Harry Chapman Pincher dead: Legendary journalist dies aged 100

The former Daily Express investigative reporter was best known for his work to expose the full extent of Soviet penetration of MI5 and MI6

Harry Chapman Pincher, the journalist whose prodigious knack for uncovering the secrets of the British state struck fear into prime ministers and made him the envy of his Fleet Street peers for six decades, has died aged “100 and a quarter”.

The former Daily Express investigative reporter, who was best known for his work to expose the full extent of Soviet penetration of MI5 and MI6 but racked up countless other exclusives on subjects from missiles to cancer, had suffered a minor stroke in recent weeks but died of “old age”, his family said.

Mr Pincher’s son, Michael, said his father had died on Tuesday and remained until the end unbowed by a lifetime of duelling - and dining - with the British Establishment in the name of getting stories and selling newspapers.

In a posting on his Facebook page, Michael Pincher said: “Our dad, Chapman Pincher (The Lone Wolf of Fleet Street) facing death with: no regrets, no fear and no expectation, died of old age on 5 August 2014 aged hundred and a quarter.”

Describing his father as a “journalist, author, fisherman, shot and scourge of politicians of all hues”, his son said his father had made final joke shortly before his death: “Tell them I’m out of scoops.”

Michael Pincher added: “For him ‘RIP’ stands for ‘Recycling in Progress’.”

 

The prodigiously talented reporter, whose contacts ranged from Lord Louis Mountbatten while he was chief of the defence staff to the hotelier Charles Forte, helped maintain the Express’s position as Britain’s best-selling newspaper as its defence, science and medical editor before retiring after 30 years in 1979 to write books and novels.

In 2005, he was named by Press Gazette as one of the 40 most influential British journalists of the post-war era.

His most controversial book - Their Trade is Treachery - put forward the case in 1981 that former MI5 head Sir Roger Hollis had been a Soviet spy and infuriated then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by cataloguing the apparent blunders of the security service. His efforts to unmask Cold War Soviet agents, including the Cambridge Five, earned him his “Lone Wolf” moniker.

While rarely forgetting the value of placing himself at the centre at the centre of his myriad exclusives, Pincher nonetheless achieved the ultimate journalistic accolade of having his success at getting up the noses of the powerful officially recognised.

As well as converting his relationship with Mrs Thatcher from friendship to “stony stares” with his 1981 book, he had previously earned the disfavour of Harold Macmillan who wrote a personal minute - marked "secret" - to his defence secretary in May 1959 after yet another Pincher revelation.

The exasperated prime minister wrote: “I do not understand how the Express alone of all the newspapers has got the exact decision that we reached at the Cabinet last Thursday on space. Can nothing be done to suppress or get rid of Mr Chapman Pincher? I am getting very concerned about how well informed he always seems to be on defence matters.”

Pincher, who had a copy of the memo placed strategically in the downstairs toilet of his Berkshire home, took considerable pleasure from his status as a thorn in the side of the nation’s highest elected representatives.

In a BBC interview to mark his 100th birthday in March, he said: “I attacked both parties when I felt they needed it or annoyed both parties… none more so as you can see from Harold Macmillan from his hatred of me; can I be got rid of? I mean, that was lovely, I wonder what was in his mind.”

Alongside his charm, photographic memory and instinct for a front page story, Pincher relied on two key tactics for persuading the guardians of Whitehall’s secrets to surrender their treasures.

The first was the tried and tested technique of inviting a source to a well lubricated lunch - in Pincher’s case normally a table at the swanky L’Ecu De France in London’s St James, a handy midway point between Westminster and Fleet Street for both journalist and his highly placed contacts.

It was only later that the journalist was told that every one of those meetings had been eavesdropped by the security service, which in turn discovered that the KGB had done the same when it went to remove its bugs and found Soviet devices in place as well.

The second method used by Pincher was to take up shooting and fishing, bringing him into circulation with the great and the good to the extent that Lord Mountbatten, the Queen’s cousin, once dictated a story to him in the back of his Land Rover while on a grouse shoot. The article appeared as dictated under Pincher’s byline.

He said: “I always tried to meet all the top people because that’s where the stories lay. When you have access to people you have access to facts, usually secret facts.”

The son of a drum major in the Northumberland Fusiliers, Pincher was in a field hospital in Ambala in the Indian Punjab and led a peripatetic childhood before his family settled in Darlington and he became a science teacher.

After the Second World War, where he served in the Royal Armoured Corps before joining the Rocket Division of the Ministry of Supply, Pincher secured a job on the Express as defence correspondent on the basis of his ability to milk his former colleagues for information on the weaponry being developed in the arms race of the Cold War.

Upon joining the paper he was persuaded to modify his byline to his middle name Chapman “because they liked unusual names”.

He pursued his pet subject of Soviet espionage with characteristic zeal, correctly singling out agents from Kim Philby to the gay Labour MP Tom Driberg. But other suspicions, including former Prime Minister Harold Wilson went, at best, unproven.

Respect for Pincher’s journalistic success - and techniques - was far from universal despite his exposure scandals from excessive profits at the heart of Britain’s flagship 1950s surface-to-air missile system, to the link between smoking and lung cancer.

One of his detractors - the historian EP Thompson - described him as “a kind of official urinal” in which “high officials of MI5 and MI6, sea lords, permanent under-secretaries, nuclear scientists… stand patiently leaking in the public interest”.

Pincher, whose family said they expect to hold a family gathering next week to mark his passing, described this as the “greatest compliment I’ve ever been paid”. He added: “I’m delighted to be a public urinal at which people leak. And can still come and do it if they want to, I’ll sell it.”

The veteran reporter, who had published his most recent book in February and was apparently working on another at the time of his death, inhabited a Fleet Street that was more powerful but also more perilous than its present incarnation.

Scotland Yard detectives investigating a suspected serial killer of prostitutes once received a tip-off about a suspicious vehicle in the vicinity of the murders.

The car was Pincher’s and the suspicions of officers were further aroused by blood stains found in the boot.

It was only after his crime correspondent colleague assured the Yard that the blood belonged to Pincher’s share of a bag of pheasants - and tests proved its avian nature - that police enquiries moved elsewhere.

Pincher, never one to miss an ulterior motive, wasted no time in insisting that the incident had been at attempt to frame him by the KGB.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own