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.