'They trust me and I trust them': How police contacts took Daily Mail's Peter Burden, who has died aged 77, to the top

For more than a quarter of a century in Fleet Street, Peter Burden, who died this month aged 77, was considered by many journalists, editors and police officers to have been the doyen of crime reporters. In days when contacts with detectives, prosecutors and Customs were something to be admired and envied, Peter had more than anyone – many of them at the very top.

Those peerless contacts developed over many years provided the Daily Mail with hundreds of genuine scoops – they once provided him with a week of splashes, all on different subjects.

"Trust is the key," he would say. "They trust me and I trust them."

Sometimes, senior officers would discuss the course of an investigation with Peter, seeking his advice. They knew he would not betray their confidence, he knew he would have the scoop when the time was right.

Business was often done over bottles of chilled Sancerre and smoked salmon in El Vinos on New Bridge Street or at Manzi’s, the fish restaurant in Leicester Square where in the tradition of Fleet Street’s finest much refreshment was taken.

It was not unusual for Peter to return to his desk on the third floor of Northcliffe House with a number of paper napkins scrawled with his hastily-taken notes which would then be put together like a jigsaw to produce another story.

One very senior prosecutor would rendezvous with Peter in the bar on Croydon railway station while both men journeyed home to discuss especially sensitive stories over large gin and tonics.

It was what Peter termed a "blind association" that could always be brushed off as a chance meeting. There was no chance to it, and it produced many great stories that Peter was rightly proud of.

Metropolitan Police commissioners were among those who called Peter a "friend", their families dining with one another while other senior officers were always pleased to be in his company, often at Scribes, Fleet Street’s popular afternoon watering hole.

In the type of meeting unthinkable to today’s post-Leveson world, one very important commander with a taste for fine wines was always given the wine list to order for the table. It was often expensive but led to many an exclusive, including a memorable splash on the Harrods bombing.

Yet it was one exclusive that did not appear that in later life Peter prized above most others.

Through his contacts and research on IRA bombing campaigns, he discovered that police knew the identity of the Brighton Bomber, Patrick McGee, the bomb maker responsible for planting the Grand Hotel device targeting Margaret Thatcher during the Conservative Party conference in October 1984.

There had been much speculation about both the bomber’s identity and just how close anti-terror officers were to him.

On the night Peter was due to break his world exclusive story that McGee had planted the Brighton bomb, Sir David English, the editor received a call from Scotland Yard asking that it was not printed.

Detectives said they knew McGee was on his way back to England having fled to Germany. The story was held out and police were waiting for McGee on his return to the UK and he was arrested. Peter then ran his story.

Born in November 1937, Peter attended Hove College before joining the Sussex Express in Lewes as a 16 year-old cub reporter. It was a career he had always craved, wishing to follow in his father’s footsteps.

He recalled how his first job was reporting on the Queen’s Coronation street parties in his area and how he was given a bicycle to travel around the local villages.

As his stock rose, he was upgraded first to a company BSA motorbike and then, when he was given an even bigger area of Sussex to cover, a Vespa scooter.

At the age of 18 he was called up but the army didn’t know what to do with an aspiring journalist and he ended up in the Royal Army Pay Corps at Aldershot, rapidly rising through the ranks to finish his national service as a Sergeant.

On being demobbed, Peter joined first the South Western Star local newspaper in Battersea and then the South London Press.  He also freelanced, sending over regular stories to national newspapers including the Daily Sketch who were so impressed with his work that editor Howard French offered him his first job as a Fleet Street reporter at the age of 24.

While at the Daily Sketch mainly dealing with crime stories, Peter also worked part time Saturday shifts at The People. 

On days off he would enter car rallies with Laurie Manifold, associate editor at The People and it was through a mutual love of rallying that Peter met his wife Jennifer, Laurie’s daughter.

Needing a navigator and co-driver he teamed up with Jennifer and their partnership was to last a life-time with son Miles, daughter Fiona and four grandchildren. 

When in 1971 the Daily Sketch was merged with the re-launched “compact” Daily Mail, the then sketch editor David English offered Peter the role of crime reporter on the new newspaper.

Having thought that he would not have a job after the merger, Peter had accepted a job offer on an Australian newspaper and put their house in South London up for sale. Those plans were put permanently on hold.

Peter had been instrumental as “Father of the Chapel” of the National Union of Journalists, negotiating acceptable redundancy packages for the many journalists who would be losing their jobs.

A winner of many awards, Peter served as chairman and subsequently president of the Crime Reporters’ Association, representing members of the national press, news agencies, TV?and radio. He was also a member of the Board of Crime Stoppers at Scotland Yard.

Always immaculately dressed, calm and softly spoken, he was described by one fellow crime reporter as "a gentleman in journalism and life".

He continued: "Many police officers loved him and he spent so much time in the company of the top brass that junior policemen who did not know him thought he was in 'the job' himself."

In 1996 he was awarded an OBE?in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to?crime journalism and?crime prevention. He was also asked by the Foreign Office to write an HMSO?publication detailing the work of Government law enforcement departments home and abroad involved in the worldwide fight against the drugs trade.

On his retirement, Peter wrote several books on his life and times reporting crime.  His "How I?Changed Fleet Street" and the "The Burglary Business and You" are used extensively by college and university students .

Among the topics explored is his valuable work in shaping new relationships between the media and the Police. These include his key role in setting up voluntary media news blackouts during kidnaps which still helps to save lives today. He also helped establish the nationwide Crimestoppers scheme, which enables members of the public to give information – sometimes anonymously – to solve crimes and bring wanted crooks to justice.

There will be a private family funeral and Peter will be buried alongside Jennifer in a joint grave.

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