article on the recurring in-jokes. As you can imagine, it can take a while to get into it (please don't be put off by the list, however: I think most of the jokes have been retired by now). But, as anyone who knows me will be aware, I take great pleasure in this sort of code once I have figured it out. Probably because I am short and need ways to compensate. Possibly just because of some academic tendency. It all depends on how generous you are.
Private Eye has been around since 1961 (which means it turns 50 this year). The original money came from Andrew Osmond, and the ideas from Oxford (because heaven knows nobody seems to do any studying at Oxbridge: they are all running around being funny and starting magazines, comedy clubs or opera groups -- but don't think for a moment I disapprove). It was further developed by Peter Cook (connected to Footlights in his younger days, naturally) and Richard Ingrams and others. There is a rather lovely documentary on the subject for anyone interested (parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5).
In 1986, as a bright young thing of 26, Ian Hislop took over as editor of the magazine. He has since then become the most sued man in Britain*, despite declaring at the beginning of his editorship that he would move the paper away from the incessant law suits. To be fair, he has (from what I am told -- all these changes were made before I even started school) moved it away from society gossip and emphasised a decidedly more palatable vein of investigative journalism: corruption, friendly favours and serial incompetence feature quite heavily in the News section. It is impressive stuff, which, in a world where easy journalism of the cut and paste variety is increasingly the norm, is decidedly refreshing. The main targets are big business, incompetent/bad journalists and politicians.
While Private Eye has sometimes got it wrong (notably in the MMR vaccine case), and could probably have checked some claims more closely, their accusations of villainy and attacks on hypocrisy (or "vice, folly and humbug") have often been picked up by the mainstream media later on, and then confirmed by the courts (say, in the cases of Robert Maxwell and Jeffrey Archer, both of whom were frequently attacked in the Eye). Robert Maxwell, who used to be the owner of the Daily Mirror, sued Private Eye a number of times after having been declared an all round crook. He won £55,000 after they suggested he had bought his peerage. Full story here.
Here is the Parkinson interview where Ian Hislop explains the glory of Peter Cook, how he waved his checkbook at Maxwell and orchestrated the raid on the Mirror building:
It also includes a delightful sequence with Ian Hislop and Jeffrey Archer's wife on Question Time.
There were other major libel suits back in the Ingrams days. James Goldsmith came close to bankrupting the paper and sending the editor to jail, from what I understand. And later on, after having erroneously claimed that Peter Suthcliffe's (the Yorkshire Ripper) wife had exploited her husband's crimes for financial gain, they were slammed with £600,000 of damages (£100,000 more than any previous case, and 100 times that of some of the serial killer's victims got). Hislop famously commented that "If that's justice, then I'm a banana". Thankfully, the rewards were reduced on appeal. I would also urge you to look up the story of Arkell v. Pressdram if you ever get the time.
I think the most recent feud is with Julian Assange, who allegedly said some fairly outrageous things in a phone call to Ian Hislop.
It may have been in part in order to circumvent the special attentions of Carter-Ruck (in Private Eye endearingly known as Carter-Fuck -- and after a complaint as Farter-Ruck), and the insane monetary claims that English libel law makes possible, that the magazine has adopted that in-joke code that at first made it so difficult for me to penetrate. In recent years, however, the main battle seems to have been with injunctions and super-injunctions of various types (also, for some reason, a speciality of Carter-Ruck's).
Another Private Eye nemesis is Piers Morgan, who used to be the editor of News of the World and Daily Mirror (is there a pattern forming?). He has since confirmed himself as a vapid menace to good taste as a judge on one of those many inane talent shows that Simon Cowell spawned, and was recently (heaven knows why, but I think someone must have been tired and emotional) given Larry King's old job on CNN. Morgan, when editor of the Mirror, set out to get dirt on Hislop (failing miserably). I have to include this clip as well:
Aside from the News, one of the regular sections is HP Sauce (with notes on the Houses of Parliament), another is Street of Shame (one of my favourites). I also like the occasional "Curse of Gnome" section (which, with a certain amount of glee, remarks on the ills befalling people who have sued the paper or tried to hinder them in other ways) -- Lord Gnome is the fictional owner of Private Eye, based on a mix of Robert Maxwell, Rupert Murdoch and assorted other "business men". The latest example, I think, was Michael Napier (former head of the law society, who tried to hit Private Eye with an injunction against reporting that he had been reprimanded over some shady Exxon stuff).
It is not all feuds and corruption and law suits, however. For example, the Dumb Britain section (which consists of unbelievable (unless you have seen the show) answers on The Weakest Link. It also takes great pleasure in pointing out apparent self-contradiction, and the middle of the paper consists of sheer parody and satire, including a regular spoof message from "The New Coalition Academy (formerly Brown's comprehensive)". When Brown was PM it was called "Prime Ministerial Decree No. n. From the Desk of the Supreme Leader". There is also a cartoon depicting the life of the leader of the opposition (used to be "Dave Snooty and his pals", now "The adventures of Mr Millibean").
In short, this is one of my favourite pieces of British life (I cannot decide whether it is part of what makes Britain what it is, or whether it is a symptom of Britain being what it is -- either way it is somehow related to what makes Britain great), and if nobody buys me a subscription (*cough*) it is one of the things I will miss the most when I leave here. We need to set up a Norwegian equivalent and keep it going for 50 years.
*This is usually mentioned when Hislop is introduced. It may or may not be true. Here Hislop suggests that it may be overblown. In the article I linked to above he technically only says that they hit the Guinness Book of Records for most money paid out.