The United Kingdom’s Private Eye: the ‘club’ the powerful fear

Patrick Ward

The satirical magazine Private Eye is one of the best-known investigative publications in the United Kingdom, yet it feels somewhat anachronistic as we enter the third decade of the 21st century. Published fortnightly on low quality, unglossed paper, its stories are laid out across three or four columns per page in thick blocks of text. It is largely black and white, save for the occasional cartoon or column-width photograph. The front of the magazine is devoted to news and much of the back to spoof content, and even the most hard-hitting of its investigations will be punctuated with long-running in-jokes, such as references to its fictional proprietor, ‘Lord Gnome’, or its promise that stories will continue on ‘p94’ (the magazine is around half that length). However, while these conventions might risk alienating newer readers, they create an almost club-like atmosphere for its loyal readership.

Most prominently, the Eye’s front cover generally features a photograph from the news overlaid with speech bubbles mocking the great and the good. One controversial example, which followed the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York, featured a close-up of President George W Bush being informed of the incident. A member of Bush’s detail is seen saying to the President, ‘It’s Armageddon, sir,’ to which Bush declares, ‘Armageddon [I’m a-gettingj outahere!’ (Private Eye, 2001). The Eye is often accused of employing ‘schoolboy humour’, somewhat fitting for a publication founded by four men who met in the early 1950s as teenagers at the private Shrewsbury School — Richard Ingrams, William Rushton, Christopher Brooker and Paul Foot (Macqueen, 201 la: 4). The first issue of Private Eye, containing nothing but jokes, was printed in 1961, with its first investigative journalism appearing in 1963 (Macqueen, 2011a: 4).

Perhaps most out of character in the modern age of journalism, Private Eye is almost entirely offline, with the very limited number of stories that do make it to the website being published contemporaneously with the print edition. There have been several notable attempts at reaching a digital audience, beginning with an ill-fated collaboration with Microsoft in the mid-1990s to produce an online version of the magazine (Thorpe, 1998; Mance,

2015). While the Eye has a presence on social media — 231,735 followers on Facebook and 417,129 on Twitter in September 2019 - this is largely used to tease print stories. Two of the few occasions on which the Eye’s online content could truly be said to augment the print publication were its use of interactive maps showing the locations of properties in England and Wales owned by offshore companies (Private Eye, 2015) and local councillors who were late in paying their council tax (Private Eye, 2018). By and large, however, Private Eye is solidly a print publication, a strategy explained by its managing editor, Sheila Molnar: ‘We can’t find something that replicates the look and feel of Private Eye. Also, I’ve never known anyone who has been able to monetise it,’ (Mance, 2015).

Despite all its apparent idiosyncrasies — or perhaps because of them — Private Eye is the best-selling current affairs magazine in the United Kingdom. In the six months leading up to June 2019, it sold an average of 233,565 copies per issue in the United Kingdom and Ireland, while its closest competitor, the Economist, sold 159,669 (Mayhew, 2019). As Private Eye editor Ian Hislop would say after the magazine’s Christmas 2016 edition: ‘This is our biggest sale ever, which is quite something given that print is meant to be dead’ (Ponsford, 2017). As of 2017, 57.1 per cent of Eye sales were through subscription (Gwynn, 2017).

Private Eye is a relatively small operation and since it employs fewer than 50 staff is not required to publish annual revenues and profits (Mance, 2015). It does carry advertising, usually at the very front and back of the magazine. The issue dated 9 August 2019 (Private Eye, 2019), for example, carries nine full pages of adverts out of a total page count of 48. However, in the past, the magazine appears to have made a point of its disregard for its advertisers’ feelings. Hislop describes one occasion on which an ad for Virgin Atlantic was placed facing a page of copy (Steerpike, 2015): ‘This was during [Richard] Branson’s hot air phase, and we did a picture of a balloon with Branson underneath it with the phrase “you’ve got to be careful putting pricks near balloons’”.

One notorious area of expenditure for Private Eye historically has been libel payments, and there is an enduring myth that Hislop is the most sued man in Britain (Macqueen, 2011b). Hislop claims to have ‘fought 40 cases and won one, and we lost the costs on that’ (Market Research Society, 2018). This notoriety may have been bolstered by Hislop’s sometimes defiant reactions to losing such actions, such as joking after losing a libel battle with Robert Maxwell, the late proprietor of the Mirror, in 1986: ‘I’ve just given a fat cheque to a fat Czech’ (Deedes, 2008).

Hislop’s response to court rulings perhaps fits the overall tone of the Eye, and before we take a closer look at the investigative reporting, we will explore a little further the satirical edge of the magazine. This may seem like a distraction, but it is the balance between these two types of content that gives the Eye its unique quality. Lockyer (2006) argues that both the investigative and the satirical journalist is in the business of unpicking the discrepancies between image and reality and goes on to quote Hislop:

They are both basically doing the same job, which is questioning the official version. Either doing it with jokes or doing it with facts. After a bit if you are just doing jokes you’re just taking the agenda from other people s newspapers. Whereas if you’re breaking stories yourself then you can use both the satire and the journalism as a two-pronged attack.

At a more basic level, the Eye’s success might well be because people initially pick it up for the humour, but that then becomes a gateway to the journalism (Byrne, 2006).

Despite this jokey format, the Eye’s investigations have often exposed issues of great national and international importance. Paul Foot challenged the prevailing narrative of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of a Pan Am jet over Scotland, which saw 270 people dead. Libya was blamed for the atrocity, but Foot, through working with the families of the victims, sitting through hearings and sifting through mountains of other evidence, concluded that the attack was in fact carried out by Iranian-hired terrorists from Syria. The official shift in blame to Libya coincided with attempts by the United States to secure the backing of Syria for the first Gulf War (Foot, 2001). Other high-profile Eye investigations have examined the contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 1980s, tax havens, the Private Finance Initiative and the phone hacking scandal.

Most Eye stories, however, are far shorter. They often highlight the hypocrisy of the press, politicians and business. Hislop notes: 'In the old days, Private Eye was there to break stories. . . . Nowadays, we’re there to explain why stories are irrelevant or wrong and what the real story is’ (Erlanger, 2015). While the more detailed investigations are to be found as part of the ‘In the Back’ section, the front-end news is a long way from the sort of ‘churnalism’ discussed by Davies (2009) that afflicts much of today’s press.

We can briefly dissect one issue of the Eye, issue 1502 {Private Eye, 2019), to offer examples of its coverage. The opening news page features five stories, leading with an expose of how hedge fund managers, one of whom was a donor to the Conservative Party' leadership campaign of Boris Johnson, were short-selling the pound in anticipation of the economic damage expected from a so-called ‘hard Brexit’, a policy Johnson was at the time refusing to rule out. The following section is ‘Street of Shame’, which focuses on stories about the news media. Of the 13 stories in this section, 4 focus on the case of Carl Beech, whose fabricated allegations of a VIP paedophile network led to hundreds of press stories, a host of arrests and police raids of prominent politicians’ homes. Much of this coverage reminds readers of what the news sources in question, including the Daily Mail, might prefer their audiences to forget: that despite their recent outrage that Beech’s stories were believed by politicians and various state institutions, many of the now-indignant publications originally also printed his claims uncritically.

This is followed by a section devoted to stories about national politicians, ‘HP Sauce’, which in this issue features eight articles, one of which details the business links between incoming government security minister Brandon Lewis and Russian oligarchs connected to the Kremlin. Following sections include ‘Rotten Boroughs’ (about local authorities), ‘Eye TV’ (television) and ‘Medicine Balls’ (health).

Then, after the letters pages, come the jokes — nine full pages of cartoons and parodies, which in this issue include a spoof of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels (here featuring the prime minister and his chief advisor as ‘Leaves and Booster’) and a ‘diary’ purporting to be by Daily Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson.

The magazine then enters its more detailed investigative section, ‘In the Back’, which in this issue hosts ten stories across four pages. They include investigations into tax evasion by central London souvenir shops, continuing coverage of a famous miscarriage of the justice involving the murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan in 1987 and a series of fires at waste incinerators run by the company Viridor (and attempts by its PR company to minimise negative publicity).

Many of the stories ‘In the Back’ are short updates on long-running investigations, as with the Daniel Morgan story. This carries on the tradition of Foot, the section’s late editor, whose ‘drip-drip-drip discovery and recording of evidence, over months and often years’ (Greenslade, 2008: 336) ensures a story endures, with new evidence added, more sources coming forward and, in the best of examples, tangible victories along the way. Eye journalist Richard Brooks (2019) offers further insight:

The great thing about doing things for Private Eye is that you don’t just have to spend months on something before you print anything. ... It takes a long time, but I think a way of doing these investigations, probably underrated now, is to keep coming back to them, develop them as stories, so that you often have new revelations month after month rather than having to do it all again in one go.

One key feature of all the news stories and deeper investigations throughout the magazine is their lack of bylines. With very few exceptions, no journalists or editors are named at any point in the magazine, although the occasional pseudonym is used for regular writers, such as TV reviewer ‘Remote Controller’ and health writer ‘M. D’. There are several reasons for this anonymity, which has been in place since 1967. Macqueen (2011a: 19), himself an Eye journalist, states that its editors ‘have always been exemplary in absorbing legal fallout rather than allowing it to shower on junior staff. Macqueen notes that the main reason was that ‘by mid-1966 they were receiving regular leaks fromnewspaper offices, the BBC, Scotland Yard and the inner circle around prime minister Harold Wilson’. He goes on to quote Foot:

The problem about the circulation of real information in our society is that people at all levels of it, especially at the top, do not disclose what they want to disclose. They are worried about their own position as discloser. . . . Only when they can be sure that they are safe does the information start to flow.

The importance of anonymity is highlighted in an anecdote by John McEntee (2011), reflecting on his time as a columnist for the Daily Express in the mid-1990s. He relates how his boss wanted a story printed in the Eye, which a colleague with links to the magazine then sent over to them by fax:

Within minutes I was summoned to the managing editors office, where a clearly embarrassed executive asked me if I provided Private Eye with stories. I said I did not and was informed that there had been two telephone calls and one fax message to the magazine’s office from the Diary within the previous hour. It transpired that the switchboard was programmed to alert Express management to any contact with the Eye.

This anonymity is key when you consider the way in which the Eye sources many of its stories. Tim Minogue (2015), the editor of the Eye’s ‘Rotten Boroughs’ section since 1999, relates that each fortnight he receives ‘perhaps 200 tips via email, plus more over the phone, via Twitter and in the post’. He adds, ‘Sometimes the source works for the local paper, but can’t get anything mildly controversial past their editor’.

As Hislop (Market Research Society, 2018) explains, again drawing on the idea of the Eye as a type of club:

Private Eye is essentially a club, and it depends on people in specific industries. . . engaging with us and saying if something’s going wrong, or you think something’s bent or something isn’t right, just letting us know, and that is how nearly every section of the Eye works. . . . The reason we tend to get our stories right is because we’re told them by people in the middle of them.

Richard Brooks (2019), however, notes that these tip-offs are not the whole picture. ‘A lot of people do come to us, but on really big stories, I think an interesting feature is that people tend not to. It may be the sort of online age and so on, but people with big stories are fine often to go elsewhere’. This was the case with his own investigations into corruption involving Saudi Arabia and Britain, which we will now examine in detail.

Case study: ‘Shady Arabia and the Desert Fix’ (2014)

To offer an illustration of the way in which Private Eye conducts its investigations, we can look to a two-year investigation into the corrupt relationship between Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Saudi Arabia (Brooks and Bousfield, 2014). A six-page special report, ‘Shady Arabia and the Desert Fix’, was published by the Eye in 2014, expanding and updating its previous coverage of the issue. The two journalists leading the coverage, Brooks and Andrew Bousfield, won the coveted Paul Foot Award for investigative journalism in 2015 as a result. Two months after the publication of the first story in the Eye relating to the scandal (Private Eye, 2012), the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) opened an investigation, which, as of September 2019, is ongoing.

The investigation centred on what was known as the Saudi Arabia National Guard Communications (SANGCOM) contract, primarily between the Saudi Arabia National Guard (SANG) and the British MoD, which was used to supply multibillion-pound arms exports from the United Kingdom to the Saudis. In order to secure this lucrative market, the British relied on bribes, which were fed back to members of the Saudi royal family.

The story begins with revelations given by Ian Foxley, a former British army lieutenant-colonel, who was programme director on a contract worth /)2 billion between the British government and SANG to supply the latter with telecommunications and electronic warfare equipment. Foxley, who was based in Riyadh, worked for the British company GPT Special Project Management Ltd and in 2010 discovered what he believed to be evidence of corrupt payments. He was alarmed to find that the most expensive elements of the contract were payments to offshore companies under the title ‘bought-in services’, which he soon found did not exist. He knew that a previous holder of his role, Mike Paterson, had informed EADS, parent company to GPT, about the problem before, but that nothing had come of it. Foxley took matters into his own hands:

Before [Foxleys] colleagues arrived for their day’s work, he located messages originally sent by Paterson to Pedro Montoya, the “group compliance officer” at Paradigm [the British-based EADS division], and forwarded them to his own GPT email address. He then strolled down the corridor to his own office, from where he forwarded the emails now sitting in his GPT inbox - complete with explosive attachments - to a personal email account and to one of [the SANGCOM chairman’s] officials in the MoD’s SANGCOM team.

Rather than investigating the claims, the MoD sent Foxley s information back to GPT, informing them of their employee’s disclosure. Foxley was called into the office of Jeff Cook, GPT’s managing director, where he was accused of theft and threatened with prison, a threat backed up by a member of the royal family who was also present at the meeting. Foxley left the office and escaped the country as quickly as possible.

These revelations were first published in the Sunday Times in October 2011 (Leppard, 2011), after Foxley was contacted by journalist David Leppard. The story was then picked up by Private Eye journalists Brooks and Bousfield, who wanted to further explore the issue. Brooks (2019) says that the Sunday Times reported what Foxley had told them ‘but that clearly wasn’t it by a long chalk, so we took it up and got in touch with him, got talking to him, explaining that we could do it in a bit more depth, we could stick with the story a bit longer ... we would develop the story, follow up any consequences and so on’.

Foxley (2019), for his part, already respected Private Eye, so was happy for their involvement. ‘They get to the bottom of things, they have their own credibility in terms of the quality of the investigative journalism. ... I liken them to terriers; they’ll get your ankle and they won’t let go’. It is also worth noting that Foxley claims he was put under pressure by the SFO not to proactively speak to the media about the case but that he had refused to stay silent should the press contact him: “‘No comment” is what villains do in police interviews when they don’t want to incriminate themselves. . . . What I said to [the SFO| was that I will not go to the press’. This emphasises Brooks’ earlier point about the importance of not simply awaiting tip-offs — it was proactive attempts by journalists that gave Foxley his platform.

The Private Eye report built on Foxley’s revelations, linking them to broader sources of information, notably the offshore companies implicated in the contracts. The journalists wanted to understand how this bribery scheme was operating, who was involved and where the money was going. The article draws in the findings of former financial controller Mike Paterson, who had discovered that the mysterious payments were being sent to two companies based in the Cayman Islands: Simec International Ltd and Duranton International Ltd. Paterson had raised the alarm bell in 2007, taking his concerns to EADS. Despite this, the signoff of payments continued. Two years later, Paterson went to Philippe Troyas, the international compliance officer of Astrium, a division of EADS, who essentially admitted to the briber}': ‘I am prepared to accept some corruption because I like my company better than ethics’. Usefully, Paterson recorded these conversations and kept details of the payments and gifts. This evidence revealed huge payments to Simec International. From July 2007 to July 2010, they amounted to around 15 per cent of the company’s expenses, more than ^14 million. All were signed off by the GPT managing director and other senior figures. Foxley took this wealth of information to the SFO in January 2011, and the Eye fu st provided coverage the following May (Private Eye, 2012). The SFO began a criminal investigation three months after the Eye published its revelations.

The investigation then goes back to look at the history of these arrangements, including their foundations in the early days of Western attempts to profit from Saudi oil wealth. Unearthed historical records reveal that the first SANGCOM contract was signed in the 1970s, with Cable & Wireless as the UK contractor, and that three companies were to receive commissions: Engineering and Trading Operations Company Beirut (led by Mahmoud Fustok, the brother-in-law to the then-head of the SANG and later king, Abdullah Al Saud), which would receive 10 per cent commission; Cable & Wireless Middle East, which received 2 per cent and Simec International (3 per cent). By the time of the investigation, all commissions were taken by Simec and Duranton. A contemporary memo uncovered by the investigation from the head of defence sales confirmed that these were indeed bribes. The Eye notes a story in the Times from 1978, which reveals that the United Kingdom had won the contract despite ‘fierce foreign competition’. It was worth £400 million (around £2.3 billion in 2019).

This treasure trove of information was revealed with the help of Nicholas Gilby, an author specialising in the arms trade who had spent a huge amount of time sifting through documents at the National Archives. Brooks (2019) recalls that Gilby’s assistance was vital: ‘We would probably never have got that ourselves, so we relied on him giving us those documents. Why would he do that? Well, you’ve got to kind of develop those relationships really*. The journalists discovered that Simtec’s origins were in Liechtenstein, a tax haven. Brooks (2019) recalls the relative ease with which they obtained information in this case: ‘I wrote to the authorities in Lichtenstein, saying can I have some documents on this thing they’d set up in the 70s, and they actually did hand it over, which I was amazed by. You have to try’.

Simec had been created as a type of foundation in 1975, just as Cable & Wireless was preparing its proposal for a contract. Its formation documents revealed the names of Simec s two founders: Bryan Somerfield, a former diplomat, and a young engineer called Peter Austin. On the day Simec was founded, a separate company, which had strong links to the British political establishment, rebranded as Duranton Ltd. Five years later, Duranton was acquired by Simec, and Austin and Somerfield joined its board. Several years after that, Austin became sole owner of Simec and chair of Duranton. In 1982, Austin set up two companies in the Cayman Islands tax haven, which were also named Simec International Ltd and Duranton Ltd. These companies would continue to take SANGCOM payments until the scandal finally broke.

The investigation quotes an 'Eye reader who worked on the project in the 1980s’ who divulges that ‘when the invoices were presented there was always a bottom line that said “administrative charge 3 per cent". That went to Mr Austin and he then disbursed it among a group of gentlemen known as The Club — and they were senior officers and princes of the royal family’. Using research by Gilby, the journalists pieced together the identities of ‘The Club’s’ members. Brooks (2019) recalls being contacted by this unnamed source and the steps taken to verify their story:

We checked [the source’s information! with what we saw in historical documents, what seemed credible, with people who knew what was going on at the time, and it all stood up really. . . . When people come to you with undocumented evidence or stories you’ve got to be pretty circumspect. We wouldn’t really fly any kites, we’d have to be sure that it’s true.

‘Shady Arabia and the Desert Fix’, at more than 7,400 words, provides far more detail and revelation than this brief summary gives justice. It also details the hunt for the elusive Austin, the connections between GPT and a senior government advisor, the ‘blind eye’turned by GPT’s high-profile auditors, and much more. It uses investigative techniques from checking Linkedln profiles to doorstepping, poring over company records to checking newspaper archives. ‘I did try to get a lot more on it from the MoD through freedom of information requests and I went to a tribunal, didn’t really get anywhere, they were very secretive about the whole thing’ (Brooks, 2019).

The story charts the eventual closure of the contract and notes that a new agreement was put in place, supposedly bribery-free, but for which there was very little information available. As to the investigation’s impact, Brooks (2019) says:

The company involved is now shutting down, there may be prosecutions sitting on the Attorney General’s desk. I think it’s hard to say how much of that was our investigation and how much was the fact the case was referred to the SFO early on [and] it’s just the outcome of their work. . . . There are a lot of cases where effect is claimed in journalism when it probably might have happened anyway, but . . .

I would imagine it put pressure on investigators to look at the thing properly.

Could this investigation have been accomplished by another publication? Possibly, if they had the willingness to invest time and resources into doing so. However, unlike many news publications looking for quick returns, the Eye does seem well placed. Brooks (2019) again:

We will go back to stories, I think that’s the thing. I think that does get you in deeper to other layers of the story ... on what it means and why it’s happening rather than just the quick headline. ... I do think that other papers can be a bit fixated on the medium, the type of story. So, if it’s a leak, for example, it’s suddenly got this kudos and it’s much more important than if the same information hadn’t been a leak. So they’ll splash stuff', we have this massive leak, look at the size of our database. We’re still interested in what are the stories and how do you tell the story, which is a very fortunate position to be in for a journalist.


At a time of continued cashflow shortfalls, digital-first one-upmanship and the clickbait headline, Private Eye’s continued insistence on remaining a fortnightly print magazine that dedicates a significant part of its coverage to longterm investigations makes it unique in the UK market. It has bucked conventional wisdom in its insistence to remain largely unchanged in format throughout its history. It is also a place to read stories you would not read elsewhere, away from the medias recycling industry of second-hand stories. Its famous respect for whistleblowers and anonymity for industry insiders means that it is still a trusted platform for contributors - part of its ‘club’. As others scrabble for advertising revenue, Private Eye’s only apparent concession to the advertising industry was its relatively recent move to colour (Lockyer, 2006). Hislop (in Ponsford, 2017) puts the increasing success of the Eye, at a time of dwindling circulations across the newspaper industry, down to its combination of satirical and factual content: ‘It’s obviously to do with Brexit and Trump and people thinking where can I find something that might be true and something that might be funny?... I do think if people will pay /^2.50 for a cup of coffee then they will pay [Xl -80] for a copy of the Eye’.


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