The cover of the Trinity 2012 issue of ISIS.
|Type||Termly magazine at Oxford University|
|Owner(s)||Oxford Student Publications Limited|
|Headquarters||7 St Aldate's, Oxford|
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 early late 1950s it was owned by its printers, Holywell Press Ltd of Oxford. However disagreements between the increasingly left-leaning CND politics of the time caused the printers (as owners) to over-rule an editor chosen by the staff and installed one of their own choice instead, That was David Dimbleby, in 1960.
By 1961, however, the magazine was back in leftwing hands but nobody really minded when the editor was the brilliant Paul Foot. Paul was innovative, and perceptively argued that university lectures, like any other form of theatrical communication, deserved to be reviewed and Isis was the right place to do it. Despite his best efforts he was baulked by the Proctors and the lecture reviews were banned after just a few issues.
However Holywell Press were still 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/editor) was never far from their minds. So in 1964 they sold the magazine to the owner of Pergamon Press in Oxford, Robert Maxwell who promised to turn it into a national magazine. That never succeeded, but undergraduate wits in Oxford did point out there was now a distinct prospect of Britain's first "national socialist" magazine for all university undergraduates.
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 become Editor of the Radio Times, then Atticus and Insight on the Sunday Times. 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 summonsesin the space of three weeks, this time he won the intellectual battle and permission was granted for lecture reviews in Isis under certain somewhat arcane conditions.
Meakin parodied these 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 calle VICTIM. 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 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, see above) 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 1965. More recently, Prof 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.
Chris Meakin also revived the very old tradition of a termly Isis idol, by convention a profile of some prominent undergraduate in the university. 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 Terry Jones, George Osborne, Nigella Lawson, Gyles Brandreth, and Jo Johnson. Three editors of Isis went to work for the Financial Times on leaving Oxford - Alastair Macdonald Isis editor in 1961 who later went into the Civil Service, Christopher Meakin of 1964 who became an international banker and now owns a publishing house, and Jo Johnson of 1993 who went into Parliament, where in his Orpington seat he succeeded John Horam who had also worked for the Financial Times in the 1960s. Jack Waterhouse, Editor in 1962 left Oxford to work for the Daily Mail before he, too, 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.
- “…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. 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. The new enterprise lacked solid editorial direction, and left Cambridge and London unimpressed; it was quickly withdrawn.
Throughout this time, the magazine began to be crammed with interviews with pop-stars, and chit-chat. A 1965 editor, Andrew Lawson, decided to 'sod the general reader' and decided that Isis should be:
- "... a soap box on which committed people can stand up and YELL. Only when its articles are inspired by passion can this magazine begin to be of interest to its readers. To reverse this priority in an attempt to court the whole undergraduate population would involve us in a futile struggle with Oxford's extremes of cynicism and apathy."
1970 marked the departure of the magazine's second owner, Robert Maxwell, making the Isis an entirely independent and student-run company. The 'University' tag was scrapped, and Isis was also distributed at the Oxford Polytechnic in Headington (now Oxford Brookes University). Quite soon, the absence of solid financial backing caused the frequency of publication to be cut by half, and Isis began to appear fortnightly. 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.
- Harold Acton - writer
- Hilaire Belloc - writer and historian
- Gyles Brandreth - journalist, TV personality and former Conservative politician
- David Dimbleby - television commentator and broadcaster
- Michael Foot - Labour Party politician and writer
- Graham Greene - author, playwright and literary critic
- Chris Huhne - politician, Liberal Democrat cabinet minister
- Richard Ingrams - journalist, former editor of Private Eye
- Rachel Johnson - author, editor of The Lady
- Terry Jones - comedian, screenwriter, actor, film director
- Nigella Lawson - food writer, journalist and broadcaster
- James Leasor - author and journalist
- Adrian Mitchell - poet, novelist and playwright
- George Osborne - politician, current Chancellor of the Exchequer
- Sylvia Plath - American poet, novelist and short story writer
- Dennis Potter - television dramatist
- Jonathan Powell - aide and Downing Street Chief of Staff for Tony Blair
- Robert Robinson - journalist and broadcaster
- Evelyn Waugh - writer
- The ISIS website Isis Online
- Billen, Andrew and Skipworth, Mark. Oxford Type. Robson Books, 1984.
- Information supplied directly by Isis editors of the 1960s, notably Christopher Meakin
- Humphrey Carpenter That Was Satire That Was: The Satire Boom of the Sixties, London: Victor Gollancz, 2000, p.13