26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 58


Critics on critics

Michael Vestey

Ihave appeared in Private Eye only once, as far as I know. It was in the late Sixties when I worked for the Sunday Express and before I joined the BBC. One day the fear- some visage of its editor John Junor approached my desk and asked in those soft, slightly menacing Glaswegian tones if I would write a letter for the paper's corre- spondence column, a homespun, anecdotal sort of page at the time.

I had recently met a blind man in a pub who asked me to keep an eye on his white stick as people frequently stole them from under his nose (why is it when I tell this story people collapse into helpless laugh- ter?). As I was an impressionable 22-year- old I was outraged by this and duly wrote a letter about it. Junor was so pleased he gave it great prominence, insisting that my real name and address should appear at the bottom.

I then received a short, sharp note from an accommodation agency demanding their fee for having introduced me to the flat in Chelsea several months earlier. I had not paid it because I already knew the flat was available for renting and had intended see- ing round it anyway. When I contested the case in the county court Private Eye was alerted by two of my colleagues on the paper and the story appeared in the maga- zine. It began, I recall, 'One of the more endearing habits of Fleet Street newspapers is to bump up their letters to the editor columns with contributions from their own staff. This practice had unfortunate conse- quences for one luckless Express man . . . '

It was quite amusing really, and more or less accurate, but it made me realise what it is like to be written about, and that more Importantly, unless it's a major scandal, it doesn't matter much. So I am often curious about the sensitivity to criticism of those who themselves regularly dish it out. It can only be that clitics, journalists and satirists regard their criticism of others as being part of the natural order of things, like the seasons. So when they are themselves criti- cised they are taken by surprise, upset by the sudden change of plot. It is as if snow has fallen in August, it is somehow not right.

It was with interest, then, that I listened to Ian Hislop's response to invective about him on Between Ourselves on Radio Four last week (Thursday), one of the more effective of the new programmes. The pre- senter Olivia O'Leary described how His- lop was suddenly made editor of Private Eye at the age of 26. Nigel Dempster, she said, had called him 'a deeply unpleasant little man' and Auberon Waugh said he was 'a representative of the yob generation which is stupid and cannot read'. Hislop paused, as one might, and said, 'Yes . . . so they did.' He added, 'Their problem was that they wanted to be editor of the maga- zine . . . they weren't and they went.' He then allowed himself a final dig, saying that only the best people stayed at the magazine when he took over.

Whatever Hislop might have felt private- ly he didn't fall into the trap of sounding wounded. How could he? Private Eye can be merciless in its pursuit of people. So he took it on the chin in what was a riveting moment of radio. He was appearing with his German counterpart, Oliver Schmitt, editor of the Frankfurt-based satirical mag- azine Titanic. The idea of Between Our- selves is that two people with shared experiences discuss their roles and so far it has worked quite well. Hislop talked interestingly about satire. Since Defoe, he said, it was 'to tell the truth smilingly, to expose vice, folly and humbug . . . It's putting the comic boot in.' He's right, of course, though truth is an elusive goal and too subjective to be relied upon as a philosophy. Be that as it may, he thought satire in this country was conserva- tive with a small c, practised by people who know how things work but who aren't on the inside. This might be true of Private Eye but many other satirists often start from the Left, particularly those on radio and television.

I felt that was where Schmitt was coming from. Although Titanic sends up centre-left politicians in Germany, it reserves a special scorn for Helmut Kohl whose election as Chancellor Schmitt described as an exam- ple of the German sense of humour. The difference between Hislop and Schmitt is that the latter expresses the bleakness of nihilism, 'Whatever it is, we're against it,' whereas Hislop seems to be a moralist.

O'Leary asked him about his attacks on Earl Spencer and he replied with venom, `This is a man standing up in Westminster Abbey lecturing the Windsors on how to run a secure and sensible family, a man who'd just dumped his own wife after an eating disorder, with four children. Do we want lectures on morality from him? Pathetic!' More the voice of someone affronted by humbug than the anarchical approach of Titanic.