Scoop after Scoop

Ian Jack

  • Dangerous to Know: A Life by Chapman Pincher
    Biteback, 386 pp, £20.00, February 2014, ISBN 978 1 84954 651 5

In March this year the Daily Express sold an average of 488,246 copies a day. In 1945 it averaged 3.3 million copies – a figure that went on rising until it peaked in 1961 at 4.3 million. The Daily Mirror eventually overtook it (selling an average of five million copies in 1964), but for a time the Express was the biggest-selling newspaper in the world. There was a crackle and dazzle to it. Fleet Street had no more experienced and mischievous proprietor than Lord Beaverbrook, no more technically gifted editor than Arthur Christiansen, and few more celebrated reporters than the paper’s defence and science correspondent, Chapman Pincher. Out of the Express’s triumvirate of black-glass offices in London, Manchester and Glasgow came a torrent of newsprint that set the popular tone for the last days of imperial Britain, the ‘second Elizabethan age’ that was half-thrilled and half-terrified by Britain’s endeavours to build its own hydrogen bombs and jet airliners, worried about what the Russians were up to, and comforted by the Giles cartoon, the William Hickey column and The Adventures of Rupert Bear.

As with most newspapers, the torrent these days has become a trickle – a trickle supervised in the Express’s case by an owner, Richard Desmond, who made a lot of his money from masturbatory aids such as telephone chat-lines and Asian Babes magazine. We should, however, beware of the temptation to chart a nation’s moral decline through the personalities of its newspaper proprietors. Beaverbrook was the son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister, a sturdy defender of the empire and the man who, as Churchill’s minister of aircraft production, persuaded hard-pressed households that their cooking pots could be melted into Spitfires. But he was also a randy old goat. According to Pincher, he would summon the prettier secretaries from the Express office in London (‘the black Lubianka’, as Private Eye used to call it) to spend a day or two taking dictation from him at his Surrey establishment, Cherkley Court, and there would open the interconnecting door between her bedroom and his in the hope that she would signify consent by leaving it ajar. Once, when he was talking about a woman with whom he (rightly) suspected Pincher was having an affair, he ‘puckered his face into a leery smile’ and declared: ‘I bet she’s got a big bush!’

Pincher celebrated his hundredth birthday in March, soon after he published this memoir; he must be among the world’s oldest still writing writers, a longevity owed to his combination of a powerful memory for facts (‘Who knows wins’ is a personal motto) and a prudent lifestyle. Unusually among the nicotine and alcohol addicted inhabitants of what has to be described as Fleet Street’s golden age, Pincher never smoked and drank only modestly – perhaps expediently is the better word. As a teenage barman, helping out in the country pub his father managed a few miles south of Darlington, skills had been learned that would prove invaluable. The first was ‘the art of easy conversation with men of all ages and all ranks’, and the second ‘the art of drinking the minimum while encouraging others to drink more’. He attributes his many scoops during his thirty-odd years at the Express to ‘inducing lunch guests to loosen their tongues’ with wine while he stayed sober (‘as a judge’ wouldn’t be the right simile here, because sometimes he was lunching judges) and tried to remember everything they said. Taking notes was out of the question: ‘nothing would be more likely to cause an informant to clam up.’ He was happy to be recognised as ‘the Lone Wolf of Fleet Street’ and to spurn friendship with colleagues and rivals. His personality had a Northern, utilitarian aspect; not for him another shared bottle in El Vino’s (‘Yes, why not?’) before the 8.10 took him home to Farnham. Why waste time drinking with the people from whom he was ‘least likely to glean information’?

By ‘information’ Pincher means the stuff governments want to keep private. The encomia at his memoir’s start evoke a picture of him as the Edward Snowden of his day: ‘No investigative journalist, before or since, has managed to reveal quite so many things that the [British] government wanted kept secret,’ writes Michael Goodman of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. And yet Pincher believes he never threatened the security of the state – that would be the work of a traitor, which is the way he described Snowden in a recent television interview. But if he wasn’t a bean-spiller in the Snowden class, what was he? A patriotic mischief-maker fighting against the ‘excessive’ secrecy of governments is the way he likes to see himself, with more than a little vanity. ‘In the whole field of investigative journalism,’ he writes, ‘there is little that is more satisfying than triumphing, publicly, over a great department of state and its civil service mandarins and senior politicians with whom one has been in open conflict.’

In an essay published in the New Statesman in 1978, E.P. Thompson took a different view, imagining Pincher as ‘a kind of official urinal in which, side by side, high officials of MI5 and MI6, sea lords, permanent under-secretaries, Lord George-Brown, chiefs of the air staff, nuclear scientists, Lord Wigg and others, stand patiently leaking in the public interest. One can only admire their resolute attention to these distasteful duties.’ Pincher describes the comparison as ‘my most cherished professional compliment’, though Thompson later in the same essay withdraws this rather passive idea of Pincher as, in that over-used phrase, a ‘useful idiot’ and decides he is altogether more energetic and sinister, with a commitment to the ‘private enterprise [of] leaking Official Secrets, sometimes by persons in pursuit of private or political vendettas, sometimes in the course of lobbying by service chiefs (for this missile, or against that aircraft carrier), but most particularly in pursuit of extreme right-wing objectives: the aim being to defame … the left generally throughout the country’.

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