Harold Evans died on September 23rd
ON THAT DAY in 1981 when he first sat at the pinnacle of British journalism, the editor’s desk at the Times, and wrote his first policy editorial, Harold Evans heard Abraham Lincoln’s voice in his ear. In 1861 the president had said he knew of nothing more powerful than the Times, “except perhaps the Mississippi”.
Now the legendary paper was his to do what he liked with. He could remake it, relaunch it, liven it up, pouring all his wiry energy into it. No one was better suited or better placed. Over a 14-year stint at the Sunday Times he had turned a staid, class-bound broadsheet into a compelling, dramatic newspaper with—a first for Britain—a glossy colour magazine. He had also run bold, eye-catching, risky campaigns. The paper had unmasked Kim Philby as a Soviet spy, braving the fury of the intelligence services. After Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972 he had sent his own team to Northern Ireland to uncover abuses by British soldiers, second-guessing the government inquiry. He challenged the oil companies that illegally supplied the apartheid regime in Rhodesia, and in 1975 published the diaries of Richard Crossman, a former Labour minister, in defiance of the Official Secrets Act. Most famously, he fought for eight years for proper compensation for children crippled in utero by the drug thalidomide—thereby exposing a heartbreaking scandal and making the manufacturers, Distillers, face justice.
Other editors hesitated to run these stories. He never did, whatever headaches they gave the lawyers. If the legal route was barred by injunctions or contempt of court, he made his cause a moral one. He ran the story over several pages under a banner headline, and week by week found a new human angle to keep it going. It became unignorable that way, and grew into a problem that had to be resolved. He would not stop until it was. Beside the text he ran photographs that were equally powerful, daring the reader to look away: Don McCullin’s unsparing portraits from war zones, or the dangling body-harness of a thalidomide child. He spent hours at the back bench, poring over pictures and layout to get that vital impact. Many thought him the most powerful editor in Britain well before the Times.
It was a pretty good outcome for a northern working-class boy, the product of a state school, who had felt ashamed for years of not speaking like the BBC. He was proud of his career as an editor, just as he was proud of his father’s rise from stoker to full-time train driver, and of the shop his mother ran from the front room. His parents had taught him to make the most of himself, so he had. Though he kept a certain working-class deference and friendliness, did not shout, was “Harry” to everyone and would quite kindly tell reporters their copy was hopeless, he had taken on almost every part of the establishment and made it quake.
But a year to the day after going to the Times his power was dust, when Rupert Murdoch fired him. Mr Murdoch had bought both the Times and the Sunday Times and had given him the Times job, but presumably the Evans style was too anti-Thatcher. At first he had liked Mr Murdoch’s Australian brashness, perhaps the best way to deal with the Luddite print unions who had kept both titles off the news-stands for a year. But he soon learned that the bonhomie could turn to malice in a minute. First the two great papers lost their independence; then the stiletto slid between his ribs.
People looked pityingly on him now. That was unbearable, so he left for the United States and a teaching job. His second wife, Tina Brown, soon joined him as editor of Vanity Fair, and he too took up the pen again, editing US News & World Report and founding Condé Nast Traveller before becoming, in 1990, president of Random House. There the copy on his desk was by Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, William Styron and Richard Nixon, as well as the businessmen, artists and poets he added to the list. The glittering Manhattan literary scene revolved around their garden brownstone, enjoyably so. America performed its reinventing magic, and in 1993 he became a citizen. Yet the country’s deepest effect on him had happened years before, when he visited on a Harkness fellowship in 1956. He was already in love with newspapers; with the smell of printer’s ink, and with Hollywood’s depiction of brave small-town newspapermen standing up to crooks. Papers in America might be slackly edited and poorly designed, but they showed a crusading desire for openness that was still rare in Britain.
This was the way he meant to go. At the age of 12 he had found out that papers lied: that the haggard, dejected soldiers he saw lying on Rhyl beach in Wales, back from Dunkirk, were far from the gung-ho, battle-ready troops portrayed in the Daily Mirror. As a young reporter, he was urged to seek the truth directly: not just to retail the lazy he-said-she-said, but to find out who was actually right. From his first days as an editor, at the Northern Echo in Darlington, he put the paper on the map with dogged campaigns. One, on inadequate detection of cervical cancer, led to national screening; another, to get a pardon for a man who had been wrongly hanged, helped end the death penalty for murder. At the Sunday Times he deployed a whole force, the Insight team, to disinter the multiple aspects of a story. His motto was, “Keep digging”.
Truth also lay in photographs—often rawly so. But it depended on words. He wrote several books attacking the obfuscation or downright deception that lay like a fog over political discourse, government reports, court decisions, the internet, and over the everyday documents by which people were duped. Truth lived in clarity: a lesson he had first learned as he strived to fit his words into the iron chase of the page-planner, and went on applying as he marked up copy, day by day, excising the unnecessary.
A newspaper editor’s job was like a searchlight. In the digital age that power had dimmed; Lincoln’s words had a poignant ring now, generally as well as personally. But he hoped he had still shed a little light into deliberately darkened places. And the remark of his great hero W.T. Stead, a campaigning Victorian editor of the Echo, seemed as valid as ever. Running a newspaper gave him “a glorious opportunity of attacking the devil”. ■
This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the headline "Attacking the devil"
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/obituary/2020/10/03/harold-evans-died-on-september-23rd
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