David Pallister obituary

David Pallister, the former Guardian reporter, who has died aged 76 following complications after a lung cancer operation, was involved in many of the paper’s most spectacular investigations. He was a member of the team that exposed the former Conservative politicians Jonathan Aitken and Neil Hamilton, both of whom unsuccessfully sued the paper for libel and he played a major part in the coverage of the wrongful convictions of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six.

It was his provocative article on the Guardian’s front page in 1995 about Aitken’s connections with the Saudis that prompted the latter’s famous press conference in which he promised that the “sword of truth” would root out “the cancer of bent and twisted journalism” supposedly represented by the work of Pallister and his colleague, David Leigh. This led to the libel action against the Guardian and Aitken’s eventual conviction for perjury in 1999.

He was born in Newcastle, towards the end of the second world war, to Matthew Clark, a civil engineer, and Joan (nee Mordue), a college registrar. His father’s peripatetic profession meant that his childhood was spent variously in Durham, Bishop Auckland, North Yorkshire, Preston and Oxfordshire. David attended Preston and Wallingford grammar schools and played rugby for the latter school’s first XV, noted in the Wallingfordian for his “tackling and strong running”.

He graduated in history at Liverpool University and married Lynn Winterburn, a fellow student, in 1967, spending time in Berlin with her; the marriage ended in divorce. Pallister worked briefly as a supply teacher at Granby Street secondary modern in Liverpool.

He joined the Thomson newspaper group’s graduate trainee scheme in 1967 and his first job in journalism was as a general reporter at the Stockport Express. During a union dispute there in 1971, which culminated in a lock-out of staff, he became involved with the founding of the Manchester Free Press, one of a number of alternative local newspapers that flourished during the 1970s.

He then joined the Manchester Evening News, initially hoping to write about music, but found himself being appointed as “nightclub correspondent” – about which he would later speak entertainingly – covering performances by Val Doonican, Bernard Manning and Gene Pitney, rather than the jazz, reggae and world music that he much preferred; he remained a regular visitor to Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in Soho, London, throughout his life.

He joined the Guardian in 1974 and was one of a group of young reporters, including Leigh, Martin Walker and Peter Chippindale, who were committed to investigating corruption, official secrecy, racist organisations, the arms trade and miscarriages of justice. By now he had changed his surname from Clark to Pallister, his middle name, to avoid confusion with a contemporary of the same name who was involved in the founding of the leftwing magazine the Leveller.

One of his earliest stories was about the circumstances surrounding the death of Blair Peach, the anti-racist campaigner who was killed on an anti-National Front demonstration in Southall in 1979. His involvement in covering the cases of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six led to him working with Gerry Conlon on his memoir, Proved Innocent (1990).

His interest in the Irish cases continued with his investigation into the deaths of IRA members in Gibraltar in the so-called Death on the Rock case in which three IRA members, Mairéad Farrell, Daniel McCann and Seán Savage were shot dead by the SAS in 1988. It was while reporting from Gibraltar that he met his second wife, the barrister Aswini Weereratne. They married in 1997 and their son, Sam, was born in 1999 and graduated this summer from Cambridge University; Pallister was a devoted father.

He was very involved in the Guardian’s coverage of Africa, specifically Nigeria, where he covered the elections in the 80s and 90s and the famine in Ethiopia. He also reported on the civil wars in Sri Lanka and Lebanon. He was a co-author, with Sarah Stewart and Ian Lepper, of South Africa Inc: The Oppenheimer Empire (1987) and, with Luke Harding and Leigh, of The Liar: The Fall of Jonathan Aitken (1997). In 1999 his coverage of the Stephen Lawrence case was shortlisted for a Commission for Racial Equality media award.

After leaving the Guardian in 2009 he worked on a number of stories for the website Exaro News. David Hencke, his colleague there and at the Guardian, described him as “an incredibly thorough journalist, not egotistical at all, and always researching things to a very high standard”. He was on the editorial advisory board of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and worked with Gavin MacFadyen at the Centre for Investigative Journalism. Politically committed from his student days onwards, he retained his principles throughout his life.

His retirement finally allowed him time to obsess over his local team, Arsenal, and walk his two dogs daily on Hampstead Heath.

He is survived by Aswini and Sam, and by his sister, Elizabeth.




, ,

Comments are closed.