Obituary: Chapman Pincher, former reporter of decade
The investigative journalist whose scoops rattled the British government is recalled by Michael Leapman
Published 10/08/2014 | 02:30
In the years after World War II the Daily Express became the most successful newspaper in Britain. High on the list of its attributes were numerous exclusive stories by Chapman Pincher, who died on Tuesday aged 100, mostly in the fields of defence and national security.In 1966 he was named Reporter of the Decade in Granada Television's What the Papers Say awards.
His best-known scoop came in February 1967, when he revealed that thousands of private cables and telegrams sent from Britain were systematically scrutinised by the Ministry of Defence. The publication of such sensitive information was normally inhibited by a voluntary procedure under which newspaper editors would agree to hold back if the Defence Ministry issued a D-Notice (D for Defence), certifying that the proposed article would compromise the nation's security. The system was then run by an ex-soldier, Colonel Sammy Lohan. Before writing the cable-vetting story Pincher, lunched with Lohan and asked him if publication was barred by a D-Notice. Lohan conceded that strictly it was not, but asked him not to publish anyway.
Pincher and his editor, Derek Marks, decided to defy that request, despite a late-night phone call to the newspaper's proprietor, Sir Max Aitken, from the Foreign Secretary, George Brown. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was furious.
Wilson's angry reaction to the story was in part motivated by Pincher's record as a harsh critic of his administration's defence policy. He was invariably the first to reveal and to criticise proposals to cut the armed forces and cancel major weapons and aircraft contracts. Pincher's concern over Britain's military preparedness was fuelled to some extent by his being born in 1914 into an army family -in Ambala, in the Punjab. Before Pincher reached school age the family returned to England and settled near Darlington, where he won a scholarship to the local grammar school. From there he went to King's College, London, graduating in 1935 with a degree in botany and zoology.
His first job was as a science teacher at the Liverpool Institute, but he soon discovered how to earn extra money as a freelance journalist. He also met and married a local woman; but the marriage soon failed and he never took to teaching. At the start of World War II, he was conscripted into the Royal Armoured Corps and assigned to a division working on new rocket weapons. Through a chance meeting with an acquaintance who worked for the Daily Express, Pincher became a conduit for releasing information on these projects to the paper - with the full approval of his superiors.
The contacts he made then led to his being offered a job on the Express. It was the editor, Arthur Christiansen, who decided that he should use his middle name, Chapman, rather than his first name, Harry, for his newspaper work. One of his many exclusive stories in the field of espionage was the revelation in 1961 that George Blake, the Soviet double agent, had been responsible for betraying at least 40 British spies.
Pincher built a formidable battery of sources. Officials were open with him because they knew they could rely both on his discretion not to disclose their identity and on his understanding, as a former military man, of why some information was too sensitive for publication. He would therefore sometimes be granted exceptional favours: for instance in 1962 he was allowed to be photographed standing beside a hydrogen bomb - the first picture of the bomb that had ever been released for publication, although a tarpaulin concealed its vital components.
Naturally enough, officials occasionally made use of the relationship for their own purposes. In return for their favours, Pincher would, in exceptional circumstances, agree to publish a story he knew to be false but had been persuaded was in the national interest. That was why he knowingly announced the wrong date for Britain's 1957 hydrogen bomb tests on Christmas Island, so as to thwart attempts by the Japanese to disrupt them.
Some thought that Pincher's close, cosy relationship with the security services and politicians compromised his integrity as a journalist. Yet he felt he was acting in the interests of his country and his information was so reliable and well-sourced that the Soviet intelligence services tried to recruit him at least once.
He retired from the Express in 1979 but continued writing. His book Inside Story (1978) summarised the major scoops of his career, including the fact that members of the Labour governments of the 60s and 70s - up to and including Wilson - had been under surveillance from members of the security services, suspicious of their links with Communist regimes. In the book, Pincher made it clear that he shared the doubts of the intelligence agencies about the ultimate loyalties of left-wing politicians, but was also sceptical about the reliability and competence of the spies themselves. Well after the defection of Burgess and Maclean, and of Kim Philby in 1963, he believed there were other traitors in high places who had not been detected.
The views he expressed in the book led to his being contacted in 1980 by Peter Wright, a retired MI5 officer living in Tasmania, who was keen to reveal what he regarded as scandalous secrets of the security services. The result was Pincher's best-known book, Their Trade is Treachery. (Later Wright wrote his own book, Spycatcher, now remembered chiefly for the Government's unsuccessful attempt to suppress it.)
Pincher wrote 25 books on an eclectic range of subjects - including sex, sleep, evolution and his dog Dido - as well as nine novels. He was not a typical journalist of his era, when staff would spend long lunch hours and evenings socialising in Fleet Street's many pubs and bars. He drank only moderately and liked to leave the office as early as was practicable to get back to his farm in Surrey, and his lunch hours were spent entertaining contacts rather than gossiping with colleagues or rival reporters.
After his retirement he and his wife Constance, whom he married in 1965 and who survives him, moved to a smaller house in Berkshire, where he continued to write and to enjoy shooting, fishing and walking his dog. Former colleagues were kept in touch through his occasional bulletins to a newsletter sent out to retired Daily Express journalists, where, even after turning 90, he would report on his latest heroic exploits in the trout streams.