Sir Harold Evans, Britain’s greatest newspaper editor, has died. In 14 years on The Sunday Times, he redefined the possibilities of journalism and inspired a generation – among them Tortoise editor James Harding
Harry Evans celebrated his 90th birthday two years ago on a cloudless English summer evening at Cliveden, the Astors’ old stately home that peers over the Berkshire countryside down to the Thames. For someone like me who is easily star-struck, it was quite an evening: the photographer Don McCullin, the author Jilly Cooper, the editors Alan Rusbridger and Peter Stothard, the historians Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts, reporters and writers Elaine Potter, Ayaan Hirsi Ali … a contrary, opinionated and generally argumentative bunch, all in noisy agreement that Harry was the greatest editor of our times.
It was a night for stories. Robert Harris, the author, didn’t so much interview Harry about his working life as just press Play; Geoffrey Robertson, the barrister, returned to the battles Harry fought and won in the courts; Harry’s children told tales of their father; and, then, Harry’s wife (and, he said, his idol) Tina Brown, editor of Tatler, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, herself as good a storyteller as they come, made a toast.
His inexhaustible optimism, she confided, meant a tendency to double-book himself: a typical morning in their New York townhouse might see a Columbia journalism student waiting to talk to him about his thesis; a wealthy lady from the South come to discuss launching a literary festival in Kentucky; and the Rev Al Sharpton sitting in the garden hoping for help on his memoir. His old newsroom colleagues, who so often found themselves asking “Where’s Harry?”, wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he had gone swimming.
Harry, she admitted, was hopeless at packing. When he went to make a film about skiing in 1983, he was asked to open his carry-on suitcase at Zurich airport: it contained one ski boot, a collection of odd socks, two bananas and a copy of Richard Crossman’s diaries. And Harry’s dauntless intellectual joie de vivre, she revealed, was allied to the love of reading a good book in a long bath: the longest bath she could remember was taken before a panel he was moderating with three Proust historians; she asked him through the door when was the last time he had read Proust. “Never,” he replied. “But by the time I get out, I think I’ll have the gist of it.”
And then, as Tina reflected on this reflexively kind, generous hearted and morally serious man, she captured, in a single phrase that I’ll never forget, why we were there, why Harry was quite so admired. No one, she said, should “mistake his geniality for pliability”.
Harold Evans was restless; from his start as a 16-year-old on The Ashton-under-Lyne Reporter to his rapid rise from sub-editing to leader-writing to assistant editor at the Manchester Evening News to his first editorship at The Northern Echo at 32, then as editor, at 38, of The Sunday Times, and, 14 years later, editor of The Times, he lived a life that exemplified a romantic belief in newspapering, he met the world with enthusiasm and determination, a craftsman of layout and language, a crusading editor against everyday injustice, against complacency in the face of unfairness, against establishment lies and evasion. And he was relentless.
The stories associated with his name – the ones that were uncovered, reported and, notably, photographed by the journalists in the newsrooms he worked in over the years – raised the ambitions of investigative and campaigning journalism everywhere. He spent years pressing for a pardon for Timothy Evans, a young man hanged for a murder he did not commit; his reporters revealed a chemical leak in Teesside; his paper argued for a screening programme for cervical cancer; his journalists pursued the facts as to what really happened in Derry on Bloody Sunday; likewise Idi Amin’s murderous reign in Uganda; and the truth the government tried to hide about Kim Philby’s years spying for the Soviet Union.
But two acts of campaigning tower above the rest, not just because they raised the sights of journalism, but because they redressed the balance between the powerful and the public interest.
Thalidomide was a drug prescribed to expectant mothers suffering from severe morning sickness from the late 1950s, but in the UK hundreds of them gave birth to children with missing or deformed limbs, damaged hearts, limited or no sight. Around the world, thousands of babies suffered. In 1972, Evans, by then editor of The Sunday Times, launched a campaign that took on Distillers – the UK manufacturer of the drug and, as it happened, the newspaper’s biggest single advertiser – to increase the paltry compensation being paid to victims. In the process, he took on the law on negligence and contempt that protected Distillers both from meeting the claims of the children and their families or from proper scrutiny of what the company itself had known and done. It took more than a decade. Harry took the case through the British courts and, eventually, to the European Court of Human Rights, where he and the victims won – a victory that meant the newspaper could expose the real reasons for the Thalidomide disaster, force reasonable compensation and, in Harry’s words, provide “somewhat more freedom for the half-free British press”.
The Crossman diaries, too, required tenacity and an unwillingness to be cowed by the Establishment. Evans, in this case, was not just fearless, but cunning too: he secured the serialisation of Richard Crossman’s The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister. Much like Donald Trump’s White House has done this year, the British government in the mid-1970s sought to protect itself by preventing publication of the diary of one of its own. Again, Harry fought in the courts and won, not only publishing Crossman’s diaries but, in effect, forcing the end to the so-called 30-year rule that had prevented the publication of ministerial and official memoirs that had blanketed British politics in a layer of secrecy.
Harry thought seriously about the role and responsibility of newspapers. He prized the facts, above all, but was not impressed by on-the-one hand, on-the-other banality. “The press has a role in public life; it claims its privileges, its freedoms, for the common good. Its purpose is an ethical one,” he said. “It must, therefore, have a point of view, and not simply the making of money. There’s great value in a newspaper of record, but merely to record opposing statements may leave the reader bewildered.”
When we talked, he raged against the assaults on journalism – the untamed misinformation online, the governments imprisoning and murdering journalists, the press as a punchbag for politicians, the ranting instead of reporting in the media itself and the damage to democracy. Accuracy and evidence mattered so much, because the news mattered so much. James Madison, quoted by Harry at the start of his memoir, shouts from the page in 2020: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
He was also a journalist who could play anywhere on the pitch: he wrote, he thundered, he subbed. He had an incredible eye for talent; I won’t give you the Hall of Fame journalists he recruited, but just this tidbit from an email a couple of years ago: “Am just off to interview Malcolm Turnbull, ex PM [of Australia] I recruited to ST when he graduated.” Of course, he was exhaustingly keen on every story idea pitched; he was famously meddlesome on every element on the page; and he was infuriatingly late in getting the paper to the presses: “The editor’s indecision is final,” was an old phrase that got a lot of play around newspaper backbench.
He also delighted in newspaper design, fonts and page layouts. When Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, Harry chose to run a triptych of photographs down The Times front page – each picture was taken a split second after the other; the first of the US president looking towards the gunman, then being hit and then bundled into a car. It was a heretical remaking of The Thunderer; it became a template for breaking news on the front page after that. Nearly 30 years later, when I became Editor of The Times, Harry’s bold decision that day was still the inspiration for me to keep on trying new things – egged on by my deputy Keith Blackmore – to innovate with wraparound pictures, the Times Modern font, headlines, graphics, photography and news design online.
My claim to fame – and you’ll see here that I’m clutching at the coattails of the great man – is that Harry and I belong to the same small club: editors of The Times sacked by Rupert Murdoch. When I was “resigned”, Harry quoted baseball legend Yogi Berra: “It is deja vu all over again.” Harry had charted his falling out with Murdoch and the intrigue in the Murdoch court in his memoir Good Times, Bad Times. There had been the briefings against him to rival newspapers; I’d had the same – when it was my turn, I remember the Sunday night call just a few weeks before Christmas from a News Corp apparatchik that started the easing out: “The Telegraph‘s got a story tomorrow that says you’re leaving.” It was the first I’d heard of it.
Harry, too, had found himself in proxy battles over the budget; I’d had the same, told that if I sought the legal protections of the independent directors that I might be able to stay, but that News Corp would cut the editorial budget; it was my job or those of my colleagues on the paper. Harry too had fumed and marvelled at the legal undertakings that Murdoch had given to Parliament to respect the editorial independence of the paper and how easily they were ignored.
For years after, Harry reflected the painful experience of being ousted from The Times. The saddest day of his working life, he called it; I know the feeling. Ultimately, Harry said, Mrs Thatcher was the reason he was fired: he was critical of the new Conservative prime minister and Rupert Murdoch not only liked her but was a new proprietor with a conservative leaning who liked then, as he largely has ever since, to keep in with those in power. The Murdochs have tried in the years since to put a different gloss on it; the fact is that Harry just wasn’t one of them.
But that sacking didn’t stop Harry. He moved to the US, authored books, became Publisher of Random House books and, in 2011, became Editor-at-Large at Thomson Reuters, reuniting him with the Thomsons, the Canadian family that, under Roy Thomson, had been proprietors of The Times in the pre-Murdoch days and, under David Thomson, owned Thomson Reuters.
Harry wrote his own next chapter – or, I should say, chapters. And he helped write mine. When I was at the BBC, he introduced me to David Thomson and reconnected me with David Walmsley, the editor of The Globe and Mail in Toronto. Each in their own ways have supported and spurred on the creation of a new and different newsroom, Tortoise. The three of us sat opposite each other at Harry’s 90th, knowing that it was Harry that had made it happen. He was the godfather of Tortoise.
The morning Tortoise went live in April last year, I got an email from Harry: “We are in receipt of information leading us to believe you were at the wheel of Tortoise 1 … You will all be prosecuted to the full extent of the law if Tortoise 1 ever again registers speeds in excess of the 2 mph. for which, in good faith, we granted a permit. Stop Press Inc.” But don’t mistake that geniality for pliability: when he joined us for a ThinkIn in New York a few weeks later and the discussion was drifting, he got to his feet and launched a tirade: “How many people know about Section 230 of the Criminal Justice Act? Who knows about Section 230? Christ Almighty! What’s wrong with you? Section 230 says there is no liability for Facebook for what it publishes. The internet companies have a great con. They are immune.”
Whenever I went to New York, I would try to meet him for breakfast at his regular diner round the corner from Harry and Tina’s house on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The Sutton Cafe’s not Cliveden; it does eggs any way you like them and, when Harry would arrive with a clutch of the day’s newspapers under his arm, he looked at home. He was a great man, but never a grand one. And he was even better in person than in print, which, given what he published, is saying something. As ever, he would be in a suit and tie; he would be courteous and generous; he would be insatiably curious, about politics and the world, newsroom intrigue and modern injustices, how my wife Kate was getting on with her book. He would be hungry for gossip and, of course, stories.
His own story was itself that most romantic of newspaper tales: his grandfather couldn’t read or write; his mother ran a grocery shop, his father was an engine driver; he hadn’t counted for much at exams in school, but he was an autodidact who lit up the newsroom. He made it to Durham University thanks, most of all, to his verve, charm and force of personality.
While he was there, the Union Society chose to debate the proposition that: “The journalist is a man who has sold his soul.” How were they to know that they had among them the man who would come to stand for the soul of journalism, whose life as an editor was a standing rebuke to cynicism and corruption, whose integrity and openness, joy and optimism proved that a good man can be the best journalist of all.