Remembering Phillip Knightley, a True Investigative Journalist

Share this:

Knightley is best known for his investigative work on master spy Kim Philby, whose trust he managed to gain.

Phillip Knightly

Phillip Knightly. Credit: Youtube

Phillip Knightley, one of the best journalists of his time, who broke landmark stories with his investigative skills, died last week in London at the age of 87. Though most of his career was in Britain, Knightley had strong India connections, both personal and professional.

In his long career, Knightley was the first to cover many stories and wrote books on subjects as varied as Lawrence of Arabia and the history of espionage.

But it was a reporter that Knightley made a name for himself who, as part of the Insight Team of the Sunday Times, then edited by Demis Hamilton and then Harold Evans, had broken extraordinary stories such as the Thalidomide babies and then the tax saving methods of the Vesteys, who ran a huge business empire that paid an annual tax of only £10.

His greatest triumph was when, along with team members Bruce Page and David Leitch, he investigated the master spy Kim Philby, eventually publishing it in the book, The Spy Who Betrayed a Generation. Philby, then in Moscow, did not give an interview for the book, but it began a correspondence with Knightley, eventually resulting in Philby’s own book My Silent War, the Autobiography of a Spy, done in collaboration with Knightley.

Born in Australia, Knightley had tried his hand at all kinds of jobs, including running a restaurant and as a vacuum cleaner salesman, in between working for publications in Sydney, Fiji and India. Heading back from London on a ship, he stopped over in Bombay (now Mumbai) and soon found himself as the managing editor of a new monthly magazine, Imprint. It was an easy life and allowed him to enjoy “old imperial habits”, in the words of Ian Jack, such as playing tennis. But after two or three years, he found out that the magazine was funded by the CIA. He left right away, but not before meeting Yvonne Fernandes, then an air-hostess with Air India, who he eventually married. His life if Bombay is entertainingly recorded in his memoirs, A Hack’s Progress, providing a glimpse of life in the metropolis in the 1960s.

Back in London in 1963, he began freelancing for the pre-Murdoch Sunday Times, then emerging as a serious newspaper, and soon was taken on the staff. The team came to be known for great investigative stories, done over months and even years with a handsome budget and complete freedom.

He then turned to writing books, all of them taking a fresh look at the subject, such as The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia (co-authored with Colin Simpson), which established that he was an authorised and unauthorised agent of the British government.

Knightley continued his links with India, visiting almost every year (especially during the British winter) and meeting a set of regular friends, before moving to Goa to enjoy the sun. In the 1980s, his daughter Aliya was picked up as a model by Bombay Dyeing, become one of the best known faces of the circuit, till she upped and went back to Britain.

A chat with Knightley during his visits usually moved from the state of journalism to food to, inevitably, Philby. Though he did not give away too many details, his description of meeting the British double agent in Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union and then winning over his trust to start working on his memoirs was enthralling.

Despite all the accolades that came his way – including twice being named journalist of the year in the British Press Awards – he remained low-key and affable, always ready for a drink and a meal in London or in Bombay, and always ready to exchange notes about the world at large and of how journalism had changed.

Share this: