When the phone hacking scandal blew up, I reached first for Private Eye.
I have given up paying for news. I don’t remember the last time I bought a newspaper and although I read online the output of more media outlets than ever before, I do it for free.
But I still subscribe to Private Eye, 10 years after leaving the UK to return to my native Australia.
I was thinking of cancelling my subscription around the middle of last year. Not in the fit of traditional outrage which accompanies most cancellations, but simply because much of what it covers is of remote interest to me now.
And then the phone hacking scandal blew up.
As is my habit, I took my news on the subject from a variety of (free) sources – more than usual, because I was also interested to see how the unfolding story was reported across the Murdoch Empire, including in the United States and Australia.
But I was hanging out for Private Eye.
When you’re an Eye Reader you’re in a club (I confirm that we do exchange knowing looks on public transport).
As part of that club, I wasn’t all that surprised by the revelations in the Guardian. I’ve been reading Private Eye’s Street of Shame column for a long, long time.
Editor Ian Hislop was generous in his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry when he gave full credit to the Guardian for its exposure of the phone hacking scandal. Private Eye at least deserves a special commendation.
When the Hackgate issue turned up, with “GOTCHA!” splashed across pictures of Rupert, James and Rebekah, I revelled in the comprehensive romp through the archives afforded by the Eye’s regular and notably frequent series called: Eye Told You So.
Any thoughts of joining the ranks of the Unsubscribed were banished.
So, why am I a loyal member of the Private Eye club? Probably because I have always felt that Private Eye, even when it gets things wrong, is doing the best job it can on my behalf.
It is going where I can’t go and asking the questions I can’t ask.
It’s keeping track of what people in positions of power and responsibility are saying and doing and letting me know when there are inconsistencies or even downright lies.
It’s giving me a laugh and a bit of gossip – but not the trivial celebrity gossip of the tabloids. The real gossip – who in the corridors of power is in bed with whom, and how are they trying to shaft us this week?
And it’s doing all this in a distinctive style that I instantly recognise and which appeals to me.
Isn’t all that, in a nutshell, what good journalism should be?
I don’t get Private Eye for free on the internet because Ian Hislop has resolutely refused to make it available.
And while the mainstream media struggles to find a business model for the 21st century, Private Eye is stronger than ever.
Its secret, as far as I can see, is that it continues to consistently deliver quality journalism in a readable and entertaining style.
It might not enjoy the vast circulations of the daily newspapers but it seems to be doing all right just the same.
It put on an extra 50,000 readers for the Gotcha! issue, because people knew it would be worth reading.
In contrast, the closure of the News of the World has had a chilling impact on Britain’s Sunday newspaper market. A lot of people have just stopped buying a Sunday paper altogether.
Young journalists once were cautioned against using words like ‘tragedy,’ ‘horror,’ ‘disaster.’
The old subs knew that using hysterical language to sell papers was subject to the law of diminishing returns.
Maybe all those News of the World readers are enjoying the peace of a Sunday morning undisturbed by all that screaming.
Read more about the Private Eye business model here.
And more from me, on Hislop’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry:
And I respectfully give the last word to Christopher Hitchens, who wrote a great piece in honour of Private Eye’s 50th anniversary, here.