Paul Foot: the finest campaigning journalist of his generation


Source: The Guardian 20 July 2004

In a world where allegiances, principles, prejudices and beliefs change with easy cynicism, Paul Foot was a steadfast beacon of integrity.

He was, without doubt, the finest campaigning journalist of his generation. He had everything – a ferociously forensic brain, deep compassion, a prodigious capacity for work, great courage, a healthy and permanent distrust of politicians of any party, a sharp wit, a devastating pen and principles as deep, wide and awe-inspiring as the Grand Canyon.

Paul Foot, who has died aged 66, was everything that is best in our gnarled old trade, and he graced it for five decades with stories and investigations that tumble down the years. Hanratty, the Poulson scandal, the Carl Bridgewater murder, the Birmingham bombings convictions, Jeffrey Archer – he kept on coming back to that one – Jeremy Thorpe, John Stalker and the Northern Ireland shoot-to-kill inquiry, Lockerbie and the Libyan connection, or lack of it, the strange death of “God’s banker” Roberto Calvi, all topped up with a circus of conmen and get-rich-quick spivs from the City, second-rate, hypocritical politicians and any other phoney who felt the glint of Foot’s big specs upon them.

Then there was the other side. The romantic whose hero was Shelley, another student at University College, Oxford. It was the ritual vandalising of the poet’s statue by hearty rowers that first awoke the young Foot’s contempt for the rich and privileged, though his education at Shrewsbury school, and his high commissioner father Sir Hugh Foot (later Lord Caradon), meant he was uncomfortably close to both himself. His national service was as an army subaltern, and provided a fund of farcical stories.

Shrewsbury and University College also cemented a lifelong friendship with Richard Ingrams, one of the founders and editors of Private Eye, for which Foot was to do some of his finest work, cushioning attacks on the scandalous nature of Ingrams’ organ with corruption exposed by the “serious side”.

The road to what became the Socialist Workers party, an enthusiasm that never waned, began when Foot joined the Daily Record, in Glasgow, at the suggestion of the Daily Mirror’s Hugh Cudlipp in the early 1960s. Glasgow had more than its share of communists and lefties, including Gus Macdonald, later to do what Paul never would, take New Labour’s patronage and a peerage. Instead, Foot fell under the spell of the shipyard firebrands. Neither his politics nor his hairstyle was to change, though his attempts to stand for elected office invariably ended in spectacular failure.

The Record was followed by jobs on Private Eye and, from 1974 to 1975, the editorship of Socialist Worker. But the Worker was read by only a handful of stalwart disciples, so, in 1979, when Mike Molloy, then editor of the Daily Mirror, offered him the chance to become the paper’s investigative reporter, Foot, despite reservations, decided to accept.

It was to prove an inspired decision by both men. Foot’s weekly column ran for almost 14 years, ending in spectacular style with him investigating the bloodletting of Mirror chief executive David Montgomery after Robert Maxwell’s death and putting his report forward for publication. Not surprisingly, Montgomery’s editor, David Banks, refused to publish, so Foot went on to the streets and gave away free copies. It was a fitting way to end his Mirror career.

During that time, he had been a mixture of the paper’s hair-shirt, socialist conscience and campaigning heart, a role that did not change under Maxwell who, remarkably, kept well away from Foot’s column. The only time it got a little tricky was when Foot picketed Maxwell’s Oxford home, Headington Hill Hall, where he was giving the Pergamon members of the NUJ a hard time. Foot manned the barricades, and naturally had his picture published in gleeful newspapers.

As editor at the time, I was asked by Maxwell to “pop up” to his Mussolini-like office, where the following conversation took place: “Your mate is taking the piss out of me,” boomed Maxwell, before I was through the door. I affected ignorance, playing for time, “What’s that Bob?” “Foot. Foot and mouth, that’s what I’m talking about. He’s picketing my offices, and he bloody works for me. He should be fired.”

Actually, this was a good sign, there was a shade of uncertainty about it, so I suggested that firing Foot would play into the hands of Maxwell’s enemies. There was a moment’s hesitation before Maxwell said: “Tell your mate he’s bloody lucky he’s got a merciful and compassionate publisher.” It was a rare example of Maxwell wisdom.

Foot’s column went from strength to strength, hoovering up awards and providing poor, sick and disadvantaged readers with a much needed voice, often ranged against a civil service bureaucracy Foot quarried with alacrity. His page was unique, combining investigation, campaign, polemic, far left politics and a razor wit. He even managed to accuse one man of murder, much to the alarm of Tony Miles, then editorial director. He need not have worried; years later, the man was convicted.

Much of Foot’s success was down to sheer professionalism. He was no prima donna. He happily took direction and worked closely with the Mirror’s chief lawyer Hugh Corrie, another upper-class public schoolboy, whose father had been a pillar of the colonial service.

Once, Corrie took Foot to a Test match against the West Indies at the Oval, but the upper-class seats Corrie had bought were too much for his guest. So Foot took himself off to a stand, where there was an overwhelming smell of ganja coming from the visitors’ supporters. However, unconditional support for the working classes was not always as freely received as it was given. Unabashed, Foot sat down and was immediately eyed with suspicion. Eventually, one red-eyed Caribbean cricket lover turned to him and said in a rather slurry voice: “Hey honky, why don’t you fuck off back where you came from.” Typically, it was a story Foot told with great delight.

For the last years of his life, he was confined to walking with two sticks, a result of almost dying from an aortic aneurysm. But his enthusiasm and brain were undimmed and, in spite of his disability, he remained entirely without self-pity, while working back at the Eye and as a Guardian columnist.

In a world where allegiances, principles, prejudices and beliefs change with easy cynicism, Paul Foot was a steadfast beacon of integrity. He may have tilted at a few windmills, and his politics remained unapologetically tangled in the barricades of the 1960s. Yet, like Shelley’s west wind, he was a “spirit fierce”, who stood against the vested interests of the corrupt, the power hungry, the liars, cheats, hypocrites and shysters. He did not always win, but the great and good thing was that he never stopped trying, and our trade was immeasurably more noble for it.

His awards included Journalist of the Decade (1990s) and the George Orwell Prize for Journalism (1994). His books included Immigration And Race In British Politics (1965), The Rise Of Enoch Powell (1969), Why You Should Be A Socialist (1977) and Who Framed Colin Wallace (1989). His journalism was collected in Words As Weapons (1990) and Articles Of Resistance (2000). His history of the vote will be published next year.

He is survived by his partner Clare and their daughter, the two sons of his first marriage, and the son from his second marriage.

· Paul Mackintosh Foot, writer and journalist, born November 8 1937; died July 18 2004

Paul Foot’s pamphlet An Idiot’s Guide to PFI, published a few months before he died, is an essential read for understanding how and why Britain’s public and welfare services have been carved up over the past decade in the interests of private profit. READ HERE…


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