Hugh Corrie: The lawyer journalists loved

Hugh Corrie, who has died at the age of 82, was one of Fleet Street’s great legal managers. He had that rare gift shared only by the very best. He knew how to get dynamite into the paper instead of producing endless opaque reasons for keeping it out. That is why journalists loved him.

Corrie’s achievements are all the more remarkable because when he took over leadership of the legal team at the Mirror Group in the mid-1970s, legally fraught stories were not wanted. This was largely because Hugh Cudlipp had such a torrid time during the Cassandra v Liberace libel action, he vowed nobody should have to face the ordeal of a High Court witness box. Very humane and thoughtful, but it didn’t make for the most exciting journalism.

The arrival of Mike Molloy as editor of the Daily Mirror in 1975 changed all that. Molloy was all for exciting stories and Corrie, newly appointed legal chief, rose to the challenge. The exposure of Ernie Marples and his tax evasion, Joe Haines’s groundbreaking revelations from inside Harold Wilson’s Number 10, Chris Hutchins on the seamy truth of Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, which became a legal landmark, and the exposure of Don Revie’s match-fixing activities were as much a triumph for the Mirror legal department under Corrie as they were for the Mirror editorial.

The Paul Foot column could not have run in any other paper. Not just because Foot’s unique investigative talent fitted the Mirror so well, but because few lawyers could have managed the weekly pressure of dealing with such a high-powered and relentless operator. The climax of their partnership – both were public schoolboys and both shared a history of high placed colonial service fathers, Hugh’s a judge in Palestine, Paul’s a governor general – was when Foot accused a man of murder, much to the horror of chairman Tony Miles. Corrie remained unfazed. He was right, and a conviction followed.

Corrie adored journalists. He loved and shared their mischief and penchant for trouble-making. The booming laugh, the mock disgust at our allegations against the great and the good, both overlaid with a profound sense of what was right and just and a deep understanding of the law and how we could live with it and use it aggressively to our advantage.

He hated Maxwell instinctively and couldn’t help showing his contempt. The dislike was reciprocated and once, after a legal conference when Corrie’s advice to the publisher had been confirmed as correct by counsel – something to do with a competition Hugh said was illegal – he couldn’t resist pointing this out. Maxwell threw him out of the car and made him walk back to the office. Hugh’s early retirement suited them both. His farewell dinner produced the greatest compliment Paul Foot could pay. He wore black tie.

Corrie’s rapport with journalists earned him their trust, respect and deep affection. He also changed the safety first, belt and braces way in which lawyers tended to operate until the Mirror’s string of high-wire exposures. He nurtured a new generation of fine, high-quality newspaper lawyers who bear witness today to his judgement and ability. Tom Crone at News International, Charles Collier-Wright at Trinity Mirror, Arthur Wynn Davies at the Telegraph, all learnt their trade under Hugh Corrie.

I still hear Corrie’s bellow echoing down the years and across the ghost of the Mirror’s Holborn newsroom: “For God’s sake, Stott, you can’t say THAT,” followed by his braying laugh. It was Corrie’s supreme talent that he somehow found a way in which I could.

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