“The Great Spycatcher of Fleet Street.” Damn, doesn’t that have a ring to it? He had another, equally awesome nickname: “The Lone Wolf of Fleet Street.”
You never heard of this man, and you already think he’s the shizznit, don’t you?
For good reason. Henry Chapman Pincher, born in India under the British Raj, who died on Tuesday of natural causes, age 100, was a true legend. The Daily Express, which he called home for thirty years, put it simply.
Pincher’s ability to winkle out secrets meant the Establishment both feared and were exasperated by him. Among his most treasured possessions was a letter written in 1959 in which prime minister Harold Macmillan asked: “Can nothing be done to suppress or even get rid of Mr Chapman Pincher? I am getting very concerned about how well informed he always seems to be on defence matters.” The framed letter hung in the downstairs cloakroom at his home in Kintbury, Berkshire.
He helped unmask the Cambridge Five spy ring and continued exposing secrets long after his retirement from the Daily Express but perhaps the most remarkable thing was that he never took notes. Astonishingly he was never challenged on a story. He worked to his own brief and revelled in his nickname of Lone Wolf of Fleet Street.
In 1967, for instance, he revealed that the government made a practice of reading private cables leaving the UK. He was not afraid to get into front-page dust-ups with the D Notice Committee, an organization that existed to ensure press “cooperation” by which they meant government-interested self-censorship. Officially, cooperation with their edicts was voluntary; in practice, going against their wishes marked you for life, for good and for ill.
Politically embarrassing is a higher security classification than top secret.
Henry Chapman Pincher
Nonetheless, when it suited him (and it suited him a great deal of the time) he published in line with the wishes of the defence and security industry. As the Guardian put it in one of their three obits of the man, “He was also an unashamed conduit for officials who wanted to bamboozle the public and parliament or simply score points against their enemies – and there were plenty such officials in Whitehall. He claimed not to have objected to the historian EP Thompson’s remark that Pincher was a ‘kind of official urinal’ into which senior members of government and intelligence agencies stood ‘patiently leaking in the public interest.’ He wrote in his autobiography: ‘I was open for ‘use’ at any time – as I still am.'”
Of course, no journalist who helped whip up outrage against WMD’s in Iraq can really look down his/her nose at the Lone Wolf. At least he reportedly knew when he was passing along propaganda. Not that he ever trusted journalists.
Your rivals aren’t going to tell you anything useful.
Henry Chapman Pincher
The Spycatcher made it to an even century, dying on August 5th. A professed nationalist/patriot as well as a lone wolf with no fucks to give, he set the stage which has latterly been occupied by bloggers as different as Glenn Greenwald and Guido Fawkes. Zoologist, schoolteacher, theater brat, anti-Communist, tank gunner, weapons researcher and artillery enthusiast, he had just the chequered resume that makes a great infosec journalist. Like Hunter S. Thompson, he never pretended to be objective, and he did his readers the favour of being up-front about his subjectivities.
His revelations about spying led to the expulsion of 105 members of the Soviet Embassy in London. His autobiography accused the head of MI5 of being a Soviet mole. He not infrequently caused government kerfuffles by revealing bloated defence contract boondoggles and institutional chumminess leading to security breaches, while not failing to participate in said institutional chumminess himself.
When not writing for the Express or writing outrage-generating books on the spy industry, he penned the novel Not With a Bang, and God’s Doga fond, if eccentric, series of religious allegories from the point of view of his chocolate Labrador Retriever named Tom.
A legend in his own time, his last joke was as memorable as any words he ever wrote.
Now I’m all out of scoops.
Henry Chapman Pincher
Photo via the book jacket of Not With a Bang.