Sir Harold Evans: A Knight in New York

He's settled in America, but reckons the British press is light years ahead. He'd love to edit a paper again - to tell the stories that aren't being told. David Usborne meets the éminence grise of campaigning journalism
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sir Harold Evans, 76, has a few secrets to keeping fit and spry. Leaving aside having a younger wife, Tina Brown, and two teenage children, there are his regular table-tennis tournaments with a friend in the basement of his apartment building on East 57th Street in Manhattan, and his visits to a nearby pool, where he practises distance swimming. But his most potent elixir, surely, is his determination to stay busy.

The morning I arrive at his home, which has the feel of a swanky townhouse rather than an apartment, Harry is dressed in scruffy track trousers and a blue polo-neck. He beckons me into the library, where proofs of the coming issue of Parade, a Sunday supplement carried by newspapers nationwide and read by 90 million people, are spread all over the table. The uncorrected pages carry excerpts from his latest book, due out in the US next week and also reworked as a three-part television series, They Made America.

To most people in Britain, Evans will always be the newspaper genius who turned The Sunday Times into an unassailable bastion of investigative reporting during his tenure as its editor from 1967 to 1981, followed by his one-year stint as the editor of The Times until his famous falling-out with its then brand-new proprietor, Rupert Murdoch. When he was knighted in June, it was for his services to journalism.

But in America, where he has lived for 20 years, Evans has carved out a new legacy. Subsequent to his arrival here, there were periods as executive editor at Atlantic Monthly Press and then at the weekly magazine US News and World Report. From there, he went on to serve as publisher at Random House for seven years until 1997. On leaving, he found his newest vocation - as a historian.

They Made America, published in the US by Little, Brown, is a colourful compendium in words and pictures of the lives of America's most important inventors and innovators, from Edison to Ford. The book is the second in a trilogy. The first, The American Century, was a best-seller. It covered the country's political history from 1889 to the millennium. Now that the innovators book is done - and it took Evans five years - he intends to begin a third tome, covering American politics from 1789 to 1889.

None of this means, however, that Evans has turned his gaze away from daily journalism. It remains his private passion, and he admits that, given the opportunity, he would jump at the chance to edit a newspaper again. This makes sense when you hear how intensely he feels about what is right - and what is amiss - with both print and television journalism today, especially in America, but in Britain too.

There remains some nostalgia in Evans for the profession back home. He's watching, with growing fascination, the transformation of the so-called quality newspaper market as The Independent completes one year of moving to a compact format, with The Times following swiftly behind and The Guardian making its plans for a Berliner size (somewhere between a broadsheet and a compact) next year.

Disgusted by these trends, he is not. Evans has always held a particular obsession with newspaper design. As far back as 1973, he wrote extensively about the lure of creating a "quality compact" in his book Newspaper Design. Rising, he reaches for a copy from the shelves to show me photographs in the book of newspapers that, back then, were practising serious journalism on a smaller page, including El Pais of Spain and America's Newsday. He recalls how, with Murdoch's backing, he created the first compact section for The Times. Called Preview, it was dedicated to the arts and was considered a big success.

That is not to say that Evans does not see some disadvantages with the smaller format. Again, he reaches for his book and finds a print of a Times front page that he remembers with particular pride. It was given over to the shooting of Ronald Reagan, and carried an unusually large - for those days - sequence of pictures showing the President first standing outside the Washington Hilton, then crumpling as the bullet struck, before being shoved by agents into his limousine.

"A broadsheet gives you marvellous things you can do, in terms of picture display," he says, showing the Reagan front page. "I would have been loath to give up the facility to do that kind of thing." He goes on to admit: "I never imagined, to be honest, that The Times would do that. When I wrote my book, I canvassed the many advantages of what I call the compact - not the tiny tabloid, but midway between that and the broadsheet. In fact, one of my ambitions was to start a newspaper rather like El Pais, whose editor came to see me when I was editor of The Sunday Times. I objected in Newspaper Design to the use of the word 'tabloid' as meaning cheap and nasty.

"There are pluses and minuses to this. But if you are going to get a 5 or 10 per cent increase in your readership by going tabloid, any editor who is concerned about the viability of his newspaper is not going to cling to the religion of the broadsheet for very long." That we now know to be true.

In any event, all the British press, he contends, is "light years ahead" of American newspapers when it comes to design. Evans doesn't see The New York Times ever taking the compact route, and he is not sure it should. In one of only a few kind things he has to say about the state of American journalism, he complements the Grey Lady of New York (as the paper is sometimes known) on a recent three-page investigation into Saddam Hussein's nuclear programme. That kind of piece could never have been done at such length in a compact. But he admits that it was laid out "like a tombstone".

As for the newspaper's presentation in general, he says: "It's so bad. Men have been known to die trying to find their way through The New York Times continuations. They get their muscles in a twitch."

Campaigning journalism, of course, is what Evans is best remembered for. It was on his watch that The Sunday Times launched its unrelenting assault on the makers of thalidomide in 1973, which resulted in the pregnancy drug, which caused malformations in some babies, to be taken off the market.

If Evans were in charge of an American paper now, he knows the first thing he would be doing - he would have launched a campaign, and the subject would have been compensation for the troops being shot in Iraq. "Some months ago, I would have had a big investigation and probably a campaign, depending on what facts we found exactly, about what a guy gets when he comes back from Iraq without an arm, a leg or an eye. I would have taken the thalidomide standard. What is it for a lifetime of pain and suffering that they are going to get, when you have given this heroic sacrifice? I've not seen that anywhere. That's the kind of thing that turns me on to becoming a newspaper editor again - for God's sake, go and investigate this."

The thing about the thalidomide campaign, Evans says, is that he made sure his reporters got all the facts nailed down hard first. "We felt rock solid in our convictions and we were utterly prepared to have them assailed."

We return to the thalidomide case as we discuss the scandal at the CBS network that has rocked the journalistic profession in America. It centres on a segment broadcast recently by the news magazine 60 Minutes, which contended to have a memo proving that President Bush failed to fulfil his duty while in the National Guard more than 25 years ago. The memo has been called a fake and CBS is in the midst of an internal inquiry, with the network's most famous personality, Dan Rather, presenter of the Evening News as well as this 60 Minutes item, at the centre of the storm.

That CBS has allowed such a public display of self-flagellation is not a bad thing, Evans contends. He says he is not of the school that thinks newspapers should sweep mistakes under the carpet, as is often the habit in Britain. "The ethos in the UK has been to do that, because we feel that people will believe us more tomorrow, when in fact the truth is that people will believe you more if you admit to your error. I have never been in favour of presuming that credibility is enhanced by denial."

Evans pauses to reflect on the new fad of American newspapers - publishing the wisdom of ombudsmen who do not just respond in print to the specific complaints of readers (which Evans says is laudable), but who also question almost everything the newspaper and its editor are doing.

He notes that The New York Times gives prominence to a column by its newly appointed ombudsman, Daniel Ockrent.

"We have the absurd situation in which editors are making decisions and an ombudsman comes, in their own pages, questioning those decisions. It's become the habit in the American press for the ombudsman to criticise the entire bloody newspaper.

"Talk about destroying the confidence of the public. They are now being told by the ombudsman that the paper they are reading is not worth the paper it's printed on. And it's demoralising reporters. You cannot run a newspaper by a shadow government. The editor has to be visible, accountable, willing to discuss it with staff, willing to stand up in public. This retreat behind the ombudsman is totally counterproductive."

Behind the Rather débâcle, however, other issues lurk: for instance, the deep fear felt by CBS and most news organisations here that they might be seen to have a liberal, anti-Republican, bias. "The eagerness with which the press piled on Dan Rather was also reflective of this terror of being called liberal. I don't know where this phantom got its potency from." But it is something that has infected the whole profession, Evans suggests.

He recalls an occasion four years ago, in the last US presidential election, when Tina Brown was the editor of the now defunct Talk magazine. She had a solid story on how Bush failed to disclose some large stakes he held in companies. The magazine first tried to interest CNN in the story. "Tom Johnson at CNN said, 'I wouldn't dream of touching that story about George Bush during an election year.' Nobody would touch it." It was three years later when The Boston Globe finally returned to the issue.

What amazed Evans about the CBS controversy was his discovery that CBS actually showed the offending memo to officials at the White House before the segment was broadcast. "So - curious, curious - within seconds of the CBS programme going on the air, the very document is being denounced in a way that would have been impossible unless it had been leaked in advance and set up," he notes.

He adds that the current White House "is utterly brilliant and utterly ruthless about dealing with anything that they think might stop George Bush getting re-elected." It's a posture that intimidates White House reporters, who are fearful of reprisals in the form of denial of access to senior officials.

The atmosphere, with Bush in control, means that many reporters are likely to be reluctant "to go for the kill. I suspect that many people are worried about their jobs, and they don't want to offend the corporate ownership."

Those owners, meanwhile, have become concerned only with profits, which casts another kind of chill. Evans castigates the owners of The Philadelphia Enquirer, who recently said they were achieving 20 per cent in revenue growth, but said that their "vision for the future was to make 23 per cent. What about the vision of the future being better journalism?"

The current climate can also sap the courage of the biggest news institutions. Evans recalls his horror when he caught CNN preparing to air remarks by Jo Biden, the veteran Delaware Senator and an outspoken critic of George Bush. Before Biden came on air, a health warning appeared saying that the Senator's opinions would in no way reflect those of CNN. "I nearly fell out of my seat. I mean, are you going to issue that health warning before all political statements?" Evans adds that this was an "example of how things are at CNN, which has fallen on very poor times in many ways".

You might expect Evans to launch instantly into a critique of the Fox News Channel, which is routinely lashed elsewhere for favouring the Republicans, and which is owned by Murdoch. Fox nowadays routinely beats CNN in the domestic audience stakes, and did better than the traditional networks in winning viewers during the Republican Convention.

But Evans demurs, even going so far as to applaud Fox for being far more vigorous than CNN, and certainly better produced. Nor does he take the opportunity to berate Murdoch. He learnt long ago not to rake over old arguments dating back to his departure from The Times. "I won't go into that, because I don't want to take the route of what might be seen as sour grapes. But other people can do so. I wrote all about it in my book, Good Times, Bad Times. I stand by everything I say in that. Anybody who wants to know what I think can read that."

But, while he is willing to give Fox the edge over CNN, at least in its production skills, Evans is tired of all the 24-hour cable news organisations, which were all born of the original, which was Ted Turner's CNN (now part of Time Warner). "We have this magnificent vehicle invented by Ted Turner. But having got the capacity to bring you 24 hours of news in pictures, they don't. Recently, there was this great weekend of contrasting speeches by Bush and [the Democratic presidential candidate John] Kerry. But what we got was a background picture of Kerry reaching for a glass of water and Bush striding down some steps, and maybe 30 seconds of what they actually said. But they don't give you more than that, so you're just left gasping for air."

And there's much else that makes Evans weary of American journalism. For instance, he bemoans the predictability of the country's political commentators, fondly remembering British writers - he cites the late Hugo Young several times - for being willing to vary their colours, depending on the issues. "It is the most depressing thing in the world that you venture out on this sea of text knowing exactly what you are going to get. There is a slot for red this and a slot for the blue the other, and never the twain shall meet, and ultimately that's the death of journalism."

And he curses journalism professors for teaching American reporters the gospel of "on the one hand and on the other hand" that is practised so much in American newspaper reporting. "The object in journalism is reverence for truth, and the reverence for truth is not necessarily realised by saying, 'On the one hand capital punishment is a good thing, on the other hand, it's kind of painful,' or, 'Jesus Christ deserved to be crucified; on the other hand he did some good deeds.' Journalism cannot be fulfilled by the 'either/or, she said/he said' approach."

Evans is just getting started on another peeve - the proliferation in both the US and British press of unnamed sources in news articles - when we are interrupted.

This is a conversation that could be pursued for hours, but someone has arrived with a DVD of the proposed trailer that will be used to promote the television programme of his book, and Evans has to get back to his real job as a historian. He may have time for table tennis later, but that's doubtful today.

LIFE AND TIMES: PIONEER IN JOURNALISM

NORTH STAR

Born in Manchester in 1928, Harold Evans cut his teeth in journalism as a 16-year-old reporter in Ashton-under-Lyne. After a spell in the RAF and a degree at Durham University, he returned to newspapers, working at the Manchester Evening News and then at the Northern Echo, where he made his name as a campaigning editor.

GOOD TIMES

Evans moved to The Sunday Times in 1966 and became editor the following year. During the next 14 years he revolutionised British journalism, making The Sunday Times internationally famous for its crusading investigations.

THALIDOMIDE

The most famous campaign under Evans' editorship was exposing a scandal that had left hundreds of British children with birth defects, with no compensation. Evans fought a long legal battle with Distillers, which manufactured Thalidomide; winning at the European Court of Human Rights.

SCANDAL

Under Evans, The Sunday Times uncovered Kim Philby's role as a Soviet spy and published the controversial diaries of the former Labour minister Richard Crossman.

BAD TIMES

Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of Times Newspapers in 1981 led to Evans being made editor of The Times. He lasted only a year, leaving to become a director of Goldcrest Films and Television.

NEW YORK

Evans moved to America in 1984, teaching at Duke University and becoming editor-in-chief of the Atlantic Monthly Press. He was appointed president and publisher of Random House in 1990. Between 1997 and 2000 he was the editorial director and vice-chairman of US News and World Report, the New York Daily News and The Atlantic Monthly.

WRITING

He continues to indulge his passions for chess and writing. He was knighted for services to journalism in 2004.

Comments