Gladly, Ian Hislop remains positive about the future of journalism
On a sunny spring afternoon we visited Private Eye editor Ian Hislop at the magazine’s Carlisle Street office to interview him about the state of journalism following the damning Leveson inquiry into the practices of the British press.
In a ramshackle office that adds weight to the stereotype that journalists are an untidy bunch, Hislop put forward an impassioned defence of quality journalism.
Hislop argues convincingly that journalism is worth paying for and there is still an appetite for investigative journalism in a landscape that is often dominated by publications such as the ‘feeble’ Mail Online.
Are you optimistic about the state of investigative journalism?
We get told nobody wants to do this stuff any more, it is too difficult, it is too expensive and readers don’t like it. None of which I think are insurmountable and incidentally I think readers do like it.
The press was in such bad odour for the last couple of years, almost any sort of grounds for optimism are difficult to find just because we became so fantastically unpopular. During Leveson and a bit afterwards we were even more unpopular than politicians, which is pushing it. We are slightly back up, we are up there with estate agents now the property boom is back.
Do you think the hacking scandal and Leveson have done lasting damage to the profession?
The press is taking a pounding and if you believe that it deserved to, then it’s got it. What it didn’t deserve was for the conclusion to be reached that therefore all journalists were dubious and corrupt and pointless and needed to be curtailed.
Is that happening at the moment?
Certainly the Post-Leveson mood and the message of Hacked Off and those who wanted the Royal Charter seemed to be there were no worries about the freedom of the press because the press had behaved so badly they did not really merit this freedom.
What do you envision for the future of investigative journalism?
The desire to investigate and report on perceived malpractice, injustice and wrongdoing seems to be as strong as ever. In terms of the actual mechanics of the industry and where this stuff comes out, I don’t know.
My guess is it won’t be my generation who sorts it out. We’ve consistently failed so far (chuckles) or like myself have tried to avoid the question.
Why has your generation consistently failed?
They were incredibly over-excited by the internet and therefore there was a slightly hippy-ish feel to it when it started. It was great and it was free and everything would be free and everyone would share everything, but we didn’t realise that your generation [then] didn’t want to pay for anything.
Do you think people have been conditioned to think journalism should be free?
Yes, and I think it is difficult to row backwards, obviously I’m trying.
Is there anything to suggest things are changing?
The Murdoch empire trying to put paywalls up and The Guardian realising just how much money you can lose by giving away content for free, and the Mail Online being an utterly feeble product but the only thing that seems to make any money, these things concentrate the mind wonderfully…
Are there new journalism models that you believe could work?
There’s the American pro-bono model that seems to require very rich philanthropists and that seems to be working a bit for them. The traditional model was that in a generalised newspaper the investigative journalism was paid for by the fact people liked the crossword and the arts coverage. The Eye’s model is you get some jokes and then we tell you what’s going on.
Do you think the reason you’ve stayed so strong is because you’ve refused to give away content online?
I would love to say that is brilliant business expertise but it was just an instinctive feeling that I don’t want to give people stuff for nothing and Private Eye is £1.50 and a cup of coffee is about £3 – it certainly is in that shop (gestures out the window). It just seems to me why would you not want to pay for something so valuable?
Has the Eye considered putting its content behind a paywall?
We’ve looked into it in a fairly desultory way. I’m assured a lot of the stuff they are writing about digital [subscriptions] at the moment is just balls really. The revolution doesn’t seem to be happening now. I notice Exaro keeps making our [Paul Foot Award] short list, but I don’t know how they fund it.
Were there many local papers that applied for your Paul Foot Award for investigative journalism?
Yes, the short list is only six, but there was a lot of what seventies DJs would call ‘bubbling under’.
Were you surprised Paul Foot Award finalist Aasma Day of the Lancashire Evening Post was given so much time to go off diary?
It seemed amazing because budgets are restricted and like David Cohen of the Evening Standard [the winner of the Paul Foot Award] you think God that’s brilliant of them to allow you to do this because the model could be why not be like the Metro? Why not take the stuff off the wire and fill it full of some ads and showbiz pics? But no, out goes Cohen and tells you what is actually happening.
So would you refute the suggestion local newspapers are dying?
What we are witnessing is amazing resilience against the odds, which is very encouraging and it is pretty hard with all those local council backed newspapers that are just versions of Pravda.
Did Buzzfeed enter the Paul Foot Award because they are often cited as an interesting business model?
It is [an interesting model], but I don’t think they do a huge amount of investigative journalism; they are an aggregator aren’t they?
Do you despair when you see stories such as the Mail Online’s puddle story?
There have always been terrible newspapers putting in terrible journalism but if I were a young journalist and people said the height of what you can achieve is working on the ‘sidebar of shame’ on the Mail that would be quite grim.
Does there need to be an industry movement to stop unpaid internships?
I don’t think you should exploit people and just say ‘come in, work for three months, we won’t pay you at all’. You get two things out of it, one is the suggestion this work is not worth paying for, which it bloody well is and people who do it well should be paid properly.
And secondly you get the same people doing it, it will just be like the old barristers or solicitors or any of the other things that required a private income. It is just full of exactly who you would expect it to be full of, you can’t blame them for doing it, but it means your recruitment pool for any of these professions is very small.
When you entered the profession do you feel it was different?
I never did any unpaid work, I came out of university with an English degree and Dr Johnson’s quote ringing in my head ‘nobody but a blockhead ever wrote for anything except money’. And that is how Grub Street worked in Britain for 300 years. If you were a writer you got paid for it.
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