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The sad reign of Ian Hislop

Appointed for his youth, he has become symbolic of cultural gerontocracy

In 1986, Richard Ingrams decided that he had had enough of editing Private Eye. Controversially, he decided to install as his successor an obscure 26-year-old called Ian Hislop. Private Eye veterans were outraged. Who was this little squirt and what the Hell was Ingrams doing making him their boss? Their boss.

A coup was organised. Peter Cook, the benevolent patron of the Eye, was nominated to give Hislop his marching orders. Unfortunately, he got drunk and decided that he liked the little squirt after all. Hislop remained as the editor and Ingrams left to found the magazine The Oldie.

The best part of forty years on, Hislop is still the editor of Private Eye. He’s eight years older than Ingrams was when he founded a magazine called — again — The Oldie. Not only that — Hislop is also still a panellist on Have I Got News For You, the comedy programme he has been involved with for almost thirty-five years.

Now, I’m not suggesting that someone can’t be witty and incisive in their sixties (or their seventies and eighties). Satirists don’t have to get sent to the glue factory just because they reach a certain age. But I wonder if it strikes Hislop as odd that a man whose rise to power was controversial because of his youth has monopolised it deep into his seventh decade?

Ten years ago, Richard Ingrams, the man who had stepped aside and given Hislop his position, was saying that his protege had been editor for “too long”. “I think the danger of him staying on is that the options become less and less and less,” Ingrams told the Press Gazette in 2013, “He should at least now be thinking, ‘who is going to take over?’” 

Perhaps Hislop has been thinking about it but if so then he is certainly taking his time.

Hislop has provided a lot of memorable moments throughout his career. He was almost sued into oblivion for criticising the preternaturally corrupt media baron Robert Maxwell, for example. His acidic treatment of the wretched Piers Morgan on Have I Got News for You is a television classic — though it’s a sign of the ineffectiveness of satire that Morgan’s career has gone from strength to strength.

But when was the last time Private Eye had a major scoop? When was the last time there was a memorable moment on Have I Got News for You? Say what you like about the former’s controversial recent Israel-bashing cover but at least the words “controversial” and “Private Eye” were in the same sentence again. That was quite refreshing. Otherwise, it has about as much of a cultural footprint as an earthworm has an actual footprint. (Full disclosure: I was criticised in the Eye recently in a piece that was a triumph of misreading and cowardly insinuation. I wouldn’t have known that it had happened if a random person hadn’t told me on Twitter.)

Have I Got News for You, meanwhile, is half an hour of chummy giggling about jokes you have already seen online

Have I Got News for You, meanwhile, is half an hour of chummy giggling about jokes you have already seen online. Panel shows have always been a limp form of comedy — a way to churn out content without a lot of overheads, reducing their cultural and political subject matter to the same level of bland ridiculousness. (As others have observed before me, Hislop and friends had a great time poking fun at Boris Johnson’s eccentricities and look how much that damaged his career.) Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse sent them up gloriously about ten years ago — depicting Hislop spluttering about the “the guv’mint” and its latest “total cock-up” while unmemorable comedians yell, “Oh my God, the Daily Mail.” Brexit, Trump and Boris Johnson have been and gone since then and Have I Got News for You is still trundling on. 

Don’t get me wrong: if Hislop retired then I’m sure I would find his replacements’ politics more disagreeable than his frivolous centrism. I suspect that they would be less funny. But at least there might be something to engage with. Cultural sclerosis makes everyone more limp, and weak, and tired. I would rather watch Novara Media and find a perspective that I really hate than watch Ian Hislop smortle with Matt Chorley of The Times about Nigel Farage on I’m a Celebrity. Even if it didn’t make me think it would at least make me feel something. 

Again, I don’t want this to sound like petty ageism. There is no necessary reason for a 63-year-old to be less funny, sharp, thought-provoking et cetera than a 33-year-old or a 23-year-old. Nor — as someone who works for The Critic, of all magazines — do I want to suggest that the new is necessarily an improvement on the old. Of course it isn’t. But we cannot do all of the same things again and again without them getting tedious and irrelevant. The world changes, whether we like it or not, and the culture has to change as well or else be left with mere nostalgia.

“I always think it’s a sign of whether I’m washed-up or not,” Hislop told Chorley, reflecting on being asked to go on I’m a Celebrity himself, “And I got [asked] this year so it’s probably all over.” It is not all over. Private Eye still has impressive sales, even if its minimal online platform limits its total readership. (No one can claim that Hislop has not done a good job in business terms.) Have I Got News for You can stumble on for years while its only real expenses are Hislop and Paul Merton’s salaries. 

But being able to continue does not mean that one should. I’m sure Richard Ingrams could have continued but he had someone he trusted and gave them a chance. If Hislop doesn’t have someone that he trusts, after 37 years, then whose fault is that?

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