Stands of principle

My Friend Footy

Richard Ingrams <em>Private Eye Books, 124pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 1901784428

Somewhere in my desk at home is a faded letter from Paul Foot dating back ten years. I had interviewed Foot a few weeks earlier for a soon-to-be-defunct student magazine and, thinking that he could not have failed to have been impressed by my talents, had followed up with a note inquiring about the possibility of obtaining work experience at Private Eye. The reply was succinct: "Dear Nick, I am not, never have been and never will be an employer. I suggest you contact Ian Hislop."

As well as being the perfect knock-back for a student hack on the make, this letter demonstrates something important about Foot - his unswerving adherence to socialist principles, even in something as trivial as a request for work experience. This adherence was evident at many points throughout his career, as is duly recognised by Richard Ingrams in this lively biography. Foot resigned from Private Eye in the early 1970s to take up the editorship of Socialist Worker. Twenty years later, in 1993, he in effect wrote his own resignation letter from the Mirror when he used his column to expose the union-busting activities of the paper's new management (it was after this that Foot returned to the Eye). Two years earlier, in the immediate aftermath of Robert Maxwell's death, while Alastair Campbell and other senior Mirror editors were composing eulogies to their late proprietor, Foot had publicly dared to say what most staff thought: "We're just glad he's gone."

What is notable about these stands of principle is that they were made at a time when Foot was (and he would have loathed this expression) at the height of his power. He was sacrificing his influence as well as a substantial portion of his income when he left the Eye and then the Mirror.

You sense that even though Ingrams acknowledges how important socialism was to his friend, he doesn't want Foot's legacy to become the exclusive property of the far left. Ingrams could not, for example, bring himself to join the comrades in singing "The Internationale" at Foot's funeral last year. Instead, he celebrates the private, less politicised side of the man: the keen cricketer and golfer, the bibliophile and Oxford undergraduate who spent his spare time writing affectionate letters to his, er, public-school housemaster.

Central to Foot's legacy, naturally, is his journalism, particularly his success in overturning wrongful convictions: the Bridgewater Four, Colin Wallace, the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four. That these are just the most high-profile cases from a long list is testament to the iniquities of the British legal system of the time and to his tenacity in exposing them.

Anthony Sampson observed that Foot would have made an excellent lawyer. True, but what is often overlooked was his craft as a crime writer. It sounds almost flippant to say this, because the books deal with real murders and innocent people going to prison, but Murder at the Farm and Who Framed Colin Wallace? are fantastic thrillers, a sense of intrigue growing with indignation as you read each page.

Similarly, Foot's Private Eye pamphlet on the Lockerbie trial, possibly the greatest miscarriage of justice he uncovered, neatly recreates the twists and turns of a police investigation as well as the tension of a courtroom drama. For all his efforts, he was unable to reverse the Scottish court's verdict. Even so, on the day I sat down to read this book, the Observer published a report casting new doubts on forensic evidence used to convict the "Tripoli One". Perhaps he will yet be vindicated.

Hardened readers of the Eye will enjoy being taken back by Ingrams to the 1970s, the dirty deeds of Arnold "Two Lunches" Goodman and Jeremy Thorpe, and to Nora Ballsoff. Running through this tribute, however, is a somewhat mournful tone. It strikes loudest in noting the passing of the Private Eye gang - "the essential basis for any successful magazine". Most of its members - Peter Cook, Willie Rushton, John Wells, Auberon Waugh and Foot himself - are no longer with us. With Foot's death, Ingrams writes, "I would have to go it alone."