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26 February 2021

“Nearly all our retailers were going to close”: Ian Hislop on publishing Private Eye in a pandemic

The journalist and broadcaster on BBC bias, the culture wars and Private Eye’s record subscription numbers.

By William Turvill

Private Eye, the satirical fortnightly magazine edited by Ian Hislop, could easily have been plunged into crisis when the UK entered its first lockdown last March. The Eye’s antiquated production system – which consisted of Hislop and his team rearranging scraps of paper on a large table in their Soho studio – could not possibly survive when staff were forced to work from home. The magazine’s sales, meanwhile, were imperilled by the closure of newsagents across the UK.

Press Gazette: What two decades of digital disruption did to the British press Part of New Statesman Media Group

However, Hislop has revealed that the Eye not only survived this “fairly major shock”, but, like many news publishers, capitalised on it, driving record levels of subscriptions. How did he pull it off?

Hislop points to the magazine’s front page on 20 March, which promised readers 48 sheets of toilet paper free with this issue. “That shows you how desperate I was,” said Hislop in an interview with Press Gazette.

In recent years, many media companies have turned their attention away from newspapers and magazines towards their websites. But Hislop’s Eye has stubbornly resisted this. Private Eye’s website is mainly used as a vehicle for promoting the print title, and its magazine does not have a digital edition. The Eye’s digital-avoidance strategy means it is heavily reliant on the production and sale of its print magazine. This became a major issue in March last year. 

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“Nearly everybody who sold our magazine was going to be closed: no [WH Smith], no travel outlets, no train stations, no airports, no Smiths Travel, no independent bookshops. It was a bit terrifying, really.”

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To ensure its survival, the Eye’s commercial team agreed new deals so that the magazine could instead be sold in supermarkets. Hislop also found that readers who were struggling to find the magazine in shops started taking out subscriptions instead. On the production side, the magazine’s staff suddenly moved into the 21st century and used programs such as Slack, Dropbox and InDesign. 

The result is that the Eye now has an average fortnightly circulation of around 236,000 – close to its all-time high of 250,000 set in 2016. Included in this are the magazine’s 175,000 print subscribers – the highest number in its 60-year history. 

Hislop, who presents BBC One’s Have I Got News for You, also expressed concerns for the future of the BBC. He believes Boris Johnson’s government, which had plans to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee, is “vindictive enough to make it very difficult” for the broadcaster, adding: “I mean, I think all the governments that I’ve ever covered have been cross with the BBC. The Blair one – if you remember the Alastair Campbell years – they were incandescent at any criticism of themselves. So that was quite a dangerous time. [Theresa] May, you know, not so much. [Gordon] Brown, whatever. 

“But this lot have got it into their heads that it’s part of the culture war and the BBC is ‘woke’ and hopelessly biased. I mean, God, if the BBC’s hopelessly biased then an 80-seat landslide [in the 2019 election] – I’m not quite sure how that happened then. It shows how ineffective it is if it is [biased]. Which I don’t believe anyway.”

Press Gazette: Local press would have “picked up Grenfell fire-safety concerns in pre-internet era” Part of New Statesman Media Group

Hislop added that he thinks comparisons between the cost to the consumer of the licence fee – which funds the BBC – and streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime are unfair. “It’s a ridiculous comparison that they use: what you get out of the BBC for that money and what you can get from a streaming service. It is ridiculous. But it makes a lot of headway. And I think [critics] will try and use that to weaken the BBC. And that’s bad news, I think, and that’s not just because they pay me.”