History makers: Laurie Manifold

As the phone-hacking trial rumbles on, we recall the exploits of a journalist not averse to employing the dark arts of deception and subterfuge in pursuit of a story.

When Laurie Manifold, born in 1928, was making his way as a journalist during the 1950s, the People’s Duncan Webb, a man dubbed ‘the greatest crime reporter of our time’, was setting the standard for daring, down and dirty investigative journalism. Most famously, in 1950, he had exposed the Maltese Messina brothers as the people behind prostitution rackets in Soho – or as his exposé put it, ‘four debased men with an empire of vice which is a disgrace to London’. Webb, it seemed, would do everything he could to get the big scoop, or so his legend made it appear. As Time magazine profile put it in 1955, Webb, then just 37, had been ‘slugged, kicked, lunged at with knives, shot at, knuckledusted and was once the target of a speeding automobile that raced on to the side-walk of a narrow Soho street and tried to smash him against a building’.

Given Webb’s Fleet Street reputation, not to mention that of the People, for sometimes sensationalist, often reader-pulling investigations, it was little surprise that Manifold, a man with a keen eye for a story and more importantly a willingness to pursue it, got himself a job at the People in the mid-1950s, interrupted by a brief sojourn at the Daily Sketch, before returned to the People as news editor in 1958. (Webb himself died aged 41 the following year.)

Laurie Manifold

It was at the People, during the 1960s and 1970s, that Manifold, through his determined, organised and sometimes law-breaking brand of journalism, made his mark. Indeed, ex-Sun editor and current Guardian columnist, Roy Greenslade, called Manifold ‘the father of modern popular paper investigative journalism’. Indeed, be it the use of phone tapping, mail intervention, wiring up for interviews and setting up hidden tape recorders, Manifold schooled many of the investigative journalists who were to go on to make an impact at other newspapers, from Trevor Kempson and Mike Gabber to, most famously, Mazher Mahmood, better known as the now-defunct News of the World’s ‘fake sheikh’.

There was a reason for all the quasi-espionage tactics: Manifold’s absolute commitment to finding evidence to back up a story that powerful others did not want to be told. Another of Manifold’s one-time reporters recalls that commitment: ‘[As] a reporter on the Sunday People, I spent weeks trying to stand up a tip that a children’s charity official was a paedophile. The allegation came from a concerned colleague who pointed me to others who helped to build a very worrying picture. Eventually I had enough to put forward a memo to the investigations editor, Laurie Manifold. “It’s 80 per cent there”, he said. “Trouble is, the missing 20 per cent is the evidence. Drop it.”’ That chastened reporter is now more famous as ex-PM Tony Blair’s media Machiavelli, Alastair Campbell.

Manifold was the brains behind several still-significant stories. In 1964, he oversaw the exposure of a now infamous football bribery scandal involving, among others, two England players, Peter Swan and Tony Kay. A year in the making, this story remains the most significant exposure of corruption in British football. In 1975, Manifold directed an investigation into cruelty at a vivisection laboratory. His reporter, Mary Beith, managed to smuggle a camera (in her bra, according to Manifold) into the lab, where she then proceeded to take photos the dogs hooked up to cigarette inhalers. It became known as the ‘smoking beagles’ image.

The biggest story of the lot involved the exposure of high-level Scotland Yard corruption. In 1972, the People revealed that the head of the Flying Squad, Commander Kenneth Drury, had been on holiday with the pornographer James Humphries who had paid for the trip. As Manifold recalled in 1988: ‘We hired an actor who looked like Commander Drury, we found the travel firm who had arranged the holiday, and we sent this chap in saying he was Commander Drury asking for a copy of the account for his tax purposes. The travel agency coughed up a complete copy which showed that the holiday of the Flying Squad’s chief had been paid for by Britain’s top pornographer. Result:  big story, big investigations, 13 police officers jailed.’ The methods – impersonating a police officer – were certainly illegal, but the story was worth it. As a result, the Flying Squad began to unravel, with corrupt officers implicated at every level. Alongside the custodial sentences totalling 96 years dished out to the convicted cops, 90 others were either suspended or pushed into early retirement. 

Manifold’s journalistic achievements, not to mention his legacy, are worth remembering today. With investigative journalism in rather dire straits - besieged on one side by the post-Leveson emphasis on so-called ethical practices and on the other by an unwillingness to invest time, money and commitment in scooping big stories - Manifold exemplifies a time when press freedom no longer seemed such a dirty word. Yes, the means might have skirted and sometimes broken the law, but what really mattered was the end: the wrestling of truth from those who’d prefer it to remain hidden.

Tim Black is deputy editor of spiked.


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