The cover of the Trinity 2012 issue of ISIS.
|Type||Termly magazine at Oxford University|
|Owner||Oxford Student Publications Limited|
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.
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, Richard Ingrams, David Dimbleby, Terry Jones, George Osborne, Nigella Lawson and Tom Lazenby.
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.
Editorial alumni 
- 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.
- Humphrey Carpenter That Was Satire That Was: The Satire Boom of the Sixties, London: Victor Gollancz, 2000, p.13