One of the most famous journalists in the world claims he has been libelled by a humble hack. Ann Treneman says the great man should lighten up
TO SAY that Harry Evans is highly respected among British hacks is not true. Nor would it be accurate to say that the man who edited the Sunday Times in the Seventies is seen as merely brilliant. He is, quite simply, an icon. And the great thing about being an icon is that your status is pretty secure.

Never mind that, in New York, the great man has to live in the shadow of his magazine editor whizz of a wife.

In London, he can escape from all that Mr Tina Brown stuff. When he arrives here in newspaper offices (as icons sometimes do) editors have been known to bow. "There goes the best editor this paper never had," they say as he sweeps out.

The thing about being an icon, though, is that you must act like one. Harry Evans used to be good at this. Notice the use of the past tense, for it seems that the great defender of liberal causes has lost the script.

He has become that saddest of things: a journalist who thinks he has been libelled and who thinks that the answer to criticism is to gag. Is this any way for a defender of free speech to behave?

Even worse, the man who has driven Harry to this is hardly a giant on the international stage.

He is freelance writer Toby Young, known in Britain for founding the Modern Review with Julie Burchill and, when it all went sour, for hating her publicly. But he barely registered on the Manhattan media circuit. Until now.

Last November he wrote a relatively small article in the relatively small circulation Spectator, entitled "Harry in a Spin".

In it he claimed that Harry had been pushed out of his New York job as head of Random House publishing and speculated as to whether Queen Tina might lose her crown as well. She might have made a success out of Vanity Fair, but she had not repeated her magic on the august New Yorker.

After five years the magazine was still not in profit and the rumour mill was working overtime. None of this makes for pleasant reading - and it may be untrue - but, as these things go, it's hardly even spiteful.

Weeks went by and things continued as they should in the court of Harry and Tina. Then, in January, a small gossip item appeared in a New York paper saying that Toby Young was writing a satirical play - called Liberte, Egalite, Publicite - set in New York's medialand. Its central characters were not wholly unrelated to Harry and Tina.

The next day the Spectator received a letter demanding a retraction of the November article. "Toby Young seems to be making a cottage industry out of denigrating me," wrote Evans.

"I have ignored this campaign to date, but the article you publish is such an escalation, so malicious, so untrue, that I cannot let it go."

Not surprisingly, all of New York was suddenly interested in reading this terrible article. The Spectator and Mr Young were the talk of the town.

But Mr Evans doesn't stop there. When the Spectator refused to act, his lawyers wrote directly to Toby Young, demanding that he apologise, pay legal fees and "desist forthwith from further defaming, denigrating and ridiculing Mr Evans and his wife". Was Harry trying to stop the play?

He says not. But he does call Toby Young a "journalistic stalker".

"He is obsessed with me and my wife. I hope this doesn't sound too pompous but I care about standards in journalism."

This is sick-bag stuff. What makes it worse is that the words "standards in journalism" are something that Harry did know a huge amount about. He is the man, after all, who fought the Thalidomide campaign and countless others. Now, it seems, he is his own campaign.

I can't imagine that he expected Toby Young to apologise, and he certainly hasn't. "Harry has started to believe his own publicity. He acts like a minor member of the Royal Family. I am not one of his New York sycophants. I am not afraid to criticise him."

And, perhaps most wounding of all: "Harry and Tina are behaving like a couple of Scientologists."

Two things occur. One is that Harry has become truly American and lost his sense of humour. He definitely used to have one.

In the (now infamous) Spectator article, Toby Young notes that Harry Evans has said that he often feels like the husband in the New Yorker cartoon whose wife whispers to him at a cocktail party: "Tell him who you were, Henry. Tell him who you were."

It's a good joke to tell against yourself, but perhaps Harry no longer can see the point of such things.

The other thing to note is that Harry has simply not done his homework. After all, Toby Young does his best fighting in print. Earlier this year, Julie Burchill, in her autobiography, accused him of being "bald, bilious and paying for sex".

He responded in kind in a review: "Reading this gibberish, I am reminded of the late- period Elvis Presley. Just as Elvis was washed up at 40, Julie is burnt out at 38.

"Like Elvis in his rhinestone-encrusted, splitting-at-the-seams, white suit phase, she has become a grotesque parody of her former self, overweight and out of touch. Elvis was found dead of a drug overdose on his bathroom floor at the age of 42. I wonder if Julie will last that long."

Give it up, Harry! You simply aren't up to this level of vitriol. And if you won't take my word for it, listen to yourself earlier this week.

"Toby Young has played this one brilliantly," you told a journalist. "He has generated a lot of publicity for himself and his play."

True but not entirely accurate: for it was Harry Evans - and not Toby Young - who generated all that publicity. It's the kind of thing an icon should know.