Harry Chapman Pincher: Ex-Daily Express journalist turns 100

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Media captionChapman Pincher talks to the BBC's Nick Higham about being bugged, upsetting prime ministers, and being compared to a public urinal

Harry Chapman Pincher looks back on his extraordinary career as Daily Express defence correspondent, as he marks his 100th birthday.

His employers called him "the lone wolf of Fleet Street", the man who got the stories other journalists seemed to miss.

For over 30 years, until his retirement in 1979, Harry Chapman Pincher was the defence and science correspondent for the Daily Express, then Britain's biggest-selling daily newspaper.

Few military or atomic secrets in the 1950s and 60s were safe from Pincher.

His contacts in the scientific and military establishment brought him one exclusive after another.

In retirement he turned his attention to espionage, producing a string of controversial books alleging Soviet penetration of MI5 at the very highest level.

Now he is celebrating his 100th birthday, physically frail but still mentally sharp.

His latest book, a memoir (Dangerous to Know: A Life, Biteback Publishing), was published just last month. He's already at work on another.

We met at his home in the Berkshire village of Kintbury, a rather quieter place than the Fleet Street in which he made his name.

His investigative methods were unorthodox. Mainly, he bought people lunch.

Image caption Pincher recalls the tales of his reporting career on his 100th birthday

Over the claret, senior civil servants and politicians would tell him things.

Pincher would listen without taking notes, well aware that his sources usually had their own agenda.

One of his best contacts, the chief scientist at the Ministry of Defence in the 1950s, was keen to tell him as much as possible about Britain's atomic weapons programme for instance, to explain to the public why the country was spending such massive sums of money on it.

The Labour historian EP Thompson was scornful. Pincher, he said, was like a public urinal, at which the great and good queued up to leak.

But it never worried him that he was being used by senior figures with ideas to promote or scores to settle: "I'm up for use any time," he told me. "If someone wants to come and tell me some news that nobody else knows and I make a lovely scoop of it, come on, use me!"

His favourite lunch venue was a classy French restaurant called L'Ecu de France in Jermyn Street off Piccadilly, handy both for Fleet Street and for the civil servants and politicians in Westminster.

Only after it closed did he learn that the place had been bugged by MI5 since the 1940s. (It had also, MI5 discovered when they removed their own hidden microphones, been bugged by the KGB.)

Image caption Game shooting also proved a fruitful way for Pincher to make contacts

"MI5 heard every conversation that I had and they did nothing about it," he says now.

"All they did was put it in the files. MI5 doesn't like to take any action; they like to know. 'It's in the files: if we take action they'll know we know.' That's the attitude. It's absolutely crazy."

Pincher cultivated contacts not only at the lunch table but in the countryside. In the 1950s he took up game shooting, and met a good many useful sources while banging away in plus-fours at pheasant and grouse.

Prime minister's wrath

Lord Mountbatten, aloof and unapproachable as first sea lord and chief of the defence staff, turned out to be much friendlier when Pincher encountered him shooting.

"He invited me to shoot at Broadlands and even dictated a story to me once when I was travelling in his Land Rover, which went straight into the newspaper... but under my name, not his."

After his retirement, Pincher's most controversial book was Their Trade is Treachery. The book revealed that the head of MI5 until 1965, Sir Roger Hollis, had been investigated as a suspected Soviet spy.

There was an immense furore, which Pincher doubtless found most gratifying.

In the years since, Pincher has hardened his line on Hollis, and continued researching the subject. He's now convinced Hollis actually was a Soviet mole.

Not everyone agrees. Christopher Andrew, MI5's official historian, thinks it's nonsense to suggest that Hollis was a traitor.

Rupert Allason, who writes about espionage under the pen name Nigel West, is more nuanced. "Some people don't believe there was any hostile penetration of the security service.

"Personally I've seen the evidence: I know there was penetration up until at least September 1963.

"Where I part company with Harry is on the issue of candidates. He believes it was Sir Roger Hollis, I'm not convinced of that; but I am persuaded there was a mole."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Pincher was notorious on Fleet Street for his scoops

He describes Pincher as a "compulsive obsessive" on the issue.

"He is not necessarily very accurate on the interpretation of some of the evidence, but he's digging up the evidence in a way that the mole hunters should have done 30 years ago, and he continues to surprise MI5 and the CIA who take a close interest in his researches."

Margaret Thatcher's government was infuriated by Their Trade is Treachery; but then angering prime ministers was nothing new to Pincher.

In May 1959, Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan wrote a personal minute, marked "secret", to his minister of defence.

"I do not understand," he wrote, "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, of course, has a copy of the memo - and wonders today what Macmillan might have meant by "get rid of".

And the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson contributed to what may have been Pincher's finest moment in 1967. What became known as the D Notice affair began with a "walk-in", a member of the public who turns up at a newspaper's front door with a possible scoop.

Before publishing the walk-in's story Pincher checked with a contact called Lt Col Sammy Lohan, secretary of the D Notice committee.

Image caption Pincher pictured in Aden during an assignment with the RAF

The D Notice system is a voluntary one, designed to alert the news media to stories which might damage national security if published. Lohan told Pincher his story was not covered by any D Notices, and the Express went ahead and printed the scoop.

Wilson was furious and set up an inquiry to show that D Notices had in fact been breached. The inquiry concluded the exact opposite, and vindicated the Express.

Wilson got even angrier, refused to accept the inquiry's findings and indirectly forced Lohan's resignation.

'Snowden's a traitor'

Afterwards Pincher says Sir John Junor, editor of the Express's Sunday sister, wrote a letter to him saying: "There may have been greater triumphs in Fleet Street but, if so, I have never heard of them."

Intriguingly, the story that provoked this furore had curious echoes of the American whistleblower Edward Snowden and his revelations of phone and internet surveillance by the US National Security Agency.

In the UK in 1967 Pincher had discovered that all private cables and Post Office telegrams were being intercepted and that some were being read by GCHQ, the equivalent of the NSA.

Yet while Pincher is (perhaps justifiably) proud of his 1967 scoop, he condemns Snowden utterly. "I think Snowden's a traitor who ought to be shot," he says.

Image caption Pincher (left) with aviation pioneer Sir Thomas Sopwith and Lady Sopwith

The difference, it seems, is in the level of detail - he says Snowden has leaked far too much minutiae that could be exploited by terrorists or hostile countries - but it is also a question of patriotism.

Pincher has always been intensely patriotic. In his view, the secrets he leaked may have embarrassed governments but they never did lasting damage to the UK's security - he was making mischief in order to sell newspapers, not aiding and abetting his country's enemies.

He was quite happy to do the government's bidding on occasion: he once knowingly allowed the front page of the Express to be used as part of a government disinformation campaign designed to head off a Japanese blockade of a British H-bomb test.

And when he discovered that one of his best contacts, the general secretary of a civil service union with access to top secret establishments, was a communist, he was deeply alarmed.

When the man announced he was retiring and that his successor was to be another communist, Pincher promptly shopped the would-be successor to the authorities, who somehow ensured that he didn't get the job.

"I knew what my duty was as an Englishman," he told me.