No one gets a break from Ian Hislop, not even relatives worried by these strange times. “My mother-in-law said to me, ‘It’s terrible, I can’t remember a time when I was more frightened.’” He scowls, still exasperated at the memory. “I told her, ‘You were a teenager during the Second World War!’ And she said, ‘Oh, yes, I was quite frightened then.’”
His mother-in-law, perhaps excusably, was expressing her fears after the recent attack in Westminster, the very heart of the body politic Hislop has lampooned since he was appointed editor of the fortnightly satirical magazine Private Eye in 1986. He has been exposing incompetence and venality in British society for so long that he’s wary of claims that these are uniquely bad times. “You just think, ‘You must stop this’,” he says. “A sort of desire to self-dramatise. It’s not to be complacent or not to look, but just to try to be more accurate with your worries.”
But, on 13 July last year, even Hislop became unfocused. “It was when Boris Johnson became Foreign Secretary,” he says. He smiles, a small but animated presence behind his large Private Eye editor’s desk. “Yes, things had been bonkers. I mean, there was a moment when we thought Andrea Leadsom might be prime minister. But with Boris I had a personal crisis. I thought, ‘Oh no – this can’t have happened.’”
Despite his disbelief, Boris Johnson really was appointed Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and thus became the United Kingdom’s leading international representative. Four months later, Donald Trump really did become President of the USA.
“Extraordinary,” says Hislop, in genuine wonder. “A president that tweets late at night and who cares what Arnold Schwarzenegger’s [The Apprentice] ratings are? A president that is prepared to lie, to contradict himself within the same sentence and to dismiss out of hand what’s evidently true.”
Boris, Brexit, Trump and fake news are gifts that, for Hislop, keep on giving, both on the pages of Private Eye and on television. He has been a team captain opposite Paul Merton on the current affairs panel show Have I Got News for You since it began in 1990 and he regularly torments dissembling politicians on BBC1’s Question Time. Now, after nearly three decades irritating the establishment he belongs to, the public school-and Oxford-educated Hislop is gleefully benefiting from an era of remarkable political turmoil.
Private Eye, founded in 1961, is enjoying its highest-ever sales figures (287,334). “More people buy Private Eye than attended Trump’s inauguration. Fact. Possibly,” is how Hislop puts it. And Have I Got News for You seems more relevant than ever, winning a Bafta in 2016.
“Current times are being very kind to us,” says Hislop, who’s now 56. “Other people are being laid off and we’re putting on numbers. I’m almost ashamed of it, but satire is the one industry to do well.”
We’re sitting in the headquarters of that industry – the Private Eye offices in a Soho side street. There are framed cuttings and cock-eyed photographs on the walls, wayward rugs and a coat-stand. Only the absence of ink-bomb marks on the walls prevents it from being a 1950s sixth-form common room. His desk is a jumble of paper and books, but there’s no immediately apparent PC or laptop. Hislop, wearing a bashed-about business suit and troubled by a tie knot that’s attempting to travel around his neck, doesn’t do new media and technology. “I’m not the person you should ask to tell you what’s wrong with WhatsApp,” he says, helpfully.
In fact, Hislop blames technology for the rise of fake news – or rather he gives fake news some credit, as he is doing so well out of it. “I think technology has encouraged people to lose their faith in any sort of authority in news sources. People say, ‘Oh, Hillary Clinton murdered three people? I didn’t know that.’ The reason you didn’t know that is it isn’t true. It’s just on bonkers websites. Trump is the most blatant example, believing there’d been a terrorist incident in Sweden because he’d seen it on a Fox News report that had taken it from someone else. And he’s the US President!”
We laugh, but Hislop concedes that putting a clownish figure in charge of a country can be a very serious business. “Mussolini was considered a huge joke, a buffoon,” he says. “How funny, this strutting idiot! But Mussolini wasn’t funny at all.” Italy has a robust tradition of pointing and jeering at politicians, but that didn’t stop Mussolini and fascism’s rise. Does satire really affect the powerful?
“Yes! Charlie Chaplin’s brilliance was in refusing to be scared by Hitler and making him risible. And when the [1930s fascist] Black Shirts are rampant in Britain, PG Wodehouse comes up with the Black Shorts, and just treats it as funny. There is something very defiant about finding comedy in these situations.”
And potentially dangerous. Hislop can justly claim to be the most-sued editor in Britain, but has he been threatened physically? “Less about political things,” he says. “But about specific stories, people have threatened everything. There are a lot of very violent people about.” Was he frightened by any of it? “Discomforted. I mean, it’s never great. And post-Charlie Hebdo [after January 2015 when 12 people were killed in an attack on the French satirical magazine’s Paris office by Islamist terrorists], everybody’s a bit more scared. Charlie Hebdo has a very specific take, particularly on Islam; we don’t do that stuff. But just as a general mood, a feeling that it could happen, it was pretty sobering.”
As well as Chaplin and Wodehouse, Hislop places himself in a tradition of satire that goes back to Swift, Defoe, Hogarth and, more recently, Orwell. He uses the Old Etonian writer’s example to point out our obligation to defend the truth. “Orwell in his funniest and darkest writing is about politicians telling you things that are simply not true. You know, two plus two equals five. The job of either being in journalism or making jokes is to say, ‘That isn’t true, and it does matter that it isn’t true.’ The fact you feel it would be nice if something were true, or if it were true it would support your opinion, that’s not enough. It actually has to be true.”
He was born with “an attitude problem” and knew from an early age that he wanted to join in with the mocking. “I did a lot of performing at school,” says Hislop, who was head boy at Ardingly College, a boarding school in West Sussex. “There was a great deal of using plays and revues to be cheeky and anarchic. Well, not really anarchic, but critical.” He read English at Magdalen College, Oxford, and says he spent all his time “doing courses in every single form of satire or comedy there was available”. Then in his 20s he got his first taste for public baiting as a guest reporter on Radio 4’s Midweek. “I had a fight on air with Jeffrey Archer about how much tax he paid. It felt very, very good. I realised that being absolutely opposite someone live has a power, and you can just say things.”
Famously, he would go on to upbraid Archer’s wife Mary, on Question Time in 2002, for her husband’s misdemeanours. In a public poll his destruction of Lady Archer was voted the best ever Question Time moment – but a little ungallant? “I don’t regret that in the slightest.” Does he regret anything? “I was unfair to [Labour MP] Yvette Cooper once.” He says he tries “to think it through first” before he launches an attack on television, but he sometimes can’t help himself. “I just feel, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do this.’ It’s very, very healthy to confront someone about what they’ve done or what they claim.”
He clearly enjoys annoying people immensely and says he regularly checks the Have I Got News for You complaints log to see if he is being called “a disgusting liberal-leftie luvvie or a smug Tory Boy establishment stooge. It cheers me up no end if I get both.”
To be fair, Hislop has the looks and vowels of a smug Tory Boy, but he lives a standard liberal metropolitan elite lifestyle – married to bestselling novelist Victoria Hislop, two grown-up children, a five-storey Chelsea townhouse worth north of £4 million and a home in Kent where he can be spotted at both the parish church and the tennis club – and he admits the Have I Got News for You audience conforms to his own world view. “We’re not going to get the membership of Ukip coming in for a works outing, on the whole.” It’s a pleasing prospect, though, for devilment if nothing else? “It would be very good,” he says. “But that’s what you get on Question Time.”
Hislop is happy to make digs at the BBC, an organisation that provides him with a public platform and has kept him in steady and well remunerated employment for 27 years (he gets a reported £400,000 a series). Has he ever been taken aside for a quiet word? “No. Because I think people know that the quiet word would then appear [in print], because I’m deeply untrustworthy in terms of quiet words.”
Does he feel any conflict, working for an organisation so inviting of criticism? “My experience is if you just pretend there is no conflict, you get away with it! People say, ‘Well, I mean, why would you have him on that? He was really rude about the BBC in the last issue.’ Or ‘He made a joke on Have I Got News for You about the director-general,’ which I have done frequently. ‘How come he’s still on?’ And the answer is, I just am.”
Satire, like bemoaning Brexit, is a largely middle-class affair and Hislop says Paul Merton, son of an Underground train guard, takes a different approach. “When we talk about Trump on Have I Got News for You, I am chomping to tell you about the difference between what he promised and what he can deliver. Paul decided that Trump was so ghastly he would only answer questions about Toblerone. Paul’s attitude isn’t the same, he feels it in different ways to me."
On screen, Hislop is much more likely to get angry than Merton. Proof, I suggest, that he cares much more than we think such a cynic might. “But I’m not a cynic,” he says. “I’m a sceptic. I do believe in the value of things, people, institutions, ideas, where they work. Now we’ve had an atrocity at Westminster, perhaps people will stop saying, ‘Ugh, Westminster,’ as though it was a synonym for evil. I find that offensive.”
I finish by paying him a compliment: you have to be a pretty brave and decent person to do what he does. “Or a really tiresome person,” he says. “Very thick-skinned and lacking empathy.” Appropriately enough, satire’s veteran bruiser has just attacked himself.
Have I Got News for You begins on Friday 21st April at 9pm on BBC1