Last year seven national newspapers turned down the chance to expose allegations that the BBC had failed to report child abuse claims made against Jimmy Savile.
Because the story didn’t gain widespread coverage until an ITV documentary in October it’s easy to forget that the first title to air the allegations was The Oldie.
Savile was dead so there was no libel risk – but what gave a generally light-hearted, monthly magazine the courage to publish such a bold story, which the nationals wouldn’t touch?
“I just thought it was a good story,” says editor Richard Ingrams.
“It’s hard to remember now but Savile was not exactly venerated prior to this exposure. I remember being rather amazed by the way the obituaries of Savile didn’t mention these rumours that we were all aware of – it was totally airbrushed out of his story.”
“I don’t think anyone’s really explained how he got away with it,” he says, noting that people have suggested that surely Private Eye, which Ingrams co-founded and edited until 1986, knew something – “we didn’t”.
Ingrams says he never suppressed any Savile stories at Private Eye and believes the story may never have been told before because victims were too “scared” to expose him.
Following his death, though, the victims came forward and still the story wasn’t explored on a wide scale by the press until after Mark Williams-Thomas’s documentary – nearly a year after Savile’s death.
Trying to explain why papers didn’t take up the story before, Ingrams suggests that in some cases the press doesn’t touch something because it might be seen as “unfair”.
“If you ask people before all this came out they would say, ‘well, Jimmy Savile has done a lot of work for charities, raised millions of pounds for hospitals, et cetera’. It’s difficult now to think that people might have thought like that – but it was the case.”
He compares the situation to the case of Robert Maxwell, pointing out that mass tributes were paid to him before allegations of fraud emerged after his death – “it was only then… that people said: ‘Oh, we knew all along.’”
Asked whether he agrees with the tag, ‘Private Eye for grown-ups’, to describe The Oldie Ingrams cringes – “I wouldn’t say that”, he says, claiming that cartoons are the magazine’s biggest draw.
But he does take great pride in some of the more serious, campaigning stories – some of which he feels the mainstream media are missing out on.
“You sometimes feel that a story may come up and last just a day and then everybody moves on to something else – I think attention span has got something to do with it,” he says.
“Take the war in Syria. For quite a lot of time that was front-page news. And it’s still going on. It’s as bad as ever. More and more people are dying but editors are saying, ‘oh, we’ve had enough of this – we don’t want to hear any more about that’. And it’s forgotten.”
Ingrams believes this happens far too often. Citing the recent resignation of the Pope – the next day the Daily Mail led with horsemeat, The Sun with Paul Gascoigne and the Daily Star with Big Brother – he suggests it is because editors think that once something has been on television or on the internet it is old news.
This is not the case for Ingrams. He may follow the broadcast media but is generally a technophobe – he doesn’t have a mobile phone and relies on his “skillful, talented staff” to manage his emails (he has a mound of papers rather than a computer at his desk).
He bats off a suggestion that if he was younger, trying to break into the journalism, he might not be able to survive without a mobile phone and computer skills – “I don’t know about that…Part of the reason I hate mobile phones is they are a terrible distraction. If you’re trying to think of work and your phone keeps going off, you can’t do it. You can’t live your life like that,” he says.
“It’s not that the phone rings but it’s that you think it might ring any moment of the day or night. Now people live with that – no wonder there are so many loonies around.”
He insists he does not have a “luddite” hatred of technology, but does bemoan the fact that everyone he sees on his commute is “plugged in and clutching their mobile phones”. Ingrams, meanwhile, reads three newspapers a day – The Independent (despite the fact editor Chris Blackhurst dropped his column last year), The Times and the Daily Mail.
Although The Oldie has a website Ingrams says that websites just “aren’t the same” as print. He adds: “The Oldie is a visual thing. People aren’t aware of the importance of the look of magazines and newspapers.”
Ingrams includes Private Eye in this criticism, saying he thinks it should carry more cartoons. Though he does admit it is inevitable that he will pick holes in the current running of a magazine he helped found 50 years ago.
“It’s very, very different from what it used to be,” he says. “I think the satirical part of it is different – it’s become a lot of little pieces as opposed to a few quite long pieces. It’s much more bang, bang, bang.
“There’s a lot more factual stuff than there used to be, particularly at the front of the magazine. I find I could do with less of it.
“I think Ian Hislop’s attitude is that the punters have to be given their money’s worth but you do feel slightly that every page is crammed with as much copy or jokes as you could get in.”
Ingrams, who is 75, ended his official involvement with Private Eye at the beginning of 2012 when he gave up as chairman, though he points out that this was always an “honorary” title after he stood down as editor in 1986.
Although Ingrams appointed Hislop to replace him, he also suggests that perhaps it is time for his successor to start thinking about stepping down – “I’m a great believer in resigning”.
Despite this opinion, Ingrams believes he has done a good job – citing the title’s circulation – and he doesn’t regret appointing him despite the fact his successor was just 26 years old at the time.
“He had stood in for me more than once. I had to go to hospital … and I left him in charge. I realised then that he could run it,” Ingrams says.
“The difficulty with Private Eye is it had two sides to it – it had a funny side and a serious side. And the editor had to be able to have a foot in both camps. The majority of people who worked for Private Eye, they were either in one side or the other. But Ian was quite happy in both roles.
“I’d been looking out for someone for quite a long time and I thought he had it in him to do it. He was obviously a very forceful character – very underestimated partly because he was short and very young.”
Ingrams says that although there was “a lot of tension” surrounding his decision to appoint Hislop – because he didn’t consult anyone (Eye journalists weren’t “big buddies”) – people soon “fell into line” when he was appointed, realising it was a good idea.
by William Turvile