Isis magazine

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This article is about a student magazine at Oxford University. For the history of science journal, see Isis (journal).
ISIS Magazine Trinity 2012 Cover.jpg
The cover of the Trinity 2012 issue of ISIS.
Type Termly magazine at Oxford University
Owner(s) Oxford Student Publications Limited
Founded 1892
Language English
Headquarters 7 St Aldate's, Oxford
Circulation c. 15,000
Official website

The Isis magazine was established at Oxford University in 1892. Traditionally a rival to the student newspaper Cherwell, it was finally acquired by the latter's publishing house, OSPL, in the late 1990s. It now operates as a termly magazine and website, providing an outlet for features journalism.

Until the mid-1960s Isis was owned and published by its printers, the Holywell Press Ltd of Oxford. However, the firm's proprietor found himself increasingly at odds with the repetitive and deepening left-leaning politics of the late 1950s and with the magazine's consistent support of the CND. Dennis Potter was the magazine's Editor in 1959; see also Adrian Mitchell, below. So in 1960 Holywell Press rejected the latest editor chosen by its staff and imposed one they believed would revive the magazine generally. The choice was David Dimbleby.

By 1961, however, the magazine was back in left-wing hands but few people minded that when the editor was prominent left-winger, future investigative journalist and deputy editor of Private Eye Paul Foot. In his Isis editorship Foot was innovative, and perceptively argued that university lectures, like any other form of theatrical communication, deserved to be reviewed and that Isis was the right place to do so. Despite his best efforts, he was baulked by the Proctors and the Isis lecture reviews were banned after just a few issues, to much outcry among progressive members of the senior university.

However the Holywell Press still felt uncomfortable about owning an undergraduate magazine; the risk of a libel suit (which in English law is charged to the printers as well as the author and publisher) was never far from their minds. So in 1964 they sold the magazine to Robert Maxwell proprietor of the Pergamon Press in Oxford. This highly energetic Oxford-based millionaire, about to become an MP, immediately promised to turn Isis into a national magazine. That commercial ambition never got off the ground, but undergraduate wits in Oxford did point out there was now a distinct prospect of Oxford publishing Britain's first "national socialist" magazine for university undergraduates throughout the country.

With Maxwell's money behind it, the magazine continued to appear weekly – eight issues a term. The first editor under the new regime (Hilary Term 1964) was Peter Gillman, later to spend 15 years on the staff of the Sunday Times, mostly during the memorable Harold Evans era. Two terms later the editor was Christopher Meakin, who sought to revive Paul Foot's excellent idea of reviewing university lectures. Forewarned is forearmed, and although Meakin was persecuted by the Proctors, receiving five Proctorial summonses in the space of three weeks, this time he won the intellectual battle and permission was granted for university lecture reviews to be published in Isis under certain somewhat arcane conditions. His consequential low regard for the Proctorial system was set out in an Isis leader, Summoned by Bulls II, after Paul Foot had written a leader on the same theme three years earlier, headed Summoned by Bulls. The university responded in 1964 by setting up an Enquiry into the workings of the Proctorial system, chaired by Edgar Williams, Warden of Rhodes House. Sir Edgar Williams and Christopher Meakin were both alumni of King Edward VII School, Sheffield, a school which had lately produced two more editors of Cherwell, Roger Laughton and Rony Robinson.

Deliberately courting further Proctorial wrath, Meakin parodied their rules for reviewing university lectures in the magazine with an imaginary telephone conversation between Isis and a terminally decrepit lecturer of the university, and again the following term, in his signed column in Isis "The Fifth Column" by inventing a board game called VICTIM. He received no more Proctorial summonses. Joking apart, a major precedent had been set in the way Oxford lecturers taught undergraduates, and in what they could get away with in exchange for their not inconsiderable stipends. Meakin initially put two clever undergraduates in charge of editing the lecture reviews column, Michael Harloe of Worcester College (at which College years before Rupert Murdoch had been editor of Cherwell) and Mary Kaldor of Somerville. Michael Harloe later became joint editor of Isis in Hilary term 1965, and Mary Kaldor became its joint editor in Trinity term 1965. More recently, Professor Michael Harloe retired as vice-Chancellor of Salford University, while Professor Mary Kaldor is still the Professor of Global Governance at the London School of Economics.

Among the numerous undergraduate lecture reviewers in the first term was Edward Mortimer, then the history scholar at Balliol, shortly to become a Fellow of All Souls. More recently Mortimer has been Foreign Editor of the Financial Times and in 1998-2006 served as Chief Speechwriter to the Secretary-General at the United Nations and eventually as the UN's Director of Communications. Edward Mortimer had served as deputy editor of Isis under Peter Gillman in Hilary Term 1964.

Unusually, Chris Meakin awarded himself the influential post of Isis reviewer of Oxford Union debates, and also revived the old tradition of a termly Isis idol after several years' absence. By convention an 'Idol' was a profile of some prominent undergraduate in the university. To revive the tradition, slightly tongue-in-cheek he chose as the Idol for Michaelmas term 1964 the controversial Jeffrey Archer, then studying for a teaching diploma at the university. For all the fashionable derision of him among undergraduates, Archer did raise one million pounds for Oxfam (and that in 1960s pounds) and presented a large display cheque for that sum to Chancellor of the University Harold Macmillan, in one of his numerous photocalls. Few if any could claim to have been anything like so effective as that in their time at Oxford university.

In its long history, Isis has benefited from the participation of individuals with significant literary flair. Alumni include Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, Harold Acton, Graham Greene, John Betjeman, Michael Foot, Sylvia Plath, Dennis Potter, Adrian Mitchell, David Dimbleby Paul Foot Richard Ingrams Terry Jones, Tariq Ali George Osborne, Nigella Lawson, Gyles Brandreth and Jo Johnson. Three editors of Isis went on to work for the Financial Times on leaving Oxford - Alastair Macdonald, editor in 1961 who later went into the Civil Service, Christopher Meakin, editor in 1964 who later became an international banker and now owns a publishing house, and Jo Johnson, editor in 1993 who more recently has gone into Parliament, where in his Orpington seat he succeeded John Horam who had also worked for the Financial Times in the 1960s. Jack Waterhouse, Isis editor in 1962 left Oxford to work for the Daily Mail before he, too, later became an international banker.


The Isis was founded by Mostyn Turtle Piggott, the first of the student editors, in April 1892. His first editorial is quoted below:

“We have no politics and fewer principles, and should we last until the General Election we shall use our influence for neither side. We shall endeavour to be humorous without being ill-humoured, critical without being captious, militant without being malevolent, independent without being impertinent, and funny (as Mr Albert Chevalier says) without being vulgar.”

In its early days, The Isis was owned and published by the Holywell Press. Students were given complete independence, as long as the paper they produced was profitable and within good taste. Oxford welcomed the addition to its scene wholeheartedly, and was more than prepared to pay the weekly sixpence. The Isis was an accurate recorder of proceedings in the Oxford Union – enough of a function to maintain sales.

One of the features of the magazine that survives today is the ‘Icons' section (then known as ‘Idols'). Back in the 1890s, being President of OUDS (the Oxford University Dramatic Society) seemed to guarantee an appearance in print. Some of the Idols featured pre-1939 were Lord David Cecil and T. E. Lawrence; it wasn't until 1935 that the editors judged a woman worthy of being featured as an Idol – Lady Katherine Cairns being the first.

After the beginning of World War I, The Isis ceased publication for four years, until it was resurrected in 1919 by Beverley Nichols, who produced the opening issue entirely by himself.

“…the great fact remains that Oxford is still here, a little dazed and unsteady perhaps, but Oxford all the same, and it is to sing of Oxford that The Isis appears once more, to reflect its every tendency, to echo its laughter and – well, to do the other thing.” (Beverley Nichols in his opening editorial, 1919)

Evelyn Waugh contributed to the magazine regularly. Waugh was also the first to participate in the rivalry between The Isis and the freshly established Cherwell by writing for both. The Isis was disparagingly referred to in The Cherwell as The Was-was.

The 1930s were times of much political turmoil in Europe, yet serene in The Isis: but then, so were they in the rest of the British press. A couple of articles more flippant than political in tone got The Isis banned from Germany in 1935. Only a year later, the magazine had again to suspend its operations until 1945, to re-emerge with new strength.

The H-Bomb was a significant topic for debate in 1958, and the magazine published a whole issue on the subject consisting of unsigned articles. Two of the undergraduate contributors, William Miller and Paul Thompson, were both ex-national service, and wrote about British Intelligence operations on the borders of the Soviet Union.[1] The two men were prosecuted under section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911, and sentenced to three months imprisonment. As result, the proprietors at Holywell Press saw the need to step in, with the objection that the staff was now "definitely left-wing and will almost inevitably remain so." The proprietors' attempt to appoint an external editor had failed, leading to a staff walk-out. The battle of wills continued for over two years, during which time, the magazine sharpened its political edge; and eventually, in 1963, the firm concluded that they could no longer bear responsibility for the magazine.

The first of several 'miracle rescues' came from millionaire socialist businessman, Robert Maxwell, and his Pergamon Press on Headington Hill, Oxford. In a risky business move, a national student publication was created – the "Isis National", which began distribution in 1964. Unsurprisingly, the new enterprise failed to attract any editorial support from the universities of Cambridge and London; there was one contribution from Durham University in Michaelmas Term 1964, almost totally unrelated to the Maxwell "initiative". The latter was regarded by many at the time as never more than a private, even risible fantasy of Robert Maxwell which he had imposed on the magazine and was quickly withdrawn. In its original form it had lasted little more than one term. Thus began the erosion of Maxwell's brief period of enthusiasm for "Isis". By 1970 this had run dry and the magazine's second proprietor also departed, his tail somewhat between his legs, while "Isis" at last became an entirely independent and student-run company.

With the rise of a second important centre of higher education in Oxford, it seemed logical to drop the exclusive 'University' tag and the magazine was henceforth also distributed at the Oxford Polytechnic in Headington (now Oxford Brookes University). This fulfilled an earlier failed attempt to do so in 1965, the only indirect evidence of which had been a "Miss Student UK" competition in the Daily Mail triggered by a group of Oxford University undergraduate journalists, led by recent Cherwell editor Nick Lloyd – more recently Sir Nicholas Lloyd, editor of the Daily Express who as an undergraduate was already a stringer for the Mail – and appropriately enough won by a student at the Oxford Polytechnic. Quite soon, however the absence of solid financial backing for Isis provided by its former proprietors began to take its toll. The frequency of publication was cut by half, and Isis appeared four times a term only.The following decades were interspersed with financial crises, the worst of which was a £1,000 printing bill in 1972 – and no cash to cover it with. Again, a rescue squad appeared from an unlikely, but illustrious source, in the form of this telegram:

"Read of your financial troubles in The Times STOP One thousand pounds will be en route as soon as you cable us name and address of printers at the Granotel Rome – Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton"

An upshot of the new-found independence was the need to re-think the design of Isis to incorporate advertising, and the involvement of a business team (previously, such issues as these were dealt with by the proprietors). Patrick Wintour, son of prominent journalist Charles Wintour, and sister of American Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, became involved at this time.

During the tenure as Editor of Chris Huhne in 1975, material was received anonymously about a candidate in the O. U. S. U. (Oxford University Student Union) election, Geoff Ferres, which alleged (incorrectly) that Ferres had misused certain funds during his campaign, got printed in the belief that it was true; though it may well have been planted by Hard Left associates of Ferres, in an attempt to gain editorial control of any student publication rash enough to print it, which several did. Pressure was then put on Huhne to avoid an action for libel: and at a late-night meeting in the Isis office, he signed an agreement which stipulated that, as well as the publication of an apology, and retraction of the allegations, all political copy to be published in the magazine for the next three years, had first to be vetted by an editorial committee, made up of prominent members of the Hard Left in Oxford at that time, thus effectively putting paid to the editorial independence of Isis for the duration of the agreement.

In 1998, after a series of growing financial crises, Isis Publications Ltd was absorbed by Oxford Student Publications Ltd. (OSPL), the publishers of Cherwell. In 2002 a generous grant from a former editor Nigella Lawson helped the magazine in its financial difficulties; at this point a sustainable business model, incorporating advertising, was once more being formulated. Today, Isis is a termly magazine which maintains itself through revenues from advertising and running gigs and speaker events in Oxford.

Editorial alumni[edit]


  • The ISIS website Isis Online
  • Billen, Andrew and Skipworth, Mark. Oxford Type. Robson Books, 1984.
  • Information supplied directly by Isis editors of the 1960s.


  1. ^ Humphrey Carpenter That Was Satire That Was: The Satire Boom of the Sixties, London: Victor Gollancz, 2000, p.13

External links[edit]