PETER FROST has a chuckle as he remembers a Grub Street journalist who thought just about everybody was a Soviet spy.
It was in the pages of the Daily Express in the late 1950’s that I first came across Chapman Pincher. The Express by-lined Pincher as the world’s greatest reporter – and he certainly agreed.
He wasn’t of course, but he did seem to have some interesting stories and he seemed immune to some of the D-Notices and other techniques that the establishment used in those days to keep so many scandals out of the papers.
Reaching my teenage years in the 1950’s and early 60’s I got my ideas about the world and politics and what would be my lifelong love affair with print journalism from all kinds of newspapers.
At home we had the News Chronicle until it stopped publication in 1960, and the left-wing Daily Herald until 1964 when it tragically transmogrified into the Sun. In 1961 I discovered a scrappy little magazine called Private Eye and also developed a soft spot for the Daily Mirror and its Labour politics.
I would buy an occasional copy of the Daily Worker. It changed its name to the Morning Star in 1966 and by then I was reading it regularly. But alas I must admit most of the news and analysis in my youth came from some good right wing Fleet Street Tory rags.
I loved the pre-Murdoch News of the World – then the biggest circulation newspaper in the whole globe. Salacious stories of de-frocked vicars and fallen women, poltergeists, gangsters and dodgy spiritualists and their ectoplasm. What more could a young teenage boy want.
However Chapman Pincher, in the Express, always seemed to get some of the best most interesting stories. Scoops they used to call them, and in Pincher’s scoops there was usually someone, often rich, posh or powerful accused of being a Soviet spy.
Some were amazing speculations. He believed half the Labour Party, and all of the trades union movement were in the pay of the Kremlin. No one escaped his accusations including Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
Most of his stories took him into the murky world of spies, and double agents; almost always the world of communism and Russia although it is true he wrote about the American atomic bomb before any American newspaper.
I read with amused fascination and a little chuckle when Pincher published stories about the Cambridge Four or was it Five? Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess (below), Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, all undercover communists who had infiltrated and embarrassed post war British intelligence so comprehensively.
Then came speculation into the so-called Fifth Man. Was it John Cairncross, James Klugman (below), Victor Rothschild, Guy Liddell or some other suspect?
Pincher came down heavy on Roger Hollis and seemed to make this search and speculation a full time occupation. It sometimes seemed to me Pincher was obviously the Sixth Man.
He did some good. As early as 1967, he revealed that British intelligence was reading the cables and telegrams of private citizens. That story is, of course, still unfolding today.
As well as newspaper articles he wrote more than 30 books, best known was Their Trade Is Treachery in 1981. His sources for this book were the criminal Tory Minister Jonathan Aitkin (Eton, Oxford, Prison) and Spycatcher author Peter Wright who himself betrayed and so upset his British Intelligence masters.
In his book Pincher argued that Roger Hollis, the former director general of MI5, was a Soviet spy. It was typical, Pincher stuff and, not unexpectedly several investigations, even one by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, never actually proved Hollis guilty.
What isn’t well known is that Pincher started his own career as a spy. He worked on secret rocket weapons whilst serving in the British Army.
He sold some of this top secret information to an old mate on the Daily Express defence desk. In return the Express offered him a job.
His politics were obviously establishment and Tory and anti-Labour but that didn’t stop Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan writing in 1959. “Can nothing be done to suppress or get rid of Pincher?”
A more balanced view on Pincher came from ex-communist and famed historian E. P. Thompson who in The New Statesman in 1978 described Pincher as “a kind of official urinal where high officials of MI5 and MI6 stand side by side patiently leaking their secrets”.
Pincher loved this judgement from someone he considered a wily old enemy. He said it was his greatest professional compliment.
Chapman Pincher, when he died aged 100 earlier this month, turned his own death into a newspaper story. Announcing his death, his son, Michael, passed on a last and typical quote from his father – “Tell them no more scoops.”
I guess we should all be grateful for that.
This obituary first appeared in the Morning Star 19 August 2014