Private Eye is a fortnightly British satirical magazine-cum-newspaper. It is currently edited by Ian Hislop.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Nature of the magazine
3 Sections
4 Cartoons
5 Examples of humour
6 Criticism
7 Litigation
8 Ownership
9 External links


The magazine has its origins in a school magazine edited by Richard Ingrams, William Rushton, Christopher Booker and Paul Foot in the mid 1950s. They met at Shrewsbury School and, after National Service, Ingrams and Foot went to Oxford University where they met future collaborators Peter Usborne, Andrew Osmond, John Wells, and Danae Brook, amongst others.

The magazine was effectively the brain child of Usborne who had learned of a new printing process, offset lithography, which mean that anybody with a typewriter, Letraset and some glue could design a magazine. Although Private Eye was formed against a backdrop of the British satire boom and the political and social upheavals of the 1960s, initially it was merely a humorous magazine full of silly jokes - an extension of the school magazine and an antidote to other humorous magazines like Punch. However, according to Christopher Brooker, its original editor, it simply got "caught up in the rage for satire".

The magazine was initially bankrolled by Usborne and came into being in the mid 1960s. It was named, after some debate, when Andrew Osmond glanced at the famous Lord Kitchener wartime recruiting poster ("Your country needs you!") and, in particular, his pointing finger. After calling the magazine "Finger" was rejected, Osmond took the concept one step further - that of being 'fingered' by a private eye.

The magazine was initially edited by Christopher Brooker with design/cartoons provided by Willy Rushton. Its later editor, Richard Ingrams, was at the time pursuing a career as an actor and wouldn't take over editing for some time, initially sharing the reins with Brooker upon his return around issue 10 and only taking over on issue 40.

After the magazine's initial success, financial investment was sourced from Nicholas Luard and Peter Cook who ran The Establishment satire club. This effectively established the magazine as being a professional publication.

Other people essential to the development of the magazine were Auberon Waugh, Claude Cockburn, Barry Fantoni, Gerald Scarfe, Tony Rushton, Patrick Marnham and Candida Betjeman.

Nature of the magazine

To say that Private Eye specialises in gossip, often of a scurrilous nature and about the misdeeds of the powerful and famous, is to undervalue it. It frequently carries news stories and reporting which the mainstream press is loath to touch (for fear of legal reprisals) or which is of minority interest. "The Eye" will often print a story when hard evidence is lacking but when there is an overwhelming consensus that the story is true, and a central tenet is that truth isn't necessarily directly linked to the production of facts or evidence.

Many of the contributors to Private Eye are public figures and/or specialists in their field. Frequently many stories originate from writers for other mainstream publications who can't get their stories published by their employers. Many Private Eye contributors choose to write under humorous pseudonyms and often their identity is only revealed after their death, if at all.

The magazine is also a showcase for many of Britain's best humorous cartoonists. The magazine has also published a series of independent one-offs dedicated solely to news reporting of particular current events, such as government inadequacy over the Foot And Mouth outbreak, or the jailing of the Libyan Locherbie bombers.


The magazine currently includes several regular sections:

  • The cover, with its famous speech bubble putting ironic or humorous comments into the mouths of the famous in response to topical events
  • News (previously called The Colour Section) - effectively the stories the magazine is most proud of that week/thinks most important, placed at its front
  • Street of Shame - covering journalism, newspapers and other press/publishing stories. The term "Street of Shame" refers to Fleet Street
  • HP Sauce - covering politics and politicians
  • Down On The Farm - agricultural issues
  • Ad Nauseum - advertising
  • Court News - gossip supposedly from those working within royal family circles
  • Eye TV - analysis of television programmes and news/criticism of the UK television industry
  • Doing The Rounds - medical news and coverage of the NHS
  • Rotten Boroughs - highlighing local council activities
  • Signal Failures - covering railway issues
  • Under The Microscope - looking at issues related to the scientific field
  • Nooks & Corners - architectural criticism (this is one of the magazine's most famous sections). Originally this was Nooks & Corners of the New Barbarism, a reference to the architectural movement known as the New Brutalism.
  • Letters - readers' letters section which frequently includes letters from the famous and powerful, often so that the Eye can print an apology and thereby avoid litigation. Some people use the page as a voice to express disgust at a recent Eye article and, infamously (or jokingly), end by saying they will cancel their subscription.
  • Funny Old World - supposedly genuine news stories from around the world; written/compiled by Victor Lewis Smith
  • Letter From... - brief column written by a native person of a particular country highlighting the political or social situation there
  • Dear Bill (now defunct) - spoof letters from Denis Thatcher to Bill Deedes, about life in 10 Downing Street, with Margaret
  • St Albion Parish News - the main focus of the magazine's satire against Tony Blair, who is characterised as a rural parish vicar and his government as various church officials
  • Glenda Slagg - self-contradictory female reporter apparently based on a real-life person (who we won't name here for libel reasons)
  • Poetry Corner - trite obituaries of the recently deceased in the form of poems from the fictional teenage poet E. J. Thribb. The poem begins "So / Farewell then".
  • A Doctor Writes - the fictional "A. Doctor" or "Dr Thomas Utterfraud" parodies newspaper articles on topical medical conditions, particularly those by Dr Thomas Stuttaford.
  • Newspaper parodies - the latter half of the magazine is taken up with parodies of newspapers; the layout and style of writing mirrors newspapers and a common theme is Toytown News and "Ye Olde"-style newspapers, which serve as vehicles for parody and satire of current events, plus spoof adverts
  • Diary - a diary written in the style of the chosen celebrity (written by Craig Brown)
  • Literary Review - analysis and criticism of books as well as the publishing industry
  • Pseud's Corner - quotations from the media in which the pompous and pretentious point themselves out (based on reader submissions)
  • In The Back - in-depth investigative journalism, often taking the side of the downtrodden. This section is overseen by Paul Foot and is seen by many as the strongest element within the magazine. It often criticises the police. It was known as Footnotes until 1999, when Paul Foot suffered aortic aneurism and had to spend six months in hospital.
  • In The City - anaylsis of financial and city affairs and people
  • Classified - adverts from readers. Years ago people with odd sexual tastes would make contact with others via personal ads, using code words (using the names of motor cycles to describe various sexual acts, for example). However, nowadays it's usually more a case of people flogging wine or websites; or consipracy theorists promoting their ideas. Includes the "Eye Need" adverts in which people beg for money and sometimes, it's claimed, have their prayers answered by wealthy readers.

In addition, there are several mini-sections, mostly based on clippings from newspapers sent in by readers:

  • Lookalikes - comparing two famous individuals who look alike; frequently the two have an ironic connection too which is pointed out by the reader who submits the piece
  • Order Of The Brown Nose - highlighting those who toady to others (usually the famous and/or powerful)
  • Dumb Britain - quiz questions from TV/radio shows showing the low level of intelligence of the British population
  • Hackwatch - highlighting the recent writing of a journalist or newspaper, to highlight ironic inconsistencies or general poor quality
  • Luvvies - quotations from actors who prove they are "Luvvies"
  • Colemanballs - imfamous collection of quotes from radio and TV in which commentators and other professional speakers are inconsistent, mix metaphors, and more. It was named after British sports commentator David Coleman
  • Warballs - quotations from the media in which people spuriously use Sept 11 as justificaton for various actions, usually totally unrelated


As well as many one-off cartoons, the magazine features several comic strips:

  • Bores - Michael Heath
  • The Yobs - Tony Husband
  • Supermodels - Neil Kerber
  • The Commuters - Grizelda
  • It's Grim Up North London - Knife & Packer
  • Young British Artists - Birch
  • Hom Sap - Austin
  • Off Your Trolley - Reeve & Way
  • Apparently - Mike Barfield
  • The Premiersh*ts - Paul Wony
  • Celeb - Charles Peatie and Mark Warren
  • Snipcock & Tweed - Nick Newman
  • The Directors - Dredge & Rigg
  • Cloggies (defunct)

Additionally, currently and in the past it has used the work of Ralph Steadman, Wally Fawkes, Timothy Birdsall, Martin Honeysett,
Willie Rushton, Gerald Scarfe, Bill Tidy, Robert Thompson, Ken Pyne, Geoff Thompson, "Jerodo", Ed McLauchlan, "Pearsall"

Examples of humour

The magazine has a number of running jokes, often accessible only to those in the know. The phrase "Ugandan relations", for example, is a Private Eye euphemism for extra-marital sex, Queen Elizabeth II is always referred to as "Brenda", and "tired and emotional" was a phrase used to describe the drunken stupor in which 1960s Labour party Cabinet Minister George Brown was discovered one night, and which has now entered common parlance.

Some running jokes are more understandable. For example, any fictional quotations from the police are attributed to "Inspector Knacker of the Yard", perhaps a reference to knackers yards, where old horses would go to be turned into glue. The magazine itself is frequently referred to as an "organ", providing endless possibilities for sexual innuendo.

Running jokes in the magazine include such staples as St Cake's school, the notoriously underperforming football club Neasden F.C (the magazine was initially printed in Neasden before being turned away by the printers, which might explain the origins of this joke), the solicitors Sue, Grabbit and Runne, and Lord Gnome who is purported to be the proprietor of the magazine and is modelled on an amalgam of newspaper magnates.

In the early 1970s its crossword was set by the Labour MP Tom Driberg, under the pseudonym of "Tiresias" (supposedly "a distinguished academic churchman"). It is currently set by Eddie James under the name "Cyclops". The crossword is frequently pornographic and, by all measures, usually intensely offensive.

A photograph of journalist, broadcaster and publisher Andrew "Brillo Pad" Neil, dressed in a vest and baseball cap, embracing a much younger woman, ran over several consecutive editions, after it became known that he found the picture embarrassing. It still surfaces periodically, on the flimsiest of excuses.

The director and satirist Jonathan Miller, once described the Eye's editorial conference as like watching naked, anti-semitic public schoolboys in a changing room, flicking wet towels at defenceless victims.

Alongside jokes, the magazine frequently breaks news stories before any other outlet. It was the first outlet to actually name the Kray twins as the gang leaders terrorising the London underworld in the 1960s.


Critics of the magazine in the distant past have suggested that it had an antisemitic tone, perhaps because it frequently mocks events in Israel by writing them up into mock Biblical verse ("And Sharron did smite Arafat. And the people of Palestine did say, "You'll be sorry" etc).

The magazine has also been criticised as having a racist attitudes which still occassionally surface, such as the cover of the Japanese prime minister visiting Britain with the caption, "A nasty nip in the air". Idi Amin also was characterised speaking in Pidgin English. In the 1960 and 1970s it mocked the Gay political movement as "Poove Power".

However, the magazine always maintains a fog or irony which often makes it hard to discern if it is being serious in intent or just joking. This even applies to readers letters which might be published because they make a valid point or just so that other readers can be entertained by the naive notions discussed.

The magazine's irreverence and very occasional crudity can also offend some. Upon the death of Princess Diana, it printed a cover headed "MEDIA TO BLAME". Under this headline was a picture of many hunderds of people outside the gates of Buckingham Palace with one person commenting he couldn't get hold of a newspaper, and another saying, "Borrow mine. It's got a picture of the car." This was justifiable satire yet it was enough to cause a flood of complaints, many cancelled subscriptions, and the removal of the magazine from many newsagent shelves, in an act of censorship on behalf of the staff (including WH Smith).


The magazine is sued for libel on a regular basis and maintains a large quantity of money as a 'fighting fund' (although experience has taught those behind the magazine quick ways to defuse legal tensions, usually by printing a letter from those concerned).

The most famous litigation case against the magazine was initaited by James Goldsmith, who managed to arrange for criminal libel charges to be brought (effectively meaning that, if found guilty, those behind the Eye could be imprisoned). He apparently sued over allegations made about his business activities although precise details are hard to ascertain. Goldsmith won a partial victory and eventually reached a settlement with the magazine. However, the case threatened to bankrupt the magazine, which turned to its readers for financial support in the form of the Goldenballs Fund. Goldsmith himself was referred to as Jaws. The barrister involved in many litigation cases against Private Eye, including the Goldsmith case, was Peter Carter-Ruck.

Robert Maxwell also sued for the suggestion he looked like a criminal. He won a significant sum. Hislop neatly summarised the case: "I've just given a fat cheque to a fat Czech." Sonia Sutcliffe also sued after allegations that she used her connection to her husband, the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, to make money. She won 600,000 which was later reduced to 60,000 on appeal. However, the initial award caused the editor, Ian Hislop, to quip outside the court: "If this is justice, I'm a banana."


The magazine is apparently owned by an odd cartel of people, although is officially published through a company called Pressdram, which was founded by Peter Cook.

Private Eye is not the kind of magazine to publish explicit details of inidividuals concerned with its upkeep (it notably doesn't even contain a 'flannel panel' listing of who edits, writes and designs the magazine), but in 1981 the owners were quoted in The Private Eye Story book as being Peter Cook, who owned most of the shareholding, with smaller shareholdings by the likes of Dirk Bogarde, Jane Asher, and several of those involved with the founding of the magazine. Most people on the list have since died, however, and it's not clear what happened to their shareholdings. Those concerned were contractually only able to sell their shareholdings at the price they paid for them.

External links


The Private Eye Story by Patrick Marnham (ISBN 0233975098)

The original, and still commonest, use of the term
private eye is to mean private investigator; the magazine's name derives from this. See Crime fiction and Detective fiction for details.