Chapman Pincher: was he the Sixth Man?
Tuesday 19th August 2014
PETER FROST has a chuckle as he remembers a Grub Street journalist who thought just about everybody was a Soviet spy
IT WAS in the pages of the Daily Express in the late 1950s that I first came across Chapman Pincher.
The Express bylined Pincher as the world’s greatest reporter — and he certainly agreed.
He wasn’t, of course. But he did seem to have some interesting stories and he seemed immune to some of the D-notices and other techniques that the Establishment used in those days to keep so many scandals out of the papers.
Reaching my teenage years in the 1950s and early ’60s I got my ideas about the world and politics and what would be my lifelong love affair with print journalism from all kinds of newspapers.
At home we had the News Chronicle until it stopped publication in 1960, and the left-wing Daily Herald until 1964 when it tragically transmogrified into the Sun.
In 1961 I discovered a scrappy little magazine called Private Eye and also developed a soft spot for the Daily Mirror and its Labour politics.
I would buy an occasional copy of the Daily Worker. It changed its name to the Morning Star in 1966 and by then I was reading it regularly.
But alas I must admit most of the news and analysis in my youth came from some good right-wing Fleet Street Tory rags.
I loved the pre-Murdoch News of the World — then the biggest circulation newspaper in the whole globe.
Salacious stories of defrocked vicars, poltergeists, gangsters and dodgy spiritualists and their ectoplasm. What more could a young teenage boy want?
However, Pincher, in the Express, always seemed to get some of the best, most interesting stories.
Scoops they used to call them, and in Pincher’s scoops there was usually someone, often rich, posh or powerful, accused of being a Soviet spy.
Some were amazing speculations. He believed half the Labour Party and all of the trade union movement were in the pay of the Kremlin. No-one escaped his accusations, including prime minister Harold Wilson.
Most of his stories took him into the murky world of spies and double agents — almost always the world of communism and the Soviet Union, although it is true he wrote about the US atomic bomb before any US newspaper.
I read with amused fascination and a little chuckle when Pincher published stories about the Cambridge Four — or was it Five? — Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, all undercover communists who had infiltrated and embarrassed post-war British intelligence so comprehensively.
Then came speculation into the so-called “Fifth Man.” Was it John Cairncross, James Klugman, Victor Rothschild, Guy Liddell or some other suspect?
Pincher came down heavy on former MI5 director general Roger Hollis and seemed to make this search and speculation a full-time occupation. It sometimes seemed to me Pincher was obviously the Sixth Man.
He did some good. As early as 1967, he revealed that British intelligence was reading the cables and telegrams of private citizens. That story is, of course, still unfolding today.
As well as newspaper articles he wrote more than 30 books. Best known is Their Trade is Treachery in 1981.
His sources for this book were the criminal Tory minister Jonathan Aitkin (Eton, Oxford, prison) and Spycatcher author Peter Wright, who himself betrayed and so upset his British intelligence masters.
In his book, Pincher argued that Hollis was a Soviet spy. It was typical Pincher stuff and not unexpectedly several investigations, even one by prime minister Margaret Thatcher, never actually proved Hollis guilty.
What isn’t well known is that Pincher started his own career as a spy. He worked on secret rocket weapons while serving in the British army.
He sold some of this top secret information to an old mate on the Daily Express defence desk. In return the Express offered him a job.
His politics were obviously Establishment and Tory and anti-Labour but that didn’t stop Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan writing in 1959: “Can nothing be done to suppress or get rid of Pincher?”
A more balanced view on Pincher came from ex-communist and famed historian EP Thompson, who in the New Statesman in 1978 described Pincher as “a kind of official urinal where high officials of MI5 and MI6 stand side by side patiently leaking their secrets.”
Pincher loved this judgement from someone he considered a wily old enemy. He said it was his greatest professional compliment.
Pincher, when he died aged 100 earlier this month, turned his own death into a newspaper story.
Announcing his death, his son Michael passed on a last and typical quote from his father — “Tell them no more scoops.”
I guess we should all be grateful for that.
Peter Frost blogs at frostysramblings.wordpress.com.