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’.

In his memoir Pincher replies that if the information was true ‘and especially if it was exclusive’ he was happy to be used at any time. He denies any particular bias against Labour governments, and is sorry to have fallen out with Harold Wilson (who later expressed sadness that he hadn’t known Pincher was a fellow Yorkshireman, telling him: ‘It would have made a difference, you know’). But while it may be true that he needled Tory as well as Labour administrations, provoking Harold Macmillan to inquire of his minister of defence what could be done to ‘suppress or even get rid of Mr Chapman Pincher’, his outlook and instincts were profoundly reactionary. The left for him meant the Soviet Union and the spies, MPs and trade unionists he believed it had subverted. Of his good friend Enoch Powell, he writes: ‘We were … consciously devoted to the land called Britain – he preferred to call it England, having been born in Birmingham – and committed to the concept of nationhood, as we had experienced and enjoyed it in our youth.’ A sad, otherworldly conversation with Macmillan occurs when he asks the retired prime minister why he didn’t foresee that recruiting London bus drivers and conductors in the Caribbean might lead to mass immigration. ‘We just never imagined that they would want to come here in such numbers,’ Macmillan says, in what became a mantra for British governments of both kinds. But couldn’t Macmillan’s government have solved the shortage of bus drivers by offering better pay? Ah, but that would have meant putting up bus fares ‘which would have made us very unpopular and cost us votes that could have been crucial in marginal seats’.

Thompson in his essay detects what he calls the sweet smell of animal decomposition in Pincher’s writing and reckons that the decaying body ‘must be that of British imperialism’. The anger in the metaphor is partly explained by their contrasting experience of the Second World War in which they were both commissioned in the 6th Armoured Division, Pincher to stay safely in England for the duration as a weapons researcher while Thompson, as he writes with heavy irony, conducted his own weapons research ‘at the receiving end’ in battles such as Monte Cassino. Pincher’s career was entirely rejigged by the war, while for Thompson it was something to be endured and then set aside, leaving right-wing patriots such as Pincher free to perform ‘an uncontested takeover’ of the war’s ‘moral assets’.

Certainly Pincher had imperial origins: the only child of a drum major in the Northumberland Fusiliers, he was born in the military cantonment at Ambala in Punjab – a birthplace he shares with Kim Philby, who arrived two years earlier. He’s proud to say that both parts of his name have their origins in old country trades: a chapman – his paternal grandmother’s name – walked from village to village selling small goods; a pincher looked after the village pound, where stray animals awaited their owners’ claim. Harry was – is – his first name and the name he goes by everywhere outside the printed page. The Express editor Arthur Christiansen didn’t fancy ‘Harry Pincher’ as a byline because it was nowhere near pompous enough: no match for Sefton Delmer or Selkirk Panton, who were already on the Express’s books, or Hannen Swaffer, who until recently had been. Still, the suggestion of yeoman rusticity in his new name suited him. At grammar school in Darlington, where his father had used his army gratuity to open a sweetshop, a teacher inspired a passion for biology that quickly turned Pincher into that category of English person known as a countryman: someone who can balance a love of animal life with the hobby of killing it. Long before he left school he was river fishing in high waders, ferreting and rook shooting. When his father switched from owning a town sweetshop to running a country pub, Pincher found he enjoyed the company of farmers, agricultural labourers, gamekeepers and river wardens, and developed a kinship with them that has lasted ever since.

But in his warm evocation of this boyhood, the kind you might imagine a John Buchan hero to have had, there is also (and not for the last time) a utilitarian chill. Aged 13, he allows himself to be seduced by the household’s part-time maid, aged 16, whom he finds in his bedroom

in an inviting posture. Never one to waste an opportunity, I lost my virginity with all the masculinity I could muster, repeating the encounter over many months. We were not at risk because desire and its climax are quite separate from potency and I knew that I was not yet capable of producing sperm. (I did not tell my pals of my good fortune because they would have wanted to share it and, no doubt, talk about it. Even at thirteen, I appreciated the value of keeping a secret, a trait that was to prove so important in my professional life.)

It comes as no surprise in the light of this precocious matter-of-factness that Pincher’s first steps in journalism took the form of freelance contributions to the Farmer and Stockbreeder. Qualified by a biology degree from London University, he spent his days teaching botany and zoology at a Liverpool grammar school and his nights earning money from agricultural magazines. ‘Foaling Down a Mare’, ‘Making the Most of Ducks’: with pieces like these he was soon earning more money from journalism than teaching, and might well have become a full-time agricultural specialist if he hadn’t been called up to the Royal Armoured Corps and there discovered the joy of weaponry. He found that to sit in a tank and fire a burst from a machine gun – ‘that beautifully constructed instrument of death’ – gave him a sense of power he’d never experienced before. In the last years of the war, when he was helping develop rockets at Woolwich Arsenal, an old schoolfriend on the Express’s news desk got in touch to ask if he could advise them on a story about a new ‘secret’ high explosive called RDX that Churchill wanted to publicise against the advice of his military. The story bore some similarity to hundreds of Pincher scoops to come: in theory at least, ‘officialdom’ didn’t want the details of the explosives disclosed whereas maverick generals and politicians did (in this case, to raise public morale). Scoops, with their suggestion that the story had been unearthed against considerable odds, engendered newspaper excitement and therefore newspaper space. ‘Used for its purpose, RDX would blow thousands to eternity,’ Pincher writes, ‘but it propelled me towards prosperity.’

Captain Pincher was eager to lend a hand with other stories – German flying bombs, the destruction of Hiroshima – and the Express found his information reliable. He took money from the paper regularly while still an army officer, repackaging and selling information that happened to cross his desk, before joining the paper’s staff in 1946. It was a good time to launch a career as a newspaper specialist in defence and science: it was the start, as Pincher writes, of the atomic age, the missile age, the space age and the electronic age, and the printed word was still paramount in the dissemination of news. The Cold War was just around the corner. What more could a scoop-hunter want? In Pincher’s words,

The three services quickly appreciated that anyone with such access to mass-circulation publicity could be helpful in the defence revolution occasioned by the arrival of the atomic bomb and the ballistic missile. The chiefs of staff knew that, with Britain financially exhausted by the war, they would have to compete hard for the money and facilities to construct atomic weapons and new bombers and missiles to carry them. So they and their political masters needed regular press support for their expansion by explaining that necessity in simple terms to the mass of voters.

*

Essentially, this was the role Pincher played for the next thirty years, and a fairer or more transparent world would honour him with his name on a Trident missile or the bow of a navy tugboat at Faslane. But the way he got his information – in what surroundings and from whom – is now rather more interesting than the information itself. The route was often breathtakingly direct, so much so that ‘investigative’ seems entirely the wrong adjective for his technique. True, he spent a lot of Beaverbrook’s money on regular lunches at L’Ecu de France but many of his guests would have sung like canaries without a cork being drawn. To take just one example, a frequent lunch companion from the start was Fred (later Sir Frederick) Brundrett, who when Pincher got to know him was deputy to Sir Henry Tizard and later succeeded him as the government’s chief defence scientist. Between 1946 and 1960, Brundrett gave Pincher ‘scoop after scoop’ in the belief that stories about Britain’s nuclear preparedness would deter a Soviet attack. Brundrett’s employers interpreted his indiscretions less sympathetically, as breaches of the Official Secrets Act, and withheld the honours he expected to receive after his retirement – one of several officials damaged by his friendship with Pincher, hence the ‘dangerous to know’ in his memoir’s title. But by this time Pincher had friends in every Whitehall department and was intimate with far grander people whom he’d encountered while shooting game birds or fishing for salmon and trout.

‘Without question, the greatest of the many advantages offered by high-level journalism is the repeated opportunity for meeting people of distinction,’ Pincher writes. The list is long: cabinet ministers such as Duncan Sandys and Julian Amery; industrialists in the arms business such as Arnold Weinstock of General Electric and the Clark brothers, who ran Plessey together with ‘two splendid shooting estates’; the old airplane maker Sir Thomas Sopwith, who owned a lovely stretch of the Test but also a grouse moor, which introduced Pincher to grouse and in turn to Viscount Slim and Sir Michael Havers, who became attorney general. Lord Mountbatten dictated a ‘naval scoop’ while they were driving to a shoot at Broadlands. Sir Charles Forte, encountered while shooting pheasant on Israel Sieff’s estate, was ‘the most outstanding and admirable personality I have ever met’; Lord Lambton may have been less admirable (‘Surely most men patronise whores’ was his most famous statement) but is still memorable to Pincher as ‘the only man I have ever seen who could nail high pheasants while running’.

Accompanied by the popping of guns and the whirring of reels, the names roll on: animal slaughter was the social cement of Pincher’s Britain. Harry Hyams, Charles Clore, Jack Profumo, Lord Dilhorne, George Weidenfeld, Maurice Oldfield, Victor Rothschild, Lord Porchester, Andrew Parker Bowles: ideally they should be highlighted in bold type, as was the way in the Hickey column. The author lets us know a little about each. Mountbatten may have had an affair with Barbara Cartland; Prince Michael of Kent worked for British intelligence; Duncan Sandys, on being asked if he was the ‘headless man’ being fellated by the Duchess of Argyll, replies, ‘Don’t worry, dear boy! There’s safety in numbers.’ Pincher holds the monarchy in splendid regard – ‘Her Majesty is, beyond question, the most experienced statesperson who has ever lived’ – but draws the line at Princess Margaret. Some sentences aren’t easily forgotten: ‘I have been completely alone with the queen only once.’ ‘It was not until I was 49 that I became closely acquainted with any Jews.’ (That would be in 1963. The many Jews he befriended thereafter included George Weidenfeld, who published several of his books about dogs.)

Many of these people asked nothing of Pincher, and others only that he promote their interests with his exclusives in the Daily Express. But this was the world of the favour bank, and sometimes Pincher obliged his friends in ways that took him well beyond the line of duty. When intelligence reports indicated that the Japanese might sail a thousand small boats towards Christmas Island to forestall the first tests of Britain’s hydrogen bomb, Pincher was asked by Brundrett to publish stories that suggested the tests had been postponed. He knew that to be completely untrue but, after checking with the editor, who quite likely checked with Beaverbrook, published them anyway. The tests went ahead as planned and there were no Japanese protests. Pincher believes that by successfully exploding an H-bomb Britain showed the United States it could be trusted once again with nuclear secrets, with the result that it remains a nuclear power today ‘and I have no regrets at having misled my readers.’

But the reader could be misled, or at least kept uninformed, in many ways. When two writers described Maurice Oldfield, the former head of MI6, as a homosexual in a book they submitted to Sidgwick & Jackson, the publishers asked Pincher, who was one of their authors, to check the manuscript for accuracy. A great fear of homosexuality then ran throughout the intelligence services, ostensibly because it increased the possibility of blackmail, and intelligence officers were specifically asked about their sexuality when they were vetted and re-vetted. Pincher took Oldfield’s successor to lunch and was told that nothing could be proved. He then advised Sidgwick & Jackson to reject the book, which was never published. But Oldfield was indeed homosexual and not long afterwards confessed to the attorney general, Michael Havers, that he’d lied in his vetting. Pincher got to hear of this and in 1987, six years after Oldfield’s death, published the facts in a book of his own. (‘The newspapers then featured the information on their front pages with lurid headlines, some of which, like “Tinker, Tailor, Poofter, Spy”, gave me cause for deep regret.’)

Then there is the case of the shah. Early in 1972, Pincher was approached by somebody – described as a friend of the shah – and asked if he could do the Iranian ruler ‘a special service’. What was wanted, as Pincher quickly appreciated, was some good publicity for a pro-Western regime whose grip on power relied largely on Savak, the secret police. The shah needed to look better for his own sake and also for Britain’s, which wanted to carry on selling him arms. Pincher was ‘put in touch with’ another friend of the shah’s called Shapoor Reporter, an affluent Parsi with a UK passport who had known the shah since childhood. (Pincher doesn’t say so, but Reporter was also a friend of the wartime intelligence agent Victor Rothschild and the Marks and Spencer chairman Marcus Sieff, both of whom knew Pincher.)

Pincher flew to Tehran and Reporter conducted him to his audience with His Imperial Majesty. The interview went well – Pincher got enough to fill a spread in the then broadsheet Express – and after it was over the shah asked the journalist’s advice about which ministers would be worth seeing on his forthcoming trip to London and whether a team from Savak might visit Northern Ireland to discover how the British army dealt with terrorists. (That would be political suicide for the government, Pincher explained, if the media found out ‘as we, assuredly, would’.) When Pincher got back he briefed Lord Carrington, then the defence minister, about the shah’s needs, ‘pointing out that special attention should be paid to Mr Reporter … my inquiries had shown that Reporter had already been involved in placing arms orders in the UK worth £800 million! On hearing that, another minister, Jim Prior, who had breezed into the room, cried: “We’ll give him a gong!”’

Reporter got his knighthood the following year, while Pincher’s reward comprised three bottles of champagne and a large tin of the best caviar sent every Christmas by the Iranian embassy until the shah was deposed. But whether Reporter owed his knighthood to Pincher’s intervention is doubtful; he had worked for MI6 in Iran since the days of Mossadegh and by the 1970s was established as the middleman in every big arms deal. Iran’s purchase of Chieftain tanks, completed in 1972, is reliably estimated to have earned him a million pounds. The government already knew all there was to know about him. The interesting thing is Pincher’s frankness about combining journalism with work (as he would see it) in the national interest. As they say of football writers who report on the national team, he was a fan with a typewriter.

But that wasn’t quite all. Some of his stories shone light into the darker corners of the secret world and seriously embarrassed governments, especially Labour administrations that had fewer friends among the shooters and fishers. The biggest of these stories was probably the so-called D-notice affair of 1967, which prefigured Edward Snowden in revealing that all private cables and Post Office telegrams were available for scrutiny by GCHQ at Cheltenham if the intelligence operatives there wanted to see them. More than that, GCHQ was happily supplying some cables to the US National Security Agency – illegal under the US constitution but condoned by the then president, Lyndon Johnson. Pincher, who had the information ‘off the street’ from someone who worked for a cable firm, corroborated the facts with the Post Office, but before he published the story sought guidance from the D-notice Committee, an arcane protocol which was meant to prevent the media from breaching the Official Secrets Act. In the face of pleas (but not actual D-notices) from the committee, the Express went ahead and published, creating a rupture between the government and the media in general that, as Pincher says, caused Harold Wilson permanent political injury. Wilson insisted that the disclosure had put men’s lives at risk, but could not quite say how and wasn’t widely believed. A lunch at the Savoy honoured Pincher with the title Man of the Year together with Jack Hawkins and Topol.

*

He left the Express in 1979 after a short spell on the paper’s management board, where he found the meetings a waste of time (further, ‘they were held on a Wednesday, which happened to be the day when Harry Hyams held his shoots at Ramsbury Manor’). The next year he had an invitation from Victor Rothschild – a mysteriously urgent invitation – to meet a retired MI5 officer who was visiting Britain from his stud farm in Tasmania. This turned out to be Peter Wright, who was convinced that his former boss, Roger Hollis, had been a Soviet agent and wanted to make some money by writing a book. A deal was struck. Pincher would write the book and in return for his material, Wright would get a share of the advance and any further royalties. Their Trade Is Treachery controversially broke the secrets act and became a bestseller until it was overtaken five years later by Wright’s own book, Spycatcher, which benefited from the storm of publicity generated when the government tried to suppress it.

Pincher has been obsessed with proving Hollis’s treason ever since, refusing to accept the not guilty verdict passed by Christopher Andrew in his official history of MI5. Some of his Hollis research has been reheated for this memoir. But really, do we care? Can anything be trusted from that epoch? Think of all those bills from L’Ecu de France that went on Pincher’s expenses, all those lunches, all those oysters, all that claret and cognac, all those late afternoons when in a by now nearly empty restaurant his companion would lean across and further lower his voice. ‘Harry, I’m told that … I hear that … I have it on the very best authority … this has to be just between us for the moment.’ But it was never just between them. Shortly after L’Ecu closed in the 1990s, its senior director, Rafael Calzada, invited Pincher to lunch at his club and confided that MI5 had bugged the restaurant since early in the Second World War, planting microphones in every banquette seat, including the one that Pincher considered his own. He writes that he has since spent ‘much time’ wondering if any of his sources suffered as a consequence – it had certainly made him ‘potentially dangerous to know for any of my talkative guests’. The thought goes unsaid: he was much more useful to governments than he knew.

Today he lives with his third wife, Billee, in the pretty Berkshire village of Kintbury. In his immensely long life he has spent only one night in hospital, and that for a nosebleed. The last pages of his book contain good advice for anyone in danger of getting as old as he is, or of becoming infirm earlier. A lot of this advice, expressed as his Ten Commandments, is about walking sticks and is both touching and practical. Always make sure they have a rubber ferrule, always leave one hand free when using one, always make sure there are plenty scattered about the house: ‘Many people have fallen while looking for their sticks.’ But he also has a few words on slippers: ‘Slippers, which most elderly people wear in the house, are well named. So it is wise to examine the soles regularly and replace them at the first sign of slipperiness.’ Long may Pincher stay at the vertical.