Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Man Who Just Wants to Be Believed

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Man Who Just Wants to Be Believed

Article excerpt


MORE than 100 boxes of evidence line the right wall of Room 14 of the Royal Courts of Justice. On the other side, a matching number marches up to the witness stand.

We are in week five of Condliffe v Pressdram and Hislop, a libel action waged by a West Country accountant called Stuart Condliffe against Private Eye, which, back in March 1992, accused him of overcharging clients. It is a nowin case for the Eye, which is resigned to paying huge legal costs even if the judge finds in its favour.

"Excuse me," says Ian Hislop after he has greeted me. "I'd better sit at the front so I can nod at the judge." Given the magazine's history before the libel courts, it is a dismally appropriate way for the Eye's editor to be celebrating his organ's 40th.

There are compensations, however.

This morning is Condliffe's first on the stand and the crossexamination by the Eye's QC, Ronald Thwaites, is brutal. It cheers Hislop up considerably and his mood further lightens when, emerging like a little blinking vole into the sunlight of the Strand at lunchtime, two passersby ask him to sign their birthday copies of the Eye. After 11 years as a team captain on the BBC's Have I Got News For You, Hislop is not only wealthier than Richard Ingrams, whom he succeeded as the Eye's editor in 1986, but much better known.

It would be a tragedy if his celebrity made him lose touch with his public, I say, once we have reached our restaurant in Chancery Lane. He orders a

medium-done steak and water and says he thinks this unlikely. "I was walking down Soho this morning and someone came up and said, 'Love you on the show'.

So I was feeling very pleased with myself and a bloke in pinstripes walked past me and just said, 'Not funny'. So I feel I haven't quite got enough distance from the public. I commute, you see. There is no way out on a train."

Court, he says, is hours of boredom and incomprehension and sudden moments of drama, such as this morning's. He arrived as editor pledging to reduce the Eye's legal bills, but it was not long before he was facing a [pound]600,000 libel award to Sonia "Mrs Ripper" Sutcliffe. If this was justice then he was a banana. He has ended one Ingrams tradition, however: printing gossip simply because it sounds true.

"I don't believe that ring of truth thing. I think it's dangerous. What I always want of the item is for it to be believed. I can't bear the thought of running all this journalism if everyone thinks, 'Oh, take it with a pinch of salt.'" Hislop wants the Eye to be believed partly because papers, generally, are not. He says when Private Eye was born (when he was one), its role was to print the true stories journalists couldn't get into their own papers.

"Nowadays it seems to be our job to point out that the ones that have been printed are not true."

An underreported difference between Ingrams and his protege is the contempt in which Hislop, who is basically a jokesmith, holds journalism.

"It's true," he says. "I'm not hugely impressed by journalists on the whole.

But I think that is a reasonable point of view for the editor of Private Eye to take."

JOURNALISTS Peter McKay and Nigel Dempster were the first to leave under his editorship. With them went much of the paper's coverage of what it used to call Ugandan Affairs. Conventionally one should praise the Eye's restraint from sexual tittle-tattle these days. Yet, sex sometimes surely earns its place in even righteous gossip.

Let us imagine, I say, the obviously entirely imaginary case of a newspaper editor who campaigns for privacy rights and has a mistress himself.

Should his motives not be exposed? Ah, he says, this is an interesting case.

They had considered doing a "Hackwatch" feature on just such an editor, but when they checked the cuttings they found that during his condemnation of the prurient coverage of Robin Cook's divorce, he had admitted in his editorial that everyone on his paper had affairs all the time. …

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