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

News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Travel
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Sport
footballManchester City 1 Roma 1: Result leaves Premier League champions in danger of not progressing
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
News
i100
Life and Style
Magic roundabouts: the gyratory system that has excited enthusiasts in Swindon
motoringJust who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
booksWell it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

Financial Controller

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is a busy and varied role w...

Senior Business Development Manager

£60-70k fixed, double OTE uncapped: Sphere Digital Recruitment: The Senior Bus...

Ad Operations Executive

30,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: My client is a global name within the ente...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?