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SUNDAY 14 APRIL 2024

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Chapman Pincher, Lone Wolf of Fleet Street and ace spy hunter of the Daily Express

I SPY: Pincher, left with Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, whom he unsuccessfully tried to prove was working for the Russians

HE was known as the Lone Wolf of Fleet Street and sometimes the Spycatcher, and he was both.


Chapman Pincher, Harry to friends, unmasked many spies – some of them in the pages of the Daily Express.


In 1971, British Intelligence “turned” a Major in the KGB with a mistress and a drink problem. He defected and revealed that many of the 550 Soviet diplomats in Britain – more even than in the US – were spies trained in sabotage.


Pincher was tipped off and reported in the Express the huge rise in the number of staff at the Soviet Embassy and the trade delegation in Highgate, North London. He declared that many of them, from the diplomats to the chauffeurs and gardeners, were involved in espionage.


Prime Minister Ted Heath and his Foreign Secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home decided on a clear-out. They expelled 90 of the Russians and barred 15 more from returning to London from overseas.


Some of them left Britain by ship late one summer’s evening, inspiring a brilliant Daily Mail headline: Reds sail in the sunset. (I’ve always thought that headlines should not only sing but be sung.)


My distant memory of all this was stirred by stories in this week’s Sunday papers. The Telegraph ran a splash suggesting that China could use the technology in its electric cars to harvest huge amounts of information on British citizens and remotely interfere with or even disable the vehicles.


The Sunday Times splashed on the threat posed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who are said to be recruiting from organised crime gangs in Britain to target the regime’s opponents for murder or kidnap. One such plot was centred practically on my West London doorstep.


Iran International, a dissident TV channel, was based in a business park just up the road and became a target for the Revolutionary Guards. Overnight, barriers manned by security teams sprang up at the entrance to the business park.


Eventually, the channel stopped broadcasting from there after Scotland Yard warned it could not protect the staff.


These are stories that Pincher, who died in 2014, aged 100, would have relished. He effectively bagged his job on the Express while involved in rocket research in the Army. A friend on the Express asked him about a powerful new explosive, RDX, which Churchill was keen to boast of.


Pincher obligingly passed on the information, and more, and when he was demobbed in 1946, he joined the paper as Defence, Science and Health Editor. Arthur Christiansen hired him and Beaverbrook came to admire him and bask in the prestige he lent the Express. Indeed, he paid for Pincher’s flat in St James’s.


Pincher was a superstar of journalism, voted Journalist of the Year in 1964 and Reporter of the Decade in 1966. He cultivated contacts assiduously while fishing and shooting and often lunched them at L’Ecu de France, in Jermyn Street, in London’s West End.


When it closed, he learnt that the restaurant had been bugged by MI5 since the 1940s. And MI5 discovered, while removing their own listening devices, that the KGB had bugged the place, too.


I would like to say that I worked with Pincher but that’s not wholly true, for two reasons.


The first is that, while I handled a couple of his stories as a downtable sub in the Seventies, this hardly counts as a significant collaboration.


It wasn’t much of a task, either. “Just tick it up, old son,” the Chief Sub would say wearily. The temptation of a subversive rewrite was strong. But it would have been a futile own goal; the sack was the only possible outcome.


However, I confess I found much of Harry Pincher’s copy, like so many stories filed by investigative reporters, to be dull and impenetrable and written in code. It was as much for the benefit of Pincher and his chums in the Establishment and British intelligence as for Express readers.


I sometimes wondered whether, if you held the copy paper over a flame, something interesting would appear in invisible ink.


The second reason is that Pincher lived up to that lone wolf tag. He seemed to colleagues a rather aloof figure and you wouldn’t find him with the pack in El Vino’s gargling claret. “Your rivals are never going to tell you anything useful,” he said.


He was seldom seen in the office as he had wangled a deal with the Express to spend three or four days a week at his home in Kintbury, Berkshire (an early example of WFH). The River Kennet, which flows nearby and which Pincher must have fished, was one of the settings John Buchan used for his spy Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps.


Not everyone was in awe of Pincher’s ability to bring in Grade A stories from the spooks.


The historian EP Thompson once claimed: "The columns of the Daily Express are a kind of official urinal where high officials of MI5 and MI6 stand side-by-side patiently leaking.


“Mr. Pincher is too self-important and light-witted to realize how often he is being used.”


Pincher replied: “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!”


Pincher, who also wrote books, from scientific tomes to novels, left the Express in 1979 without fanfare, a leaving party or even a boardroom lunch. He was already working on a book called Their Trade is Treachery, in which he wrote that the then head of MI5, Sir Roger Hollis, had been investigated as a Russian spy.


Pincher was convinced the suspicions were true, though other observers of the espionage business were more dubious. Rupert Allason, who writes as Nigel West, concedes there was a mole but doubts it was Hollis.


Pincher also spent much time trying fruitlessly to prove that Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was working for the Russians.


It was another PM, Tory Harold Macmillan, who provided perhaps the best epitaph for Pincher. In a secret minute to his Defence Minister, Macmillan 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.”

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Agence France Presse (AFP), the world’s oldest news agency, is suing Elon Musk’s X for distributing its work but refusing even to discuss payment.


A recent copyright law in France says that news publishers are entitled to payment from digital platforms that reproduce their work.


Musk called AFP’s legal action, which will be heard in a Paris court, “bizarre”. In a post on X, formerly Twitter, he said: “They want us to pay *them* for traffic to their site where they make advertising revenue and we don't!?”


In 2021, Google was fined €500 million for not respecting measures requiring it to negotiate compensation with the Press “in good faith”.


This is the dilemma that will confront almost every newspaper – though perhaps not The Times or Telegraph – as they switch from print to digital. No one in the tech business wants to pay for news. They don’t regard it as a commodity for sale.


Still, if you pay $44 billion for a crock of sh*t, I guess you have to make savings somewhere.

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Considering how much time journalists spend in pubs, we should all feel concerned that more of them went bust between April and June than in any other quarter for more than a decade. They are victims of a “perfect storm” of high inflation and interest rate rises, it seems.


So a recent makeover at one of my locals has me puzzled. They painted the inside the gloomy green of a Whitehall filing cabinet.


They have stocked the bar with every beer under the sun at £6 a pint… but they don’t sell bitter. And there’s a kid behind the bar who seems to be a Goth and never, ever smiles.


Drink up, it’s nearly closing time.

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I saw a man yesterday driving an electric Porsche. Uncharitable folk might think he had too many miles on the clock himself to be at the wheel of such a vehicle.


But as he drove off, I realised he probably knows that. The number plate read: 60 FKT.