Paul Foot

Paul Foot

Paul Foot, the son of Sir Hugh Foot (Lord Caradon) was born on 8th November, 1937. He was educated at Shrewsbury College and University College, Oxford.

After leaving university he became a reporter on the Daily Record in Glasgow. It was while covering local issues that Foot became converted to left-wing socialism. Books by Foot during this period included Immigration and Race in British Politics (1965), The Politics of Harold Wilson (1968), The Rise of Enoch Powell (1969) and Who Killed Hanratty? (1971). He also worked for Private Eye (1974 to 1975) before becoming editor of the Socialist Worker (1975 to 1979).

Mike Molloy, editor of the Daily Mirror, recruited Foot as an investigative reporter in 1979. Over the next fourteen years he investigated political corruption and miscarriages of justice. This included the cases of James Hanratty, John Poulson, Helen Smith, Jeffrey Archer, Jeremy Thorpe, John Stalker, Carl Bridgewater, Roberto Calvi and Colin Wallace.

Foot resigned from the Daily Mirror in 1993 when attempts were made to ban an article attacking the newspaper's new chief executive. For the rest of his life he wrote for The Guardian and Private Eye.

Books by Foot included Stop the Cuts (1976), Why You Should Be A Socialist (1977), Helen Smith Story (1983), Red Shelley (1984), Murder at the Farm: Who Killed Carl Bridgewater? (1988), Who Killed Hanratty? (1971), Who Framed Colin Wallace? (1989), Words as Weapons: Selected Writings (1990), Shelley's Revolutionary Year (1990), Agitator of the Worst Kind: Portrait of Miner's Leader A.J. Cook (1995), Articles of Resistance (2000) and The Vote: How it was Won and How it was Undermined (2005).

Paul Foot died of a heart attack on 18th July, 2004.

Primary Sources

(1) Paul Foot, Why You Should Be A Socialist (1977)

The capitalist disaster is all around us, clear to see. But for most people capitalism is 'the best system we've got'. Before they destroy capitalism, they want to know - what can they put in its place? There is an alternative way of running society which is worth fighting for. It is called socialism.

Socialism is built on three principles, all vital to one another.

The first is the social ownership of the means of production.

Many people take this to mean the ownership of all property by some Big Brother state. They look around in their homes and see a few treasured possessions. Furniture, a television set, a washing machine, perhaps a car or some books. They do not see why they should give these things up to some bureaucratic state, or to anyone else for that matter.

Nor should they. And here is the first big misunderstanding, carefully nursed by the supporters of capitalism.

They deliberately ignore the obvious difference between people's possessions and the means of producing these possessions.

If you own a washing machine, you do not get richer because you own it. On the contrary, you probably pay out large sums every month in hire purchase commitments. Even when you've finished buying it, there's no extra income to you from having that washing machine. But if you own shares in Hoover, you grow richer because other people are buying washing machines.

The means of production are the factories, the machines, the chemical plants, the printing presses, the pits, the building materials - all the things which produce wealth. It is the ownership of all these by a small handful of people - or by a state which is run on behalf of that small handful of people - which leads to the inequalities and the chaos of capitalist society.

If the means of production are owned by society as a whole, then it becomes impossible for one group of people to grow rich from other people's work.

It removes the compulsion for industries and services to compete with one another for the general wealth. It makes it possible to plan the resources of society according to their needs. The problem which dogs all businessmen: 'who is going to buy back the goods', and the slumps which that creates no longer arise. If, by mistake, too many goods are made or too many services are provided, then they can be given away or slowed down, and something else started. But there is no question of throwing millions of people out of work, or leaving machinery idle, or throwing food down mineshafts. These could not be possible, because the driving force of the production plan is human need.

Under socialism there is no stock exchange, no moneylenders, no property speculators, no landlords - no one getting rich out of someone else's needs. All these are replaced by plans which are drawn up to meet the means of production with people's needs.

(2) Paul Foot, The Guardian (22nd November, 1993)

They should put up a tent outside the Home Office to accommodate people protesting about miscarriages of justice. I spent some time there last week protesting, with lots of others, on behalf of the three men who've spent 15 years in prison for the murder of the newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater. I was last there on the same issue in June, when a batch of powerful new evidence, all of it pointing to the men's innocence, was handed in.

In the five months since, the Home Office hasn't ordered a single new inquiry or interview. Earlier this month, as we prepared for a week-long vigil of protest, some official stirred. A Home Office spokesman tells me: "We're in the process of getting details of inquiries we want to carry out." Last week, coinciding brilliantly with the vigil, came an ITN scoop exposing grotesque discrepancies between police custody records and their reports of interviews with Pat Molloy, whose confession was crucial to the prosecution case. The new evidence was further proof that the police account of Molloy's confession was a load of concocted drivel worthy of the West Midlands Serious Crimes Squad...

There have now been six secret police inquiries into this case involving four forces - Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Warwickshire and Merseyside. The last took 21 months. Surely it's time to dispense with this secretive, time-wasting and utterly unsatisfactory method of investigation, and reopen the case in public.

(3) Paul Foot, The Guardian (30th January, 1995)

The late Lord Beaverbrook used to scoff at journalists who consult old cuttings. Newspapers, he insisted, are read and then cast aside. Who cares a hoot what they said years or even days ago? Nothing better proves his theory than the coverage of the Lockerbie disaster. Five-and-a-half years ago, the entire press was proclaiming that the Lockerbie bombing was carried out by, er, a Palestinian gang, based in Syria, paid for by the Iranian government. An interminable series in the Sunday Times in late 1989 named the gang, its leader, its bomb-maker and the Palestinian who had bought clothes in a Maltese boutique which ended up in the bomb suitcase. The same story was conveyed a year later to an even wider public in a massive Granada reconstruction, Why Lockerbie?

... When two Libyans were charged in November 1991, the US and British governments' propaganda machines worked night and day to rubbish the story they had so successfully peddled. Pretty well the entire media in Britain and the US complied. Libya was denounced with the same stale invective previously reserved for the Iranians and Syrians. None of the facts had changed. The only change was political. The new enemy of the western powers was their former favourite, Saddam Hussein. In the Gulf war for a new world order, the ruthless Syrian dictator Assad was a vital ally. Iran was neutral. It was suddenly obvious that neither of these two governments could possibly have had anything to do with Lockerbie.

This awful cynicism is now at last being exposed. Some credit goes to a few journalists like Gerry Northam of BBC Radio's File On Four who stuck to Claud Cockburn's invaluable advice never to believe anything until it is officially denied. Most of the hard work, however, has been done for nothing by the British relatives who formed UK Families Flight 103 to demand to know what happened to their loved ones: people like Dr Jim Swire, a GP from Bromsgrove, who lost his daughter Flora; Martin Cadman, a marketing consultant in Norfolk, who lost his son Bill; Pamela Dix, a publishing editor from Woking, who lost her brother, Peter. They are disgusted by the diet of lies, half-lies, contradictions and cover-ups served up by ministers and officials.

This month they launched a petition to the European parliament calling for a statement about Lockerbie: a statement which they hope will lead to a proper inquiry.

(4) Paul Foot, The Guardian (18th September, 2001)

The most powerful case for individual terrorism comes from the Old Testament. It is the story of Samson, the mighty warrior who was betrayed by his lover, and then blinded and imprisoned by his enemies, the Philistines.

Moshe Machover, an Israeli dissident, sends me the relevant passage from the Book of Judges, chapter 16, reminding me that the story is widely taught to Israeli children "as an act of heroism on Samson's part". Moshe prefers to read it as a "useful antidote against Islamophobia and Judaeo-Christian arrogance".

Certainly the Philistines in the story, as they taunt and mock the tortured warrior, come across as almost exact replicas of the Murdochs, the Conrad Blacks, the BBC foreign news chiefs and everyone else who refuses to understand the difference in the Middle East between the violence of conquerors, exploiters and oppressors on the one hand and the violence of the conquered, exploited and oppressed on the other.

On the night of their triumph over Samson, the Philistine leaders celebrated and got drunk. ... "And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, of the one with his right hand and of the other with his left. And Samson said: 'Let me die with the Philistines.' And he bowed himself with all his might and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life."

I agree with Moshe that this story is a moving reminder to tyrants that their power and arrogance can never be taken for granted, but I think it would be a pity if all those Israeli schoolchildren, or anyone else for that matter, took it as an argument for individual terrorism.

As a guide to that question, I much prefer the advice of Leon Trotsky who became a socialist largely out of hostile reaction to the individual terrorism and assassinations practised by so many rebels against Russian tsarism in his youth ... "In our eyes, individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes toward a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish their mission." Trotsky wrote that nearly 100 years ago, long after the Old Testament. And he was even closer to the truth than Samson was.

(5) Paul Foot, Review of Free At Last! Tony Benn's Diaries 1991-2001, The Guardian (2nd November, 2002)

Benn's description of (his wife Caroline's) death on November 22 2000, with all her family around her, is almost too sad to bear. A couple of weeks later, on December 12, the diary records: "A letter arrived in the mail this morning to Caroline Benn signed by a senior Labour peer. It was an appeal for money and was asking "Ms Benn" if she would like to remember the party in her will." The diary goes on: "It is really a silly thing to do." Silly? It was a disgusting, utterly contemptible thing to do and is only credible in the vulture culture that poisons the current leadership of the Labour party.

But Tony Benn is almost immune to the slings and arrows of New Labour. Every time I am lucky enough to speak on the same platform, I find myself pondering why he is so good at it, and I so bad. I think at last I have worked it out. While I engage in mockery and polemic, he prefers to lay off the personalities and concentrate his humour and forensic skill on ideas and issues. And if that means that he too often has a generous word for politicians I find detestable - Norman Tebbit, for instance, and even Ian Paisley - well, that is a small price to pay for such an indomitable and exuberant political spirit.

(6) Paul Foot, The Guardian (3rd March, 2004)

Though I stridently opposed the policies of the Wilson and Callaghan governments, it never occurred to me not to vote Labour. There was easily enough distance between the Labour governments and their Tory predecessors to make the choice automatic. Now the situation is different. Exactly what has changed?

Last week, I went to Hackney's excellent Arcola theatre to see a play by my friend Andy de la Tour. The play, Question Time, is about a Blairite cabinet minister whose father is an old engineering trade unionist. Labour governments, the minister argues, have constantly to make compromises with reactionary policies in order to stay in office. Asked when Labour ministers' compromises turn them into Tories, the old man replies: "When they no longer see them as compromises - when they believe Tory policies are better." That time has come, or nearly come.

The tragedy is not that New Labour ministers are making concessions - but that they heartily believe in their Tory policies. In these circumstances the argument that hostility from socialists to a Labour government paves the way for a Tory victory is weaker than ever. For if there is no discernible difference between the Labour government and the Tories, why should people vote at all?

(7) Richard Scott, The Guardian (20th July, 2004)

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...

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.

(8) Jim Nichol, The Guardian (20th July, 2004)

I first met Paul Foot in the very early 1960s: he was in the Glasgow Young Socialists, I was in the Newcastle Young Socialists, and we were poles apart. He came from a posh, Oxford University, Liberal background, and I was the son of a coalminer, who had never read a book. He moved to London, I moved to London and he was to prove utterly decisive in my life.

What brought us together was that we were both obsessed with the same idea - of how to get socialist ideas across. We had both become members of what was then the International Socialists group - now the Socialist Workers party - but we, and a few other people, thought that the far left was stuck in the dark ages. It had to become more accessible.

By the early 1970s, Paul was at the height of his mainstream career; he had already published four books, he had won the What The Papers Say Journalist of the Year award in 1972, and was a key writer on Private Eye. He had, in short, made a name for himself - and I wanted him to give it up and work for Socialist Worker for a pittance.

He was worried about his family commitments, but he was not worried about money, or his house, or his property - he never was. He came to the paper, and working with him, an intellectual who encouraged everybody, was a joy.

Much later, I became his lawyer. Together, we continued to crash into legal battles. But what struck me then, as before, was that even Paul's enemies liked him, even if they sometimes seemed to be jealous of him. They looked at him, and then looked into themselves, and, I suspect, started thinking about just where, besides the money they had made, or the status they had achieved, they had taken a wrong turning.

One side of this was the way people sought to rationalise - or marginalise - Paul's revolutionary ideas by joking about them, as a way of pulling him back into the fold. But he was not for taking back into the fold. His radicalism was not an optional extra, it was absolutely central to the identity of that wonderfully witty and humane man.

The only thing he ever had, always, were his books. He really did live only for today - but that was so we could change tomorrow.

(9) Melanie McFadyean, The Guardian (20th July, 2004)

In 1976, five years before he published his book Red Shelley, Paul Foot gave his first talk on Percy Shelley at what was then the International Socialists' Easter rally in Skegness. Here was Paul, this handsome man in his prime - but, then, he was always handsome, and always in his prime - breathing life into the dead poet. All his brilliance was there, his fieriness, his disgust with hierarchy, his passion for truth, justice and equality, and his endless enthusiasm for life. The audience was on its feet roaring approval before the last word was out.

Paul was not only clever, he was the funniest person I ever met. He amused us. He was irreverent. He was passionate about what he believed in, but never lapsed into the high moralism, or the dreary incantations, of those people with vision who think they know best. We laughed with him and at him, and he laughed at himself.

Even in these last years, when he was in constant pain and walked with great difficulty, he never complained, forever making fun of himself and his disability. He was sometimes tactless, clapping his hand over his mouth and rocking with laughter because he had put his foot in it, but there was no malice in him - his tactless moments may have been occasionally exasperating, but they were clownish.

His mimicry of the pompous was wonderful. He had three voices - a reedy, unreconstructed, pantomime dame voice for silly women, a low, plums-in-the-mouth one for pompous men, and a scratchy, all-purpose Ealing studios one for everyone else. The plummy voice was not unlike his own, an anomaly in a man for whom class was never a barrier.

So vivid were his thoughts, and so caught up was he in them, that sometimes he appeared not to be listening; his eyes would seem to close. Infuriated, one would accuse him of not listening and, even more infuriatingly, he would then repeat, word for word, what you had said.

We have lost the most inspiring revolutionary socialist of our times, one of our greatest journalists and, for that legion of friends, our dearest and funniest companion. For his partner Clare, their 10-year old daughter Kate, and his three sons, John, Matt and Tom, the loss is unimaginable. Entirely without pretension or self regard, no friend was ever more generous, more loyal or more fun. He is the most loved man I have ever known.

(10) Ann Whelan, The Guardian (20th July, 2004)

It's with great sadness and a feeling of enormous emptiness after learning of the sudden death of my dear friend Paul Foot, that I write. It was 24 years ago I first met Paul. At the time, I was fighting to prove the innocence of my son and his co-accused in the Bridgewater Four case.

I explained my plight, and Paul quickly became involved in my fight - at a time when it was unfashionable for a journalist to do so. He was such an enormous inspiration - he was the one person who inspired me to fight a system which was reluctant to pursue justice in any form.

When all I was feeling was hopelessness and despair, he helped me along - he changed my life. Paul's lasting legacy to me and many others was to stand up and fight for what you believe to be right. He was responsible for giving many ordinary innocent people and their families hope - and in many cases their freedom. He was my hero. I miss him already.

(11) The Guardian (20th July, 2004)

Paul Foot was a very special journalist. A rigorous, forensic, hardworking reporter, he was also a politically committed polemicist; an activist for whom party and politics were central but whose writing was always alert to the pitfalls of group-think; and a columnist who wrote with such a lack of pomposity and lightness of tone that he could turn the most unsexy subjects into sparkling prose.

For a man with an unfashionable belief in the importance of class politics, Paul Foot was also the least sectarian of men, whose wit, humour and humanity made him a permanent optimist about the state of the world. Some people found it hard to understand how a man born into such apparent privilege remained loyal to the Socialist Workers' party (and its forerunners) for some 40 years. But it is a misreading of the man to characterise him as a toff whose political convictions were some kind of eccentric add-on. Whatever it might have cost him in terms of his career, he stuck with his party because he believed his politics had to be grounded in collective action, however marginal the vehicle.

That belief in rooted politics underpinned his journalism, which has graced the pages of the Guardian for the past decade. Until he almost died with a ruptured aorta in 1999 - an event from which he never fully recovered - he spent many hours cheerfully tramping round the country, speaking at meetings, sometimes large, often small, at which he encountered many of the people whose stories then fed his writing. He was an electrifying and inspiring speaker - and like everything he did, his oratory was laced with wicked humour.

(12) Roy Greenslade, The Guardian (26th July, 2004)

Paul Foot was rightly praised following his death last week. As so many people pointed out, he was a brilliant journalist who was prepared to campaign relentlessly on behalf of unpopular and unglamorous causes. No matter how obscure or petty the injustice, once he was convinced that a wrong must be righted, he was prepared to spend endless hours - months, years even - fighting the case.

The fact that a freelance journalist of avowedly leftwing sympathies should be accorded long, laudatory obituaries in every serious paper says a great deal about Foot's unique status and the depth of appreciation for his journalism. The range, volume and sincerity of the tributes have rarely been equalled.

There are, of course, detractors. One critic emailed me a lengthy diatribe which poured scorn on virtually all of Foot's efforts, and I suspect that there are others - especially of a rightwing persuasion - who would have gone into print in similar fashion had they not obeyed that dictum about not speaking ill of the dead.

What is certain is that there are plenty of media theorists who do not have much time for the kind of journalism practised by Foot because it was unashamedly partisan and passionate. He did not try to be objective or balanced. His polemics were laced with sarcasm. He did not conceal his political agenda, usually choosing to take up cases which matched his views.

Those who would denigrate him on such grounds miss the point and, most importantly, misunderstand the lameness of those arguments on behalf of impartiality. Foot understood that claims to journalistic objectivity are utterly false. As Harry Evans, the luminary ex-editor of the Sunday Times, once pointed out: "Facts may be sacred - but which facts? The media are not a neutral looking glass: we select what we mirror". And Evans is no Trotskyist.

Foot was, in fact, part of a rich journalistic tradition of radicals going back to Paine, Wilkes, Cobbett, Carlile, Feargus O'Connor, Richard O'Brien, and more recently, George Orwell, James Cameron and Claud Cockburn. It lives on with Foot's friend and former Daily Mirror colleague John Pilger, and the Independent's Robert Fisk. All of these men were and are practitioners of what has been clumsily, but rightly, called the "journalism of attachment", writing against the prevailing political climate in order both to inform readers and to urge them to change their minds.