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Private Eye Founder Richard Ingrams On Satire, Scandal And A Woman Named Stassinopoulos

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In the 50 years since Richard Ingrams co-founded the satirical fortnightly news magazine Private Eye, the publication has had to deal with its fair share of libel lawsuits.

Well, more than a fair share. Several dozen times it fair share, probably, even if the pace has slowed of late.

So do any lawsuits in particular stick out in Ingram's storied memory?

"I remember one particular libel action," he tells The Huffington Post UK, in a pointed moment of recollection. "It was brought by a Greek woman called Stassinopoulos…"

"Is that right?"

"Yes, I don't know what happened to her ... Well I never heard of her again."

Private Eye is now considered to be part of the so-called "satire boom", which hit the UK in the 1960s.

But when Ingrams helped to start the magazine in 1961 with founding editor Christopher Brooker, school friends Willie Rushton, Paul Foot and others at Oxford University, he says that "nobody had heard of satire at all".

"It was only later that I think Kenneth Tynan started talking about satire that we all woke up to find that we were regarded as satirists," he said. "But that doesn't mean to say that I wasn't exposed to satirical material in my youth, because there was quite a lot of it around me. I mean the idea that it was invented in the 60s is very stupid."

What proto-satire, if anything, sticks out in his memories of childhood?

"I think there were certain things, for example Tom Lehrer's songs, which are very satirical and savage," he said. "That was when I was at school … Peter Sellers records, Bernard Levin writing in The Spectator, Malcolm Muggeridge editing Punch in the 50s, they were all very satirical."

In the five decades that it has been in publication Private Eye has been at the heart of countless government scandals, political crises and media exposes. But its ambitions weren't initially so lofty. To hear Ingrams speak of the magazine now it almost sounds as if the fact that the Eye made it to 2011 more than intact - its circulation is riding high, as is its reputation - is partly down to luck.

Indeed, it seems that Ingrams believes that one key tool every satirist needs in his bag is an ability to appear to know more than you do.

"It wasn't this great political satire that everyone, it was a kind of thing that undergraduates were doing at that time," Ingrams said. "It was very lucky that (the Eye's feared reputation) just happened. The Profumo Affair happened to come along in 1963 and that was a great boost to Private Eye. Not that we, not that we were very knowledgeable about it particularly, but people thought we were and that was, that was the key thing."

Even then the magazine came close to closing, Ingrams said.

"It did, it had a slump. I mean because it was very fashionable to start with and after the advent of the Labour government in 1964, but then the assassination of Kennedy had a sort of very dampening effect on politics generally, and the magazine wasn't all that good."

So how did it survive - both then and through its other dodgier patches?

"Well partly, I mean there isn't any competition. But also it's managed to retain its staff, including myself. I mean I've been working there for 50 years and so has Christopher Booker. A lot of old mates have died along the way, but there is this continuity which is its great strength, I think.

"Once that starts to fall apart, as it is beginning to do, it remains to be seen what will happen then. Because it relies, it relies on a very tiny little band of people."

You can't run Private Eye for 50 years without developing a thick skin. But Ingrams says it's often those who have been ridiculed that seem to have the toughest exterior. Far from feeling embarrassed about being exposed, he says some subjects actually appear to enjoy the experience.

"The depressing thing was often when you thought you were being very mean about somebody, they rang up and said how amused they were and could they have the original of the cartoon run. I mean that was a frequent occurrence.

"Generally speaking you cannot predict what the public's reaction is going to be to satire or journalism. Sometimes you think you're going to create a big stir with some article and no-one takes a blind bit of notice and sometimes a little thing that nobody paid any attention to will develop into a massive scandal, and it's very difficult to, and you know, I think the journalists, in that word, all you can do is just to do your thing and not, not be worried about what the reactions going to be, because you can't predict it."

When Ingrams stepped down as editor of the Eye in 1986 he was replaced by Ian Hislop, who has edited the magazine ever since. Ingrams, who is still chair of the Eye's holding company, is full of praise for the job Hislop does, and says he is "hardworking and conscientious".

But mostly, Ingrams says, Hislop has succeeded because of what he hasn't done:

"He hasn't changed it too much," he says. "I mean he's changed it a bit, but he's stuck to the formula, which was a sensible thing to do and he's stuck with a lot of his contributors, including myself."

In 1992 Ingrams set up The Oldie magazine. "The aim was to produce an antidote to youth culture but, more importantly, a magazine with emphasis on good writing, humour and quality illustration," Igrams writes on the magazine's website.

To an extent though The Oldie still feels like Ingrams' "new" project, even though it will celebrate its twentieth anniversary in 2012.

"It's true, and it took a long time to get going because well it always does, I think, in this country," Ingrams said. "People don't pay any attention to anything new unless it's been, until it's been going for about five years."

How does he keep his enthusiasm for editorship going?

"Well I mean I've got a new, a different ballgame here, completely, but it's always, it's always changing all the time, which is what I like about it and there are new people coming and, you know, it's, it's always interesting."

So back to Private Eye. The magazine is secure, Ingrams says, even if it is "not exactly boom time". It has around 114,000 subscribers* and the Eye is slowly looking to the future.

While it hasn't exactly embraced the open web, or the concept of giving its content away for free for greater exposure, there is at least now talk of a tablet edition.

Paid of course.

"We were talking about it yesterday actually," Ingrams said. "But people get, people in my experience get a bit obsessed by Internet. There's a tendency to think that that's the be all and end all and that's where life is lived, but it's an illusion."

For Ingrams it is the editorship which will always be more important to a publication than whether or not it can be bought on an iPad. So has he given any thought to whether either The Oldie or the Eye will last another 50 years?

"It would be easier finding an editor for The Oldie than it was to find an editor of Private Eye, because that's quite a difficult job and it involves sort of two different types of magazine, really, all in one. But The Oldie is more conventional in that way, so I don't think that if I were to fall under a bus today, they would have a problem."

But which does he expect to last the longest?

"Very difficult, I'll have to hedge my bets on that," he said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of Private Eye subscribers as 35,000. Private Eye has around 114,000 subscribers, while The Oldie has 35,000.