Ian Hislop: "Philanthropy is to be encouraged"

The Have I Got News for You star says greed isn't good any more - but what does he believe in?

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Ian Hislop: "Philanthropy is to be encouraged"
Written By
Tom Loxley

Deep in the basement of Private Eye, down the creaking Georgian stairs, beyond the rubbish and the loo, stands a relic of the past. A life- sized cardboard cut-out of Tony Blair.

Shrouded in bubble-wrap, the former prime minister is wearing a clerical dog collar and collecting dust. For years Private Eye lampooned him as the vicar of Saint Albion but now the Reverend Blair and all he stood for have been consigned to history.

Two floors above and Ian Hislop - editor of the Eye and for two decades the satirical half of a winning double act with Paul Merton on Have I Got News for You - is pouring opprobrium on Blair from a great height. "I think we have woken up from a dream-like infatuation with the modern market," he says from behind his old-fashioned desk that's overloaded with precarious piles of paper and books. There is no evidence of a computer, although it may be hidden by the mess.

"We have spent 20 years accepting that the market is absolutely marvellous, that it's important for Britain that no one looks too closely at what people are doing, providing it all works. And I think that's no longer going to happen, which is a good thing.

"The Labour Party was as committed to the banking sector if not more so [than the Tories]. [Gordon] Brown absolutely loved them. I remember he opened the Lehman Brothers building in the City saying, 'You're marvellous, a shining credit to the British economy.' Now Labour have a problem because whenever they open their mouth [to criticise], people just say, 'Well, you were worse.'"

Banking crisis

It doesn't take much to get Hislop going but the current banking crisis has clearly got his goat, to the extent he has made a salutary documentary for BBC2 about Britain's Victorian bankers, baldly entitled When Bankers Were Good.

"The coalition are perfectly balanced, aren't they?" he says with a raised eyebrow. "You have Vince Cable, who I'm sure would like to split up the banks a lot further between the casino bankers and the retail bankers, and the Tory Party, which is pretty much financed by the City so it has a problem. As the original credit crisis turns into a European sovereign debt crisis and more banks come with their hands out to more countries saying, 'Yes, we lent all this money but we shouldn't have done. Can we have a bail out now?' I think the traditional Tory position of trying to protect the City will go."

Funny and unfailingly polite in person, not the sometimes uncomfortably direct, occasionally steely foil to Merton we see on Friday nights, Hislop has a habit of finishing his sentences with a giggle, sometimes a snigger. No doubt it is deeply suspect to take anything too seriously around these parts, let alone sermonise, but there is a touch of the reverend about him when he gets going on Mammon.

It may have something to do with the combination of cherubic cheeks puffed out in exasperation, balding pate and solemn suit. Perhaps that explains why he has taken the side of the protesters in the current punch-up being staged on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral.

Prophetic

"At the centre of the film is an interview with a canon of St Paul's who has now resigned. The very man who had to go," says Hislop, amused and bemused in equal measure. "He had spoken to us about the different priorities of the City and Christianity." As it turned out, the canon's words, like Hislop's documentary, proved prophetic. It was filmed and edited months before a tented village sprang up beside Paternoster Square, and now everyone is talking about bankers.

"So far the protesters have managed to have most effect on the Church of England. No bankers have resigned, but when they do, I'll start thinking there's progress. But Bob Diamond [the head of Barclays and once loud and proud about being British banking's best-paid chief executive] is now talking about bankers being more responsible. We suddenly hear about a ten per cent club being set up by financiers who are going to give away some of their wealth in their wills.

"There is quite a feeling abroad in the land, the Financial Times and The Economist included, that these campers may have a point. It's not all The Guardian and left-wing papers. It's now a pretty mainstream reaction, to say, 'Oh perhaps the model of casino capitalism that has got us to a point where the entire continent is going down the toilet is not a very responsible one.' People are talking about the rich and whether they should pay more tax rather than avoid it. The Victorian model is perhaps returning."

Surprise

It may come as a surprise to learn that Britain's bankers were once Olympian philanthropists who spent mind-boggling sums of money on charity. Or at least some of them were. It certainly surprised Hislop, whose previous documentary was about Victorian do-gooders.

"Nearly everybody knows of [the prison reformer] Elizabeth Fry, but they don't know she was able to do reform because her brothers [the Gurneys] were stonkingly rich bankers. Some people know Nathan Rothschild, but not quite how much he did. And then there's George Peabody. I think most people who live in London have passed a Peabody housing estate and thought, why is it called that? On the whole, people don't know their stories.

"I think the story of Angela Burdett-Coutts is best. She was the most famous woman in Britain for a brief period. She inherited most of the Coutts banking fortune and spent £3m before she married this other bloke and couldn't spend any more. It was Bill Gates level for its times."

Religion

Aside from being staggeringly generous, many of Hislop's Victorian bankers have one thing in common: they did God.

"There's no getting away from it, however unpopular it may be, that in at least three of the cases I mentioned the religious obligation is why they did it. The Quakers were very moral. One young man wrote in his diary, 'Am I becoming corrupt just by being a banker?' And the girls worried if they were being frivolous by spending a lot of money on clothes. You had to do something with your money and you had to earn it honestly too.

"For a Jew like Rothschild, as the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explained to me, what for a Christian is charity, was rather stricter. Philanthropy is duty. You have to do it. It's ten per cent [of your earnings] and we're not saying it would be a nice idea; we're saying you do that - and if you don't, we ostracise you."

So they weren't driven by profit? "I think they probably were, but what they did was to create a public position for banking in which it was deemed that you are meant to be responsible, philanthropic and honest rather than, it's the Wild West boys, Big Bang time, fill your boots. That wouldn't have been acceptable. Nat Rothschild refused to bank with the Russians because of their attitude to the Jews. There was ethical banking going on.

"But philanthropy is good for you. If you're from the very wealthiest, to be seen giving away large portions of your wealth is good politics. If you mentioned Bill Gates ten years ago, people would say, 'Oooh Satan! He's taking over the world'. Nowadays people say, 'Ooooh, malaria, cholera. He stamped them out in Africa. Good man!'"

Tim Nice But Dim

Hislop went to Ardingly College in the 1970s, a public school in Sussex where he grew up with plenty of boys destined for the City, the more hopeless cases inspiring him to create one of Harry Enfield's characters, the gormless but posh Tim Nice But Dim. "Yes, but the Big Bang [the City deregulation of 1986] changed everything. The people that went into the City when I was at school were all slightly dim. Nice sons who couldn't do much else. So it was estate agency or into the City, stockbroking for some firm of their uncles. And you felt, 'Oh well, fair enough'.

"It wasn't the thrusting go-ahead glamorous world that it became. Once I'd graduated [from Oxford] and we'd had the 80s it was entirely full of the smartest boys coming out with unbelievably complicated financial instruments that, as it turned out, they didn't understand either, and they bankrupted us all. These days Tim Nice But Dim wouldn't have a chance of getting in. He'd be selling water filters."

Does he know any bankers these days? "Not really. I know one bloke who works in private equity and he gives away lots of money, which is impressive. There are honourable exceptions. If you're coming at this from a certain position on the left then none of these people should be having any of this sort of money and their whole existence is theft. I don't go that far. I still believe philanthropy is to be encouraged."

Beliefs

All of which begs the question: what does he believe? From looking at his magazine, it sometimes appears he's anti-everything going. "I suppose I believe things should be done well rather than badly, honestly rather than dishonestly - fairly simple precepts. I'm very 18th century really. I always say this, but it's Alexander Pope's wonderful 'vice, folly and humbug'. That's what you're against."

But what is he for? Does he believe in God? "Er, I am an occasional Anglican, yes. I go to church."

Does that motivate what he does? Silence punctuated by an awkward giggle. "A big C of E pause. I don't know. Not directly. I'm not sure that a lot of what I do is particularly charitable or Christian, so that worries me. I remember being in church and the vicar noticed I was there and included me in a rant in his sermon against those who bear false witness. That put me in my place. So I am pretty confused about my position. But I go."

Is he more a notes or coins man when the collection comes round? "I think these things are very private, don't you? [much laughter]"

Jokes are nearly always at someone's expense? "They frequently are and they can be quite cruel so, yes, that in itself probably wouldn't register as a particularly saintly activity."

Can he square it with himself? "Yes, yes... I mean... just about, yes."

Conscience

Such wrestling with his conscience sounds a little old fashioned. Victorian perhaps. But then he has never been a modish man. When he took over from Richard Ingrams as editor of Private Eye in 1986 at the surprisingly young age of 26, the magazine's majority shareholder, the comedian Peter Cook said, "Old fuddy duddy Richard Ingrams has been replaced by young fuddy duddy Ian Hislop". Recently he told Radio 4 he'd never worn jeans and was promptly taken out to buy a pair. "That was just a hoot!"

Did he wear jeans? "I did, yes." For long? "Not very long. Certainly from the shop back home." Has he still got them? "I have. On a hanger." Will he be ironing them? "If necessary, yes." Has he put them on since?

"Erm... they are coming out soon."

For what?

"God knows! No, I haven't worn them since." He has lampooned Piers Morgan mercilessly for years as Piers Moron - a tease that began when Morgan edited the Daily Mirror and was investigated for insider trading - which made life difficult when the two men met at parents' evenings because their sons went to the same school. "After he got the CNN job I actually said to someone that I wasn't sure I believe in God any more now Piers has become the most famous person in broadcasting in the whole world. It's quite a blow to my faith."

What about the confrontations that spice up guest appearances on Have I Got News for You? Morgan himself appeared and was reduced to the class dunce. "That was car-crash TV. It was so enjoyable. I was told by people at the Mirror that they used to play it on a loop. I haven't seen him since. He was very upset with me."

Television

It certainly made for quite awkward viewing. As did his spectacularly uncomfortable encounters with Christine Hamilton, Bob Crow and more recently John Prescott. "Yes, I quite like that. You don't want to get too cosy and it's nice to have a frisson - a bit of needle."

So he likes confrontation? "Funny that, isn't it? In private I'm no more confrontational than anyone else but on Have I Got News for You or Question Time I think it's good to take people on. I mean Prescott was great. He wanted to do his panto act. But I wanted to say, 'You sat in cabinet, matey, and voted for all this stuff! Why don't you explain it?'"

He's now almost popping out of his seat with indignation, but just as quickly collapses in giggles again. Whose name would give him the most pleasure were he to see it on the guest list for the next show? "I keep saying Blair. He would be terrific, but for some reason they never book him! It's time, don't you think?"

Ian Hislop: When Bankers Were Good airs tonight at 9pm on BBC2 and BBC HD.

This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 15 November.

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