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John McGurk

Harry Chapman Pincher was 100 on Saturday. I thought the old boy had died years ago because it was his name which was usually emblazoned across page one of the Daily Express, then the biggest selling newspaper in the world, when we were cub reporters.

We all wanted to be Chapman Pincher. When one of the trainees landed a scoop, he would be known, at least for a day, as “Pincher” although our exclusives were no match for the real thing which almost always involved spies, double agents or MI5 treachery.

The 1950's Prime Minister Harold Macmillan became so exasperated by Pincher that he wrote: “I don't understand how the Express, of all the newspapers, has got the exact decision we took at Cabinet last Thursday. Can nothing be done to suppress or get rid of Chapman Pincher?”

Pincher famously helped unmask the “Cambridge Four”-- Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt -- the ring of undergraduate spies recruited by the Soviets in the 1930's.

The “fifth” member was revealed by Pincher, in his fabulously-titled book “Their Trade is Treachery”, to be Roger Hollis who was the Director General of MI5 between 1956 and 1965.

Pincher believes a high number of British intelligence missions failed because the Soviets had been tipped off by a mole inside the service and, to this day, he is still pursuing more evidence.

Lord Beaverbrook's Express was the paper to strive for and Chapman Pincher was its ace reporter.

His reputation sparked other reporters to replace their first name with their middle name. The Express became the place for pretentious bylines which began with “Mackenzie” this or “Wilson” that.

Unfortunately, when most of us tried it we just sounded ridiculous. My best pal, also a trainee, had the middle name McClumpha; my own did not work much better.

Naturally, the tip-offs for Pincher's stories came from lunch. He always dined in a French restaurant in Jermyn Street, off Piccadilly, where those who knew things would happily impart their secrets over fine red wines; mostly in order to pursue their own agendas and ambitions.

The Labour historian E.P. Thompson described Pincher as a “kind of official urinal where the great and the good would patiently queue up to leak”.

MI5 got so fed up that they bugged the restaurant only to discover, when they removed their hidden microphones after it shut down, that the place had also been wired by the KGB.

Pincher was indeed “Dangerous To Know” the title of his 38th book published last month.

Surprisingly, despite a lifetime's work revealing national secrets, he has no time for the biggest leaker of the lot, Edward Snowden, the ex-CIA man now holed up in Moscow after disclosing thousands of classified documents which detail global surveillance programmes run by the US security service.

Pincher believes that Snowden leaked too many documents containing too much information which could be exploited by terrorists or hostile countries. While Pincher certainly embarrassed the UK government, he believes he never damaged national security.

He thinks Snowden is a “straightforward traitor “,adding quickly, “I would have him shot!”

The old boy is also fearful of what Putin may do next after Russia's land-grab of the Crimea from Ukraine.

“If he has a go at Lithuania, or any of the Baltic states, then NATO will have to do something.

“During the last few weeks, he's fired a long-range test missile and that's quite deliberate to alert the West to 'watch it'”.

The world, of course, has changed dramatically since Chapman Pincher strode the stage as a reporting giant at the height of the Cold War years.

Today the once-mighty Daily Express, like the Berlin Wall, has been reduced to rubble.Its proprietor is better known as a pornographer and its diet of stories is mainly a mixture of gossip and tittle-tattle about so-called celebrities.

In some ways, it's a pity that Pincher has lived long enough to see his old paper fall so far.

My own experiences of M15 were less thrilling than those of Chapman Pincher but perhaps still worth mentioning.

Their new Director General in 2002, Eliza Manningham-Buller, was the first chief spy-catcher to invite individual editors from Her Majesty's Press to a private lunch in her office at the security service's headquarters in Thames House on the north side of the river.

On the early morning shuttle from Edinburgh, I opened our files on her to discover that at school, she had been nicknamed Eliza Bullying-Manner.

Alas, it became extremely difficult to get this out of my head and I became terrified in case I accidentally blurted it out. When we finally met, the reasons for her nickname soon became apparent. She fixed me with a steel-eyed stare and then broke into a smile.

“Ah... Mr McGurk”, she said charmingly, having clearly read my file, “How very nice to meet you. Please take a seat here.”

I instantly had a vision of the seat flipping me backwards into a shark-infested tank which would automatically open up below the floor.

But helpfully, she then suggested, “Do call me Eliza”


John McGurk is a former editor of The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday and was managing editor of The Daily Telegraph.

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