I don’t recall precisely when Private Eye became a tedious parody of itself, but knowing my own exquisite taste it was undoubtedly just before I stopped buying it, some years ago. So prior to today, the last time I read an article was when someone forwarded me something nasty it said – I can’t remember what – when the Free Speech Union was founded. But then, a satirical anti-establishment magazine would be against free speech, wouldn’t it?
This apparent campaign against free speech advocacy continued this week with an attack on Triggernometry, which (as most readers will know) is a pro-free speech podcast and YouTube channel hosting a variety of speakers of all political stripes discussing controversial topics. It’s not clear why the Eye decided to launch its attack now, but is it a pure coincidence that the most recent episode – at the time the piece was likely written – featured a couple of prominent Jewish guests being critical of Hamas? I wonder about this, because the Eye’s editor Ian Hislop has always taken an anti-Israel line, and for instance a current featured article makes false quasi-legal claims about Israel breaching humanitarian law by, for instance, advising civilians to get out of the IDF’s area of operations. And notably, in the last few days a Jewish cartoonist quit the magazine after receiving a death threat for criticising the Eye’s anti-Israel line.
But anyway, the piece begins with a contradiction. It notes that Triggernometry skyrocketed in popularity after one of the hosts, Konstantin Kisin, gave a speech at the Oxford Union that was widely shared online. But then it attempts to portray Triggernometry as unknown or irrelevant (“What the f**k is Triggernometry, you might ask.”), which is ironic given the considerably greater audience enjoyed by Triggernometry compared to the Eye, which has a circulation of around 230,000. Triggernometry’s Hamas episode has garnered 680,000 views as of the time of writing, almost three times the Eye’s circulation (while podcast downloads are likely many times this number). “What the f**k is Private Eye?”, many of the half million people who’ve seen Kisin’s tweet about their article might be asking.
The author then complains that the format of Triggernometry is the “longform interview podcast”, which is bad because it’s “the preferred format of anti-woke warriors”. Perhaps you can hear more about the dangers of the longform interview podcast in Ian Hislop’s recent longform interview podcast.
But seriously, there’s a problem with longform interviews now? Should we criticise Thomas Paine because he published in pamphlet form? Or catalogue books according to size and colour? Pace Wilde and his “three-volume novel”, it’s pretty desperate stuff. What matters – or ought to matter – are the ideas being presented. But the author of this quasi-review never once refers to any substantive content from an episode of Triggernometry, except once when we’re told that the hosts, Konstantin Kisin and Francis Foster, said they wouldn’t “expect their wives to obey them”. That’s right, they take the astonishing view that women shouldn’t be subservient to men. We are then treated to a gag about Kisin being someone who would “meekly compl[y]” when interrupted, mid-monologue, by his wife and told to put out the bins: a gag that would probably work better in a country like Saudi Arabia.
And there’s plenty more of it, including how the hosts are hoping to do even better in the American market, because that’s “where the real nutters […] can be found”, and some of the usual weak stuff about how free speech is really a cover for racism (predictably, they resurrect Bernard Manning). The author also suggests that when Kisin had to cancel a show because he was required to agree to a ridiculous contract preventing him saying anything that might be “anti-religion or anti-atheism” (amongst other things), he cynically exploited this merely to advance his career. (And we are invited to think of the children, without a trace of irony.) But Kisin would have gotten away with it, were it not for the pesky Eye, who did some digging to reveal that this supposed contract was, in fact, merely a “non-binding agreement”. That’s not true – and it’s not the only lazy inaccuracy – but never mind. And never mind about all the people who’ve lost their careers for holding perfectly lawful views – they’re all just failed attention-seekers, no doubt.
It probably goes without saying that this kind of petty, snobbish in-group spite is not intended to inform – although it was presumably intended as biting satire. But here’s the rub. I have no issue whatsoever with wickedly scabrous reviews that barely touch upon the subject matter in a serious way, as long as they’re funny. And I understand the instinct to mock what we despise.
But the thing about satire is that, at its heart, it’s puerility making an appeal to the intellect. Good satire makes the author seem more worldly-wise and judicious than they really are – which is why it’s beloved of young (particularly male) scribblers who don’t yet know very much about the world, but who want to show off how clever they are nevertheless. Bad satire, on the other hand, makes the author seem ill-informed and childish (and worse: petty and spiteful). That’s fully on display here.
But perhaps the deepest irony of the piece is the fact that the author, in the custom of the Eye, uses a pseudonym: “Aphra”. Pseudonyms, of course, have an honourable and storied tradition, including in satire, the main purpose being to give the writer freedom to speak without repercussions. But writers like “Aphra” are enforcers of fashionable cosmopolitan orthodoxy, if not outright anti-free speech warriors, and have nothing whatsoever to fear – unlike Jewish staff who criticise the Eye, apparently.
Of course, the other purpose of using a pseudonym is to give oneself an air of inscrutable mystique; which, when the satire is done this badly, is mere pompous affectation.