Private Eye: more than a gossip rag

Private Eye occupies a special place in the UK media scene. David McCormack looks at the satirical title and its love-hate relationship with the PR industry

Private Eye: more than a gossip rag
Private Eye: more than a gossip rag

For over 40 years, Private Eye has poked fun at political figures and the establishment with a unique diet of gossip, jokes and some inspired reporting. It has been described as the best satirical magazine in the world, and the titles of some of its columns – such as Colemanballs and Pseuds’ Corner – have entered the modern lexicon.

Founded by Richard Ingrams in 1961, the magazine is still going strong, despite a somewhat primitive design
at odds with pretty much everything else on the newsagents’ shelves.

Private Eye’s satirical musings on politics and the workings of the media have also made it a must-read for many PROs, especially lobbyists and those working in public affairs.

‘It is a great read, always fun, but sometimes way off the mark,’ says Fleishman-Hillard MD Kevin Bell, who has himself appeared in the magazine but would not reveal the details.

Poking fun at PR
An issue of Private Eye would not be complete without at least several digs at the PR industry, including
the naming and shaming of particular PROs with some pretty colourful allegations.

‘Most people in public affairs take what they read in Private Eye with a pinch of salt, because so much is
exaggerated,’ claims Andy Sawford, a director at Connect Public Affairs. ‘Even if what the paper prints is true, it normally isn’t the whole truth.’

Indeed, part of Private Eye’s reputation is built on its inaccuracies – and the busy letters page is testament to the fact that the title, under the editorship of long-time Have I Got News For You team captain Ian Hislop, does get things wrong.

But PROs beware: replying to an allegation or misinformation with a letter is not always the best tactic. ‘If
a client is outraged, a letter will only cause more problems,’ says George Pitcher, co-founder of Luther Pendragon. ‘I would advise a client not to get involved, or to just write a good-natured and witty letter. I have drafted many of those.’

The stories that appear in Private Eye come from a range of sources, such as journalists with information they cannot use elsewhere, or disgruntled members of the public unhappy, say, with their council. But do PROs ever feed information to Private Eye to benefit a client?

According to Luke Chauveau, a director at Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, it is a ‘certainty’ that some
lobbyists have gone to the paper with information or gossip.

‘Sometimes the stories are so incredibly well briefed that people in the industry must be behind them,’ says Chauveau. ‘I’ve read information in Private Eye too specific for the journalists to have known themselves.’

Someone who does admit having passed on information to Private Eye is Pitcher – when he was a journalist on The Observer. He explains it is more an information-trading forum for journalists than for PROs.

He adds that any PRO seeking to use Private Eye to gain kudos with a client by embarrassing a competitor is playing with fire. ‘Anyone who has the idea that Private Eye is an easy gossip rag is underestimating it,’ he says.
‘It is very alert to vested interest, so there is a high risk factor in approaching it,’ he adds.

But this appears to be a risk some PROs are prepared to take. ‘Private Eye is good for running stories that the nationals won’t touch, because they are based on a single source,’ says one practitioner, who declines to be named. ‘Street of Shame and Rotten Boroughs are very useful avenues for settling old scores.’

Past its prime?
But following the spread of new media, does appearing in Private Eye still have the same impact? Many in the PR industry believe the publication has been superseded by faster, sharper and better-presented alternatives.

‘In political circles, what is more interesting are the parliamentary blogs, which have overtaken Private Eye,’ argues Connect’s Sawford.

The past two years have seen the creation of a raft of political blogs. These have quickly become popular forums for just the kind of spurious Westminster gossip and insider information that has long been Private Eye’s trademark.
One such blog is Recess Monkey (www.recessmonkey.com), allegedly written by a Labour councillor who lost his seat at the recent elections.

Another, with a much more Conservative spin, is presented by Guido Fawkes at www.order-order.com.
Online portals such as these might have become a part of life for those in political circles, but Private Eye, with its much broader remit, continues to prosper. Its current ABC figure is 204,847, down slightly from a June 2005 high of 209,981 – in the period just after that year’s general election. The publication also has a loyal readership, with more than a third of sales coming from subscribers.

However, strong sales do not disguise the fact that for many PROs, Private Eye has lost its edge. ‘Hislop has given the publication longevity by making it more of an entertainment vehicle than a breaker of hard news,’ says Pitcher.
‘For all the pain it can cause,

Private Eye is not actually that personal. It is a laugh, and should be treated as such,’ he advises.
Hislop was unavailable for comment as PRWeek went to press.

A guide to Private Eye’s regular features and columns, and where your client, or indeed you, might appear…
* Street of Shame Round-up of stories about tabloid and broadsheet press
* HP Sauce Politics and perceived dodgy goings on in the Houses of Parliament
* Eye TV Remote Controller reviews what’s on television
* Rotten Boroughs Stories from the world of local government
* Letters A chance for parity if you have been wronged. But is it really worth it?
* Colemanballs Ridiculous quotes from people in the media. Football pundits and club managers are regular fodder
* Pseuds’ Corner The Private Eye classic that features extracts from writers’ pretentious ramblings
* St Albion Parish News Satirical open letter from the PM, in his guise as the Reverend A Blair, addressing his parish

*  Editor Ian Hislop
Tel 020 7437 4017
Email strobes@private-eye.co.uk

* Deadlines The fortnightly cycle means Private Eye goes to press the Monday before each issue. It is therefore hard to contact the journalists, who are part-time, until the following Wednesday.

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