Still crazy after all these years

Even though their hero left for the US 15 years ago, the Harry Evans fan club still turns out in force when he's back in town. Should we be listening? Rob Brown goes along to find out

Some of us are still just wild about Harry. Every time Harold Evans flies back across the pond from his mammoth post in American publishing to pronounce upon the state of the British newspaper industry, homage is paid to him by his peers in the press. He has even been rehabilitated, Orwellian-style, in The Times, the broadsheet he edited for one turbulent year (1981-82) after it was acquired by Rupert Murdoch. Last week, in that paper's media section, Evans was hailed as a "master of photojournalism".

The adulatory article was pegged on the release of a new edition of Pictures on a Page, Evans's classic textbook on photojournalism. It was penned by assistant editor Brian MacArthur, who wrote in gushing tones: "We all have our heroes and one of mine is Harold Evans, who was an inspirational editor of The Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981. One of his passions was pictures."

No mention of his time at The Times. Nor his passion for editorial freedom, which Evans swiftly discovered simply did not exist on any title owned and controlled by the Dirty Digger.

Still, even Evans, now president and publisher of Random House, is careful not to mix it with Murdoch these days. In a lecture which he delivered at St Antony's College, Oxford, Evans did not once mention the man who cut short his career at the apex of British quality journalism.

Instead, he waxed enthusiastically about Tony Blair, who got Murdoch's Sun on his side by flying to the other side of the planet to pay court to the Australian-American magnate and has, in the cutting words of Professor James Curran, "since evolved from being a courtier to becoming a champion of media moguls".

But Harry's just wild about Tony. "Nothing less is in prospect now, with the advent of Tony Blair's government, than a press almost as free as the American," he told his audience in the Nissan Lecture Theatre, a modern pagoda-style structure sponsored by the Japanese car giant.

The chains are set to be sundered, he declared, by two hammer blows. The first was the promise to incorporate the "main provisions" of the European Convention of Human Rights into domestic law. The second was the promise to enact a Freedom of Information statute.

But, if Britain's new Labour government is so keen on ushering in American- style press freedom, why did a Freedom of Information Bill not feature in its first Queen's Speech? Evans had a prepared reply for the sceptics.

"The postponement of that Bill must remind the great campaigners that often have cried `once more unto the breach dear friend' only to fill up the wall with their English dead," he said. "I don't underrate the Yes, Minister genius of Whitehall. I am sure a silken web of plausible explanations will be stitched together to hobble the radicals. But will not the dashing Tony Blair with one bound be free? The velocity of his rhetoric on the subject is certainly impressive."

A few cynics were to be heard muttering at the buffet supper afterwards, in the grand Victorian headquarters of the Reuter Foundation, that Evans was plainly doing nothing to spoil his chances of grabbing a slice of the immense patronage which the new PM has to dispense.

Evans's effervescent wife, Tina Brown, editor of the New Yorker, has been touted as a potential British ambassador to Washington. She and her hubby certainly made a smart diplomatic move in the run-up to the general election by hosting a fund-raising dinner for New Labour in New York.

American publishing circles have been also abuzz with rumours for some time that this golden couple are eager to return to England: their 11- year-old son George was recently reported to be down for Eton. A move which, we are told by a mischievous diarist on The Sunday Telegraph, "caused shock among his former newspaper colleagues".

It didn't shock one former colleague, however, who told me: "I don't remember Harry always fulminating against Old Etonians. At one level he was, and still is, the lad from Durham who was terribly impressed by many of the old fogies he encountered at Gray's Inn Road."

Whatever his attitude towards the British Establishment, Evans certainly gives the impression that he has had his fill of the land of the free press. "Having lived in the United States for more than a decade, I am troubled by the state of the free press in America," he said. After carefully exempting his wife's "intellectual magazine" from his searing critique, he then listed the great sins of American journalism, including tabloid values which "squeeze complex stories into good guy-bad guy formats", a significant growth in "paranoid radio" which is universal and almost universally unchallenged.

"At the same time, paradoxically, various inhibitions of political correctness, a false patriotism, a suffocating sanctimony, and a culture of victimisation, restrict reporting and debate in ways unfamiliar in Britain, or France for that matter, where there is more tolerance for the wayward and the unconventional."

So, for all the size and vivacity of the US, there are proportionally fewer independent voices there than in Britain, Evans has concluded. "The American manufacturing genius for standardisation seems to have carried over into journalism in the newspapers and the network news shows," he observed. "In the supposedly sophisticated East, in the Sunbelt and the Midwest, you find the same packaging of news, the same columnists, the same preoccupation with the same celebrities ... and while energies are deployed on the titillating, real power in the bureaucracies of government and corporations often escapes proper scrutiny."

Lest we interpret this litany of complaint as the lamentations of a homesick expat - and in case he has trouble getting back through immigration at JFK, Evans swiftly adds that "America is a most stimulating place to work and the anxieties I report are shared by a host of distinguished journalists there."

But he does strongly believe that the British press has certain advantages over the American press just now. "This society is less afraid of controversy, perhaps, perhaps, a little less obsessed by money. Television is not driven by the same demons - at present. The buoyant quality press is as good as any press anywhere in writing and it has a wider view of the world. And there are no better popularisers of the complicated, no better dramatisers of the dull, than the tabloids. One thinks back to the genius of Hugh Cudlipp at The Mirror and we saw a flash of that in the election."

What worries him most about his homeland is that there is more tolerance for dissent in this country than tolerance of disclosure. This, Evans argues, is the fundamental point of divergence between the history of press freedom in Britain and in America. Approvingly, he quotes Issy Stone's famous dictum: "Facts are subversive."

Bruce Page, who led the Insight team for much of Evans's era at the Sunday Times, was in the audience at Oxford and thought this was the most telling point his old ed made. "There are a lot of broadsheet editors around today who are passionately committed to opinionated journalism. But Harry was always driven first and foremost by a burning desire to establish the facts of a story, which is a lot harder than spouting opinions."

Evans - who commanded investigative journalists who uncovered the Kim Philby spy scandal, brought about the first investigation into the tragic 1974 DC-10 air disaster, forced the publication of the Crossman diaries and focused worldwide attention on the plight of the thalidomide victims - admits to having developed a "perhaps absurdly elevated view of what an independent press ought to achieve". But he does believe that we are at "a pivotal point in the history of press freedom in Britain", concluding his Oxford address on a Blairite note: "The spirit is willing. The force is with us. Yes, the half-free press can be saved and it can, it will, it must enhance the quality of British democracy."

But what about the state of British publishing? Is it in a healthy state when, almost every other week, some American publishing giant, usually Random House , swoops on some once independent London imprint and gobbles it into its corporate maw?

"Of course, it would be healthy if we had hundreds of different imprints, but publishing is not terribly profitable for anyone," Evans replied, going on to argue that any good big publishing house which gobbles up imprints continues to treat them as if they were still independent.

"That's certainly what my 17 editors at Random House do. I'm not conscious of being part of an evil force," he said.

Interestingly, Evans appeared animated rather than annoyed when I raised this issue. Perhaps because it was about his present preoccupation - book publishing - rather than his good Times, bad Times in the British newspaper trade, which are slowly slipping from recent into ancient history.

Evans raised a chuckle in Oxford last week when he confessed that he often felt like the cowed husband in the New Yorker cartoon whose wife at the cocktail party is urgently sidemouthing him: "Tell him who you were, Henry. Tell him who you were"n

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