Was there ever a golden age of journalism? Readers of Tintin, Evelyn Waugh and latterly Nick Davies' Flat Earth News like to think so, but basic news gathering has probably never been easier. One of Harold Evans' first jobs for the Ashton-under-Lyne Weekly Reporter was meeting the buses coming in from surrounding villages with envelopes marked "news urgent", containing copy from correspondents who literally walked the hills in search of information. It's enough to make a desk-bound hack weep into his press release.
That was 65 years ago, when Evans was the 16-year-old son of a train driver, desperate for a first break. His inspiration to enter the world of newspapers came during a summer holiday to Rhyl beach in north Wales, where injured survivors from Dunkirk had been posted to recuperate. Talking to them and seeing their despondency, Evans was horrified to read in the papers the next day that Dunkirk had been a triumph, and that the men were champing to get back to the front. It was then that he learnt the double-edged power of newspapers.
For anyone battering at the gates of journalism now it will be heartening to learn that even a titan such as Evans, who rose to edit The Sunday Times during its thalidomide-exposing heyday, was once an outsider. He wrote to dozens of local newspapers in Greater Manchester begging for a job, ending up cycling 14 miles every morning to work. On his first day, he was handed some papers and told, "Asparagus – four copies and quick about 'em laddie." It wasn't until he had typed the headline "asparagus 1" that a helpful colleague told him to write each scrap of news up "as paragraphs".
Evans' ascent to Fleet Street coincides with key periods in the evolution of newspapers, but it's also a telling tale of personal social mobility. Born one of six in a Manchester suburb, he failed the 11-plus but battled his way into Durham University, overcoming the Catch-22 situation for state-school entrants of not knowing Latin and therefore not being eligible for a grant.
Although no class warrior, one of Evans' greatest scoops on The Sunday Times would later blow apart the old-boy infrastructure of MI6, exposing how Kim Philby had charmed his way to become head of the agency's anti-Russian operations while being a Russian agent himself. Nobody in the agency could conceive that a product of public school and Cambridge was capable of such betrayal. Evans tells how clues were pieced together until the story was stood up using that age-old journalistic tool, the liquid lunch.
The journalist's other friend, the whistle-blower, is roundly defended in No Expenses Spared, the story of how The Daily Telegraph exposed the parliamentary expenses scandal. Breathlessly told by two of the reporters involved, it's a gripping read. One of the 10-man team's greatest fears as they worked 14-hour days wading through 1.5 million documents was a police raid, as the disc central to the report had been illegally secreted out of Westminster. Another was that news of their scoop would get out before they had published: "Sitting down that evening to discuss how to prevent news of the investigation leaking from the building, [they] decided on a brilliantly simple strategy: they would lie through their teeth." So colleagues and even husbands and wives were told that they were working on a training exercise. Ironic that sometimes to expose the truth, lies have to be told.Reuse content