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Observer investigative journalist and author Eric Clark dies aged 81

Journalist and author Eric Clark, who set up an investigative unit at The Observer and turned down an offer to write the authorised biography of Enoch Powell, has died aged 81.

Clark began his career was as a newspaperman, but later concentrated on book-writing, both fiction and fact. His first journalism job was on a local weekly paper before moving to the Birmingham Post.

He was always a fastidious dresser, better turned out than most reporters of that era: well-cut suits, polished shoes, smart shirt and tie. He looked every inch the young executive rather than – as many contemporaries sought to be – a foot-in-the-door scribbler.

He came to Fleet Street first at the Guardian, via staff work on the Daily Mail, as that paper’s correspondent in Shropshire and the Welsh borders and then representing the Mail in Dublin.

He loved his year in the Irish capital and retained his enthusiasm for Ireland, writing stories (before the Troubles) about the crazy days of cross-border smuggling.

After the Guardian, where he made his name as an investigative reporter with such pieces as an authoritative backgrounder to the Great Train Robbery, he was taken on by The Observer.

The paper at that time was trying to strengthen news coverage to augment its heavyweight reputation for well-informed comment.

Clark’s standing was enhanced by a hard-hitting, deeply-researched series on mafia infiltration of London’s burgeoning gaming industry.

When the Troubles began in Ireland, he reported on their impact on London for The Observer. When he arranged to interview IRA sleepers, he was he was driven around the streets blindfolded for an hour to confuse him.

However, when he and his minders reached their destination and his mask was removed, Clark recognised familiar buildings in Farringdon, central London.

After a boozy interview in the back room of a pub with the IRA men, his handlers emerged to find that their vehicle had been locked for the night in the pub car park.

Clark set up an investigative unit at The Observer in the 1970s, charged with the near-impossible task of matching the achievements of the Sunday Times Insight team.

We (I was one of his small group) strove manfully and had some success, but, in addition to a lack of resources, we faced in-house difficulties.

While Harry Evans, editor of the Sunday Times, was a gung-ho supporter of investigative journalism, David Astor, proprietor/editor of The Observer, was often too soft-hearted to pursue stories to their end.

When Clark’s team unmasked a fraudulent businesswoman, the woman’s son appeared in the offices on the Friday before intended publication.

His mother, the son told Astor, had a weak heart and publication of the story might kill her. Without further ado – no doctor’s certificate – Astor pulled the story.

The team learned that the then BBC director general, Hugh Carlton Greene, was intending to resign – including the actual date of his planned departure.

When the story that he was to quit was run (minus the date, to protect the source), Greene was furious and phoned Astor, a fellow grandee. Astor, who had left the office before the decision to publish was taken, tore a strip off Clark.

Typically he shouldered the blame, thus shielding his reporter, Peter Wilby, later editor of both the Independent on Sunday and the New Statesman.

Clark’s heart went out of newspaper employment. After a spell writing for The Observer magazine, he and his wife – emboldened by the success of her (televised) book, Nuns – decided to strike out as freelance writers.

While journalism always remained part of his portfolio, Clark concentrated on book-writing.

First came thrillers, including Black Gambit and The Sleeper – work that drew comparisons with Len Deighton and John le Carre – and later influential factual books.

The Want Makers concerned the advertising industry, and The Real Toy Story castigated the practices of Chinese toy manufacturers.

In 1974 Clark – greatly to his surprise as a veteran of liberal newspapers – was approached to write an authorised life of Enoch Powell. At a getting-to-know-you meeting, Powell pronounced himself shocked that he was married to a Jew and could scarcely get the word “Jewish” out of his mouth.

“Despite this, the offer stood. The book was intended – so Clark discovered later – to promote Powell as Britain’s leader, should civil order, as then seemed possible, break down. Clark naturally turned down the commission.

He was always supportive of younger journalists – helping one who faced potential dismissal from The Observer – and writers, being a member for thirty years of the Society of Authors, latterly on the management committee, and a fellow of English PEN.

Clark died on 22 October this year. He had three children – Rachael, Charlotte and Daniel – and four grand-daughters: Madeleine, Cecilia, Tabitha and Iris.

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