Obituary: Chapman Pincher, journalist and spycatcher

Chapman Pincher. Picture: PA
Chapman Pincher. Picture: PA
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BORN: 29 March, 1914, in India. Died: 5 August, 2014, in Kintbury, Berkshire, 
aged 100.

CHAPMAN Pincher, with his handsome features and fine manners, charmed information out of high-ranking officials. He was an outstanding journalist who specialised in uncovering the truth behind numerous stories that the authorities preferred to suppress. Pincher had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Cold War: its shady figures, dubious personalities and underhand operators. To the consternation of Whitehall, he knew which dark and sinister corridors to go down in MI5 and MI6 and destroy reputations and careers.

Pincher was never a derring-do character like James Bond. He got his information about rum goings-on and skullduggery in smart west end London restaurants from among the highest in the land.

He was interviewed earlier this year for Channel 4 News when he published his latest book – Dangerous to Know. “I wanted to call it My First 100 Years,” Pincher commented with typical bravado. He admitted he thrived on the intrigue of espionage. “My phones were bugged,” he said with a winning smile. “All nations want to know what other nations are thinking.”

Henry Chapman Pincher was the son of a major and attended Darlington Grammar School and then read botany and zoology at King’s College, London. He joined the Royal Armoured Corps in 1940, seeing service throughout the war, first as a tank gunner then with its Rocket Division. In 1946, he joined the Daily Express as defence, science and medical editor.

One of his first coups was after the unmasking of the physicists Alan Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs as Soviet spies in the early post-war years. Pincher pursued the stories with a relentless ardour and gained a reputation for his wide knowledge on security matters. As a journalist he never took notes and, while he poured the best vintages for his guests at the smart restaurants, he himself never drank alcohol. Significantly, he was never challenged on a story and was never sued. Pincher was a journalistic maverick, working to his own agenda and revelled in his nickname of “The Lone Wolf of Fleet Street”.

Pincher cultivated his contacts with a subtle skill. He had contacts with senior officials in Whitehall and industry but also within the Establishment: all of which he cultivated on the grouse moors and angling on some of the best salmon rivers. He confessed once: “I took up shooting, which has been a marvellous introduction to high-level people who know things.”

But his methods fell foul of two prime ministers: Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson. The former once wrote a memo to his defence minister: “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.”

In 1967 Pincher crossed swords with Wilson when he disclosed that all overseas cables and telegrams from No10 were being vetted by British security. Later, he further angered Wilson when he wrote that the Prime Minister’s office was bugged.

In 1964, Pincher revealed that Ferranti was overcharging for the missiles it was manufacturing and a decade later Edward Heath expelledmore than 100 members of the Soviet embassy after Pincher had exposed their espionage activity.

In 1981 he wrote a highly controversial book – Their Trade is Treachery – suggesting that the former chief of MI5, Sir Roger Hollis, had been a Soviet spy. The allegation infuriated Margaret Thatcher by listing all the inadequacies of the security service.

Pincher also wrote with stark authority about the Royal Family. “In 1988 — by which time Diana was having extra-marital affairs — a friend had asked Prince Charles and Andrew Parker Bowles to fish the Tay on his estate Balmacneil, and to bring Camilla with him.” Andrew had to cancel and Camilla went alone. It was on that occasion, Pincher asserted, that the prince’s affair with Camilla was reignited.

Campaigning against the culture of secrecy and cover-up in Whitehall, Pincher became skilled in avoiding both Official Secrets legislation and the libel courts. For decades he caused problems for the government of the day, regardless of its political colour, by alleging and substantiating security policy failures. “My stories,” Pincher insisted “were only as good as their sources.”

In 1965 Pincher married Billee, who proved an ideal and witty hostess of his many contacts and was blessed with a keen sense of fun. She put a sign outside their substantial Berkshire home: “Lovely woman and grumpy man live here.”

Chapman Pincher is survived by his wife, Billee, his son and daughter of a previous marriage, and by three stepchildren.