Paul Foot

Tribune of the People

An interview

(May 2000)

From Socialist Review, No.241, May 2000, pp.10-11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Paul Foot has been voted What the Papers Say Journalist of the Decade. He spoke to Judy Cox about what the award means to him, and about his experiences as a socialist journalist during the 1990s.

The award was especially encouraging because Paul has been so ill: ‘When I knew I had won something I couldn’t work out what it was. I spent nine months of 1999 very ill, so I knew I couldn’t have won anything for last year. Instead it was for the whole decade, the first time they have ever given such an award.’ Winning high profile awards helps his campaigns: ‘Recently I was asking about the case of Sarah Friday, the sacked rail worker from Waterloo. I rang the press office at South West Trains and the representative knew that the issue had to be taken seriously.’

But Paul thinks his best writing was inspired by workers’ struggles: ‘I never won an award during the six years I worked on Socialist Worker, yet that was the best work I ever did. It was the only time I was able to report what I saw and what I felt, and put general arguments against the way society worked. I am sure that the reports I did in the early 1970s, in concert with workers’ struggles, were the best things I have done.’

For 14 years Paul Foot wrote a weekly column in the Mirror, which had a unique relationship with its readers: ‘I was appointed to the Mirror in autumn 1979 as a reaction to Thatcher’s election. I still regard it as a complete miracle that I ever got onto the Mirror. They asked me to be an investigative journalist, but I had only just stopped working for Socialist Worker and I was a very keen member of the SWP. I didn’t want to become part of a big capitalist machine. I insisted on having a regular space under my control, and I was astonished when the paper agreed to my terms. I had to allow those I was attacking space to defend themselves, which is a rule I have always followed because the writing has more impact if you are seen to be fair. The first five years on the Mirror were brilliant, because I depended on people sending lots of stories to me.

‘Then one day in 1984 the awful figure of Robert Maxwell wrote out a cheque for £100 million and bought the whole enterprise. He called me and John Pilger up. We thought we were going to be sacked. Maxwell promised that he wouldn’t interfere with anything we wrote. I replied that was an academic question, because if he did, I wouldn’t go on. He called me a “space imperialist”; he couldn’t bear the thought of anyone controlling anything he owned. I wasn’t afraid of being sacked – I didn’t have much to lose. I put up a list of his friends in the office, which was an invitation to other journalists to attack them, though we had to be sure of the facts because they always phoned Maxwell to complain.’

Halcyon days

‘I held onto the column for seven years under Maxwell, with the backing of the editors. Maxwell died in 1991, and from November 1991 to October 1992 we had real halcyon days without any management or proprietor. For the first time we gained in circulation on the Sun. Everything worked very well, but it was in contradiction to the rules of capitalist society, so they had to smash it up. Significantly, on the day of the big march against pit closures they moved. Most unions in the print industry were wiped out in 1986, but an active NUJ chapel at the Mirror had survived, even managing to avert threatened redundancies through a sit-in. They brought David Montgomery in from Murdoch’s stable with the sole intention of smashing the unions and the whole culture we had built up. The editors were sacked and replaced with clones. We hung on for six months because they didn’t dare sack me, but it became impossible. I left by publishing a column exposing what was going on, called Look in the Mirror, which got some publicity.’

Paul was at the forefront of exposing Tory sleaze: ‘Max Hastings, who became the editor of the Evening Standard in the mid-1990s, developed a great hostility to Jeffrey Archer. I wrote a piece for him in 1997 called, Do You Want This Man As Mayor Of London? which brought together all the stories about Archer, including how I had gone to Canada to investigate his alleged theft of some suits. Journalistically I recovered quickly, but politically it was much harder to recover from the defeat at the Mirror.’

In the mid-1990s many of Paul’s investigations began to take on new momentum: ‘When I left the Mirror all the big campaigns I had been involved in had apparently failed. I used to tell people, “Don’t come to me – I always lose.” Then, one by one, the major cases were reopened and reversed These included the release of Eddie Browning, who was falsely accused of the murder of Marie Wilkes, in 1994, the quashing of Colin Wallace’s conviction in 1996 and the release of the Bridgewater Four in 1997. So when I was back at Private Eye there was a series of victories in old campaigns, and new campaigns starting. As early as 1994 we raised doubts about the Stephen Lawrence case. In three articles called Sergeants’ Mess we pointed out that Stephen’s murderers were not prosecuted because Duwayne Brooks’s identification of two suspects was rubbished by a police officer who had absolutely no justification in rubbishing him. We also covered the Aitken story and the arms to Iraq affair.

‘Recently I went to a course for investigative journalists where everyone agreed that if journalists are politically committed their integrity is compromised. I am completely at odds with everyone on that question, because I am openly committed to the SWP. I have never felt that life would be easier if I was not in the SWP – the advantages are so enormous. Firstly you have access to other people so you can pool your resources and demonstrate, and raise voices of protest On the intellectual side, people say joining an organisation stops you thinking for yourself. I have always found the exact opposite to be true – my judgements are much better when they are arrived at through discussion and debate with others. So practically and intellectually it is much better to be in a party.’

Labour damages democracy

For the last ten years Paul has been working on a book about voting and power in British history, ‘about how workers used their power to win the vote, and the history of Labour governments which have damaged the democracy which put them in office. It has meant taking many of my idols and putting them in their historical context. Figures as diverse as Tom Paine, Shelley, the Chartist leaders, the great revolutionaries of the 20th century, and Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Harry McShane all come to life in their historical perspective.’

Paul is very optimistic about the possibilities raised by the London Socialist Alliance: ‘The Scottish Socialist Party got 4.2 percent of the vote in the Ayr by-election, a very good result for a socialist to the left of Labour in a non working class town. If we get 4.2 percent in London, there is a possibility that we could get someone elected to the assembly – I am top of the list so it would probably be me. We are very lucky because what Labour is doing is so monstrous that thousands and thousands of people inside and outside the Labour Party are very annoyed. The Livingstone split in the Labour Party has opened a massive space for us. People will vote in large numbers for Ken, but then have to decide who to vote for in the assembly. Those who have any inkling to the left, who care about the underground or privatisation generally, will be looking for left wing candidates. Having an alliance of socialists is great I stood in the Stetchford by-election in Birmingham in 1977 against another left wing group. The left got a respectable 1,000 votes but they were split, which was disastrous. That is behind us now, and we are working alongside socialists from many organisations.

‘Now is definitely the time to break from Labour. Break with Labour over these elections and then take it from there. The best thing is to get active and involved in some issue or campaign, such as opposing Clause 28, and make choices based on that experience.

‘The idea that in the labour movement power corrupts is wrong – what corrupts us is impotence. Absolute impotence corrupts absolutely, and the greatest example of this is the government’s impotence over the Rover crisis. Even in 1977 when British Leyland, Rover’s predecessor, was going to the wall the government nationalised it, almost by instinct. Now, even when there are tens of thousands of people on the streets of Birmingham, angry and asking, “What shall we do?”: the answer comes, “Absolutely nothing.”

‘Tony Woodley says whatever we do it is going to be worse, so people think there is no alternative. An occupation now could set off another Upper Clyde Shipbuilders [the Glasgow occupation in 1971], and the union leaders and MPs are all afraid of it We have to build up the feeling of confidence.’

Paul has been a spokesperson for the revolutionary left for many years: ‘I am now 62. Many of my contemporaries have gone on the same dreary path to the right, but I have never had even the slightest temptation to go in that direction. That is partly because of meeting people like Tony Cliff when I was young. It was very important when things were difficult for socialists that I was in touch with people who identified the situation and worked out what to do about it.

‘Central to the idea of socialism is understanding that things will change – one day the people at the top who are now doing the bashing will be bashed by people at the bottom. I am greatly helped by the fact that I lived through the 1970s when we believed revolution was imminent. When I joined Socialist Worker in October 1972 I was confident that a revolution was coming. Events seemed to confirm it, and even right wingers said the same. If you have lived through that, it is easier to see it happening again. Everything in our history points to the fact that things will swing around, and all kinds of hopes and optimisms flourish again. Although the 1990s were depressing in some respects, not a single thing has happened to make me doubt that things will change in our direction. It will happen very unexpectedly and catch us by surprise, so we must be prepared, be bigger and win more influence inside the working class. We must plug into those areas where things are happening now, and the LSA is definitely one of those areas.’


Last updated on 27.11.2004