Some 8 months after his death, family, friends, admires and others gathered together in the Lyric Theatre in London on Monday 8 November to celebrate the life of Michael Foot. The NUJ was represented by vice president Donnacha DeLong and I – Michael had been a union member since 1937 and was made a member of honour in 1984. I had met Michael on a number of occasions, mainly on visits to watch Plymouth Argyle and his love for the team, now languishing at the wrong end of League One, was strongly featured during the evening of celebration. My fondest memory was travelling with him and a couple of dozen family and friends to watch Plymouth win promotion to the old second division in the third division play off at Wembley in May 1996. That particular triumph was not mentioned that evening, but his passions for journalism, literature, poetry, politics and life in general were all highlighted.
The cast for the evening was varied and supported by the Tredegar brass band and the London Welsh Chorale with Jo Brand, the stand-up comic providing the links. Gordon Brown read from Blake, dedicating the work to Aung Sung Suu Kyi and those campaigning for democracy in Burma. He was followed by Neil Kinnock, Cherie Blair, Rodney Bickerstaffe and Helena Kennedy QC, a friend and fellow Hampstead resident. Later Geoffrey Goodman recalled Michael’s days as editor of the London Evening Standard and other tributes included contributions from Roy Hattersley and David Steele.
The man himself made a couple of appearances on screen, including a clip of him speaking in defence of press freedom in 1942, when the wartime coalition government threatened to close down the Daily Mirror. But his greatest service to journalism mentioned that evening, was perhaps, when he took on Rupert Murdoch and won. In July 1995 the Sunday Times was forced into a humiliating climb-down at the High Court over its allegations that Michael was considered an “agent of influence” by the KGB. Michael had sued the paper and its proprietor Rupert Murdoch over a three-page article which – under the headline “KGB: Michael Foot was our agent” – detailed how the KGB had courted Labour politicians and trade union officials during the Sixties. The story alleged that Michael Foot had operated under the codename “Boot” and that the KGB made cash payments to the left-wing journal Tribune while he was editor. Part of the substantial damages he won from the case then went to finance the magazine, which was home for some time in the building now occupied by the NUJ in Gray’s Inn Road!
The evening was rounded off in ‘Old Labour’ style with all singing, the Red Flag and Jerusalem, but not before Harriet Harman read a tribute from Ed Miliband, who had started his paternity leave that day and gave his apologies for not being present.