Harold Evans: 'All I tried to do was shed a little light'

As editor of 'The Sunday Times', Harold Evans battled for the rights of thalidomide victims – and became the stuff of newspaper legend. He took the fight to political cronyism, bloodied Kim Philby's nose and doggedly attacked Margaret Thatcher. His only defeat was to Rupert Murdoch (thanks to below-the-belt tactics). So what inspired the boy from Manchester to become undisputed heavyweight champion of the publishing world?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Journalism, I remind Sir Harold Evans, has been likened to "God's work" by David Simon, creator of The Wire. The one-time crime reporter may, I suggest to Evans, have been suffering something of a rush of blood when he came out with that one. The distinguished former editor of The Sunday Times isn't familiar with the quotation. But he does recall a similar sentiment being expressed by William Stead who, like himself, was once in charge of the Darlington-based Northern Echo.

Stead, says Evans, observed that newspaper reporting was "'a very good way of attacking the devil'. I believe that. Don't you? When I think about the financial meltdown, the obscene bonuses paid to all those bankers, and the pollution caused by BP... Stead believed in vigilance, and so do I. I'm an old boy scout at heart. I also believe – but cannot prove – that if the press had been more alert, we might have foreseen and avoided some of these catastrophes."

William Stead (being vigilant but not clairvoyant) went down with the Titanic. According to one survivor, the editor's last act was to remove his lifejacket and hand it to another passenger. He was, as Evans describes him, "one of the most versatile, courageous and creative figures in the history of newspapers".

If there is one living editor who has carried the fight against the forces of darkness with most vigour, persistence and brilliance, that man is unquestionably Harold Evans. It is traditional to temper a description such as "greatest editor" with phrases such as "of his generation" or "from Britain". But the more closely you examine Evans' career – at least before he took the side of Rupert Murdoch in the poisonous dispute with the print unions – the more such caveats seem timid and superfluous.

We talk in the garden of the house in Manhattan where Evans lives with his second wife, Tina Brown. Formerly editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, she now runs her own campaigning news website, The Daily Beast. Evans' voice, which still betrays the vowels of his native Manchester, is so soft as to be almost drowned out by the noise from his nearby water feature, which serves as a kind of reminder of the repetitive babble emitted by his adopted nation's 24-hour news networks.

Evans is 81 now, and the qualities he radiates are somewhat outmoded virtues such as modesty and integrity. In an age where public hysteria is fashionable and cheap, he is not a man who is easily rattled. Had he inspired Billy Wilder's classic 1974 remake of The Front Page, a film he often mentions in connection with his enthusiasm for the written press, Evans would unquestionably have been the model for the maverick obsessive Hildy Johnson, played by Jack Lemmon. His boss Walter Burns (Walter Matthau), with his boorish nature, ruthlessness and cynicism, may possibly have been nicely suited to playing at least one of Evans' former proprietors.

"There's a perception widely held by some people who don't know about the newspaper business – and some who do," I suggest to him, "that to be an editor you also need to be a bully."

"I don't frighten people," Evans replies.

"As failings go, I'm not sure that's one to be ashamed of."

"I'm not so sure." He laughs. "I sometimes wish I could frighten people more."

I hand him the day's edition of the [London] Times.

"Isn't that how Freud defined true horror?" I ask him. "The Unheimlich? The once-familiar become strange?"

Evans fingers the front page, with no detectable enthusiasm.

"Who was it that called The Sunday Times 'The Rolls-Royce of journalism'?"

"That was my predecessor as editor, Denis Hamilton."

"What make of car would you compare it with now?"

"The Sunday Times? I don't know. I don't keep up with cars. I don't drive in New York." He pauses. "Maybe... a Jaguar?"

"In what respect? A bit flash? Rather unwieldy? Swallowed up by a large foreign corporation?"

Evans smiles, tilts his head slightly, and makes no comment.

"Of course," I tell him, "I may not be wholly disinterested in this. You will have heard how, a few weeks ago, Rupert Murdoch's son James, who now runs his empire, and Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, burst into the office of The Independent's editor-in-chief..."

"They did what?"

"And called him – pardon my French – a 'fucking fuckwit'."

"James Murdoch," Evans says, "has always demonstrated a rich command of the language."

"Of course he may have had a point..."

Evans explains, in some detail, why he could not disagree with this last statement more strongly. We live, his look suggests, in curious times.

If Sir Harold Evans, who was knighted in 2004, had only pursued one of his campaigns as editor of The Sunday Times – his long-running battle with the drug companies to gain compensation for the victims of Thalidomide, say – his name would never have been forgotten. But there were ' so many more causes for vigilance in his 14-year tenure at the paper, which ended in 1981. Evans' Sunday Times exposed Kim Philby as a Soviet spy and published the diaries of the former Labour Minister Richard Crossman, risking prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. The paper also revealed Harold Wilson's routine dispensation of honours to his cronies (one undeniable way in which the pipe-smoker from Huyton fulfilled his boast to be years ahead of his time).

"We were tenacious, it's true. When we started a campaign we would persist to the point that the issue became unignorable, and so became a problem, and so had to be resolved, at least to some degree."

In 1984, Harold Evans published Good Times, Bad Times, a corrosive attack on Rupert Murdoch, which one reviewer described as "the best non-fiction book ever written about journalism". That accolade has been usurped by his latest work, My Paper Chase (published last year), which gives a fuller account of Evans' life and career.

He grew up in Manchester, the son of Fred, an engine driver whose family came from Powys, and who was an unflinching supporter of the socialist movement. Harry, as subordinates would be allowed to call him, even at the height of his power, was raised in the working-class district of Newton Heath – the original home, as he points out, of Manchester United.

"I should have brought you a green and gold scarf."

"I wish you had. I hate the way Manchester United was sold."

I have to confess at this point that his early memories may carry more resonance for me than for some other readers, in that each of the places where Harold Evans spent his youth – Manchester Central Library, the YMCA [Evans once played table tennis for England] and Sivori's ice-cream parlour – would become a part of my own childhood, albeit three decades later.

I tell Evans how, when I was small, my father gave me a copy of the autobiography by the Bolton Wanderers footballer Nat Lofthouse. "He said: 'I don't like it much. It's all me, me, me,' which, even at 10, I thought was rather a strange thing to say about an autobiography. Reading your book, I began to understand what he meant. What's wonderful about My Paper Chase is that it's an acutely observed social history of your time. That said, we're on page 115 before you hold hands with a girl – and even then she's called Enid. Romance clearly isn't an area you like exploring."

"I lack the descriptive powers."

"Oh, really?"

"I believe I do. George Orwell said that emotion is such a fleeting thing that it's hard to catch. I just don't have the capacity to do it. I could never write a novel." As Evans puts it: "I don't have a thick skin. 'Emotional' is the adjective that follows me around."

Harry Evans may not have noticed, but he is capable of writing in a way which is both elegant and moving. The opening pages, which recall his observations of traumatised Dunkirk evacuees slumped on the beach of Rhyl, where he'd been taken on holiday as a 12 year-old, are just stunning. Later, he describes his enthusiasm for Shakespeare, taught by one Mr Marsland. "It has always been a sadness to me," Evans says, "to think how little we were able to respond to his graciousness and learning. He died some years later from the effects of his First World War service, and St Mary's Road Central School was demolished by an Education Committee which can have known nothing of the magic the Forest of Arden evoked, as dusk fell over the railway yards."

His father Fred was a lifelong believer in the Marxist principle of "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" and attended trade-union courses. He had left school at 11, to work as a boiler stoker at Crewe steel works. "When I talked to my dad about the 1926 General Strike," Evans writes, "I said he must have felt bitter when it was broken. 'No,' he said. 'I just felt sorry for the way the miners were let down.'"

The question he most often asks himself about his parents, Evans says, "is: 'What might they have achieved, if they'd had a real chance?'" As a young man, Evans was so conscious of his Manchester accent that, "I felt ashamed every time I heard the voices on the radio." Diffident and self-conscious when he began his career at 16, on the Ashton-under-Lyne Reporter, he says he grew in confidence when he did his National Service in the RAF. "Because I met a lot of these posh people, and discovered they were gormless."

He recalls, in My Paper Chase, how senior officers would patrol the mess hall during dinner, while a sergeant bellowed the words, "Any complaints?" at Evans and his friends, who included one diner known as "Airman Traffic".

"We might have gagged on the greasy lamb," he writes, "but nobody ever said a word. One day, though, Traffic stood up.

'Any complaints?'

'Yes, sir. It's shit.'

Everyone froze.

'What did you say, Airman?'

'It's shit, Sir,' said Traffic, in the silence. 'But it's beautifully cooked.'"

It was in the Air Force, Evans says, that he was persuaded to apply to Durham University. Like many who have had to fight for a college place later in life, he has retained a heightened appreciation for the privilege of higher education. (The quotation which opens My Paper Chase is James Madison's observation: "Knowledge will forever govern Ignorance" – a universal and unalterable truth, so long as ignorance hasn't stumbled across the key to the gun room.)

At Durham, he fell in love with Enid, a fellow student. The couple, who separated in the mid-1970s, and divorced in 1978, after he met Tina Brown, are still in touch. Enid is an extremely intelligent woman, Evans says, with a strong sense of social duty. "Her one serious mistake was to be married to me for 20 years."

He took his degree in politics and economics to the Manchester Evening News. Such was the tension, he recalls, it was "not uncommon for sub-editors to be physically sick". By the time he left, in his late twenties, he was assistant editor.

"When I arrived in Manchester," he says, "they were talking about a young man before me who had flopped as a reporter. He was too shy to ask questions of people he'd never met. I knew the feeling."

The Manchester Evening News "enabled citizen journalism long before the blogging era. One of my jobs was to edit the letters. On many papers this was regarded as the ultimate ignominy. Not on the Evening News. Editors whom I later heard boast that they didn't bother to look at readers' letters invariably ran second-rate papers."

These were the days, Evans recalls, of Manchester as "Cottonopolis". "Disraeli once wrote that, 'What art was to the ancient world, science is to the modern. Rightly understood, Manchester is as great a human exploit as Athens.' It was true."

"There's a surviving recording of the singer Paul Robeson," I remind him, fanning the flames, "where he says that it was through contact with workers in Manchester that he first understood the international brotherhood of working people: the concept on which, Robeson said, 'I based my life, both as an artist and a citizen.'"

"I wish I'd known that. I would have put it in the book. Manchester is a very unusual place in many ways. When I was working on the Evening News it felt so intense; everybody there felt, to me, like giants. Or perhaps I was a pygmy. Anyhow, that's really when I fell in love with Manchester."

Still in his twenties, he won a Harkness Fellowship, which allowed him to travel in the USA; typically, his instincts drew him to interview dispossessed Native Americans in the Southern states. But his career really began to blossom once he returned to England and was made editor of the Northern Echo in Darlington. It was here that Evans began to unleash his imagination, both in terms of stories and visual presentation. His campaign for smear tests to detect cervical cancer led to a national screening programme.

Appointed editor of The Sunday Times in 1967, Evans assembled teams of investigative journalists with complementary skills. He had the wit to employ writers of the calibre of Ian Jack, Russell Miller and Philip Norman, among many others, and great photo- graphers such as Don McCullin, Philip Jones Griffiths and Colin Jones.

"His greatest qualities," a former colleague told me, "are a heartfelt appreciation of writing, and an exceptional eye for design and photography; more editors than you might imagine, even very good ones, are visually illiterate. And Harry loved to let gifted people shine. He had his faults. He could be impatient; he could be late – but he never behaved like a rampant egotist, or a bastard."

"I don't see you," I tell him, "as someone who ever believed that shouting at people is an effective way of getting the best out of them. Is that right?"

"Absolutely. I also think that there is something about the kind of working-class background I came from, whereby you acquire a kind of deference towards others. I can remember as a boy, going for a walk and seeing people playing tennis. I had never played tennis. And I remember thinking: I wonder if I could do that? There was no chance I could ever have played tennis. We couldn't have afforded a racket."

Our comfortable voyage of Lancastrian reminiscence begins to founder somewhat once Evans begins to address The Sunday Times' disputes with the print unions.

"I'd been in America in the mid-1970s. I'd seen the technology they used in places like Detroit. So I come back and try to introduce it in Britain. And that's when I discovered ' that the Luddites were alive and well, and ready to take me to the cleaners, at The Sunday Times."

Though not naturally inclined to bitterness, Evans says he has never been able to bring himself to forgive the unions. "I tried to appoint Germaine Greer to write a column. I was told, 'You can't do it.' I said, 'Bugger off.' When they tried to introduce a closed shop, so that none of these people could write for the newspaper, I went to my friends in the Labour government: Albert Booth, Michael Foot and Denis Healey. The only person who seemed to care was Margaret Thatcher."

"So you supported her?"

"My experience with Margaret Thatcher went back some way. When she was in opposition, I sat with her at this function. There were about 10 people at our table; Margaret Thatcher, me and a lot of City financiers. She went after them. She said, 'All you people do is make money. You don't encourage people to make things. When we get into power we are going to encourage people to make things.'"

"A peculiar declaration, don't you think, coming from the woman who would do more than any single individual to destroy the base of British manufacturing industry?"

"Wait a minute, wait a minute. Did you never read my editorial: 'Wrong, Mrs Thatcher, Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!'? I wrote editorial after editorial in that vein."

The Sunday Times, when Evans became editor in 1967, was owned by the Thomson group, a Canadian company which had acquired the daily title the previous year. The organisation attempted, with Evans' eager support, to introduce the modern working practices he had seen across the Atlantic. The resulting conflict with the unions caused The Times' titles to suspend publication in November 1978.

"A temporary break," Evans recalls, "as we all thought." (The papers would be off the newsstands for a year.) "I led a management buyout bid for The Sunday Times, but Thomson's thought Rupert Murdoch had a better chance of dealing with the unions."

As a condition of acquiring both The Times and The Sunday Times in early 1981, Murdoch promised that the independence of each would be protected by a board of directors, and made other solemn guarantees.

"On this basis," Evans wrote in Good Times, Bad Times, "I accepted Rupert Murdoch's invitation to edit The Times on February 17 1981. My ambition," he admitted, "got the better of my judgement." Every assurance regarding editorial independence, he added, was blithely disregarded.

On 9 March 1982, the day after he'd come back from burying his father at Bluebell Wood cemetery in Prestatyn, Harold Evans was sacked.

"Ultimately," he says, "Mrs Thatcher was the reason I was fired. Because I was attacking her so much. When she started to dismantle the British economy, the most cogent critic of that policy which led, OK, to... a lot of things... was The Sunday Times. I wrote 70 per cent of that criticism myself. When I became editor of The Times, I continued to criticise monetarism. But I could still see some of the good things about her."

"Just remind us?"

"I'm thinking – and you probably won't agree with this because I sense that you're a firm supporter of the NUJ [National Union of Journalists] – mainly of her dealings with the unions."

"How do you feel about her now?"

"I think she is a very brave woman."

"Hitler was brave."

"Yes, but... she was right about terrorism. She was right about the IRA."

"Do you think Britain would be a better place if she'd never existed?"

"No. I think Britain benefited from her having been there. Britain was becoming so arthritic with labour restrictions."

"Good Times, Bad Times is an unforgiving portrait of Rupert Murdoch."

"It couldn't have been more devastating. But I didn't get the support from the posh crowd when it appeared. I had no support from Paul Johnson, or those other people at The Spectator... "

"Those people are right-wing nutters."

"Well, yes. I know they are."

His enemies on the right – notably Auberon Waugh – were not above using the break-up of his marriage to attack him. Evans' first marriage was disintegrating by 1974.

"The writer Hunter Davies said that, when he asked you what had kept you in London, you stopped by a parked car and wrote, in the dust on the bonnet, a single word: 'SEX'. Is that true?"

"I hope so."

"Was there a time when you had a certain reputation?"

"My marriage to Enid was faithful. At the end there was an interregnum where I did, as they say, play the field. But when I met Tina, that was the end of everything. I mean, the beginning of everything."

He met Tina, daughter of the film producer George Hambley Brown, when she was in her final year at Oxford, in 1974. Twenty-five years his junior, she had already won a Sunday Times drama award, and had dated men such as Dudley Moore, Martin Amis and Auberon Waugh. Evans was impressed by a piece she sent him, inspired by her observation of a Private Eye lunch. He brought her to the paper and they married in 1981.

"As a couple, you attracted real malice, didn't you?," I suggest. "Auberon Waugh, referring to a writ you issued, said you went after 'Thalidomidesque' levels of damages. I think that's one of the most malevolent linguistic inventions I've ever seen."

"Just before I got married to Tina, Auberon Waugh claimed that I'd had a vasectomy, which meant that if I had any children with Tina, they weren't mine. That to me was intolerable." (Evans has five children: three from his first marriage and two, George and Izzy, from his second.) "Waugh," he continues, "also alleged that I was having a homosexual affair. You have to realise that Auberon Waugh was in love with Tina. And I think resented the fact that someone from the working-class had control of The Sunday Times."

"Tina Brown's subsequent achievement in journalism – at Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and the Beast – speaks for itself. But let's just say she'd been a rather portly lad from Batley, with an orthopaedic shoe. Do you think you'd have sought to promote her quite as urgently as you did?"

"Yes. Because at that point I wasn't in love with Tina. If she had been a lad – or a lass – from Batley with a weight problem and she'd written that piece about Private Eye; it was just a little masterpiece. I just wanted talent like that on the paper."

"I have the impression that, especially after you moved to the United States in 1984, Tina led you into another world."

"No she didn't."

"A different social..."

"A younger 'set', yes."

"Last night I listened to an appearance she made 10 years ago on Desert Island Discs, in which she describes the 1999 party to launch Talk magazine [her own title, which closed two years later]. It's Gatsby-esque; she's talking about Demi Moore and Salman Rushdie and how hard it is to hire a whole island for parties. I remember, the first time I heard it, thinking that this just isn't Harold Evans' world."

"You know what? I loved it. I thought it was brilliant. I'd have done it myself, if I'd had the balls. It was great! Don't forget that Vanity Fair, when Tina took it over, was going to close. Over here, she introduced the concept of high and low in the same publication. Before, you always had the high and austere on the one hand, and the riff-raff on the other. And she was enormously brave at The New Yorker. To print something which offended the Jews of New York, which she did – a Jew kissing an Arab... Now, let's get back to your lad from Batley. The fact that Tina is beautiful and dresses well; those things make her an easy target for journalists without much depth."

"Talking of which, there's a question I wanted to... 'Help! Again I feel the demons of sensationalism rising within me! Hold me fast!'"

"That's [newspaper proprietor] Lord Northcliffe's line," Evans responds, "in the Max Beerbohm cartoon. Isn't it wonderful? He's pleading with colleagues to hold him down."

"It may not be the most delicate question, but you say in My Paper Chase that the age difference between you and Tina seemed 'absurd' in the 1970s. Thirty-five years on, presumably, that relationship alters again; it must become something else."

"It does. Friendship. Companionship. But I think that has brought us closer, in terms of our ideas and work. I love being with her."

"Tina was famously expelled from three posh boarding schools. What does she make of Prestatyn?"

"She likes it. She thought my dad was marvellous. She is an honest person. Very strong. She saw one piece by David Remnick and he came and joined us [at The New Yorker, where he is currently the editor]. Tina has a great shit detector, and an unerring eye for talent. I admire her so much."

Evans' achievements since he came to New York have been less eagerly celebrated than his British journalism, perhaps because he has applied himself to more varied disciplines: as an author, lecturer, and in 1986, the founder of Condé Nast Traveller; from 1990-1997 he was president of Random House, where he oversaw work by Norman Mailer, William Styron and EL Doctorow. More recently he has orchestrated a characteristically robust campaign against the National Rifle Association. "That was facilitated by The Daily Beast. I don't think that another newspaper would have printed what I gave Tina. The Beast is just fearless."

If you had to create Harold Evans in fiction (bearing in mind his upbringing, his famously caring attitude towards employees, and the fact that he got his first NUJ card at 16), one of the trickiest notions to introduce would be the idea that he has achieved some kind of emotional "closure" concerning his later years at The Times titles. He has called Rupert Murdoch elitist, anti-democratic, and asserted that the Australian cares nothing about the opinion of others, so long as his business expands. This is the same man who refers to "the gratifying defeat of the Luddite unions by Rupert Murdoch".

"What I find odd is that you can still find good things to say about the Murdoch empire," I tell him. "I never met the broadcaster Russell Harty, but I know what News International did, their treatment of him as he lay dying, in The Sun. I'm not a supporter of Liverpool Football Club, but that doesn't mean I'm not appalled by The Sun concocting lies about their fans' stealing from the corpses of friends at Hillsborough. I don't imagine that editorial of that nature is printed without being sanctioned at a fairly high level."

For a fair assessment of the balance between skill of presentation, and nature of content in The Sun, I suggest to Evans, perhaps all we need do is return to Airman Traffic's review of his dinner: "It's shit – but it's beautifully cooked."

"Maybe you didn't see how The Sun took up the Thalidomide campaign two years ago," he replies. "They did a fantastic job. I did nothing. I'd just written one line, to the editor."

"So how do you feel about the Murdoch empire now?"

Evans pauses. "I'm not that familiar with the British... OK. Let's take an alternative scenario. Murdoch never arrives. I manage to take control of The Sunday Times with the management buyout. Then I get defeated by the unions. The Independent wouldn't be here. Rival papers survived because they got the technology. Thanks to Murdoch."

"Thanks to a man who, by starting the price war, created a situation where profit is driven not by a newspaper's retail price but by its advertising, to the point that advertisers risk dictating editorial content. Haute- couture houses don't fancy the idea of photographs of dead Congolese babies next to their latest tanning oil, do they? What you've just said is a bit like saying that Hitler stiffened the backbone of the Jews."

"You," Evans says, "are prone to let your emotions dominate."

"Isn't that precisely what you said about yourself, earlier?"

"No. As a journalist, when I got angry, the first requirement was not to let my emotion spill into the paper."

"I bet every one of your enemies derided your 'emotion', when what they were really addressing – in your case, not mine – was passion."

"That's just a semantic line."

Evans, who can't, in conversation at least, stay angry for long, laughs his generous laugh. "OK, then. Go on. We'll call it 'passion' if you like."

There have been several points in this conversation where I've wished I could have had Fred, Harry's father, sitting on my side of the table. "Are there things you've done that your father would have disagreed with?"

"Yes. My dad would never have dreamed of voting Conservative." (As Harold did in 1979.) "He would never have dreamed of saying a good thing about them. He didn't trust the Tories."

"Not an altogether unhealthy instinct, some would say."

"Well, my dad was very left-wing. Very. He admired Stalin."

"Perhaps because he had the experience of watching him win the war?"

"The Russians did win the war. But I found it all loathsome. I was in Moscow for a while. I ran into all those lies."

I suspect, without carrying the analogy between Rupert Murdoch and Joseph Stalin any further, that Harry Evans may regard the Australian magnate in rather the same way that Churchill did the Soviet Man of Steel: repugnant and deeply unsympathetic, but a vital ally in a battle he never sought to fight, and whose pain he will take to the grave.

Evans, who became a US citizen in 1993, has not fought shy of criticising the current administration; he recently tweeted: "Disgusted by Obama's abandonment of promise to restore Clinton federal ban on assault weapons. Guns in the Nat'l Park too. What a sellout."

"Towards the end of his life, the novelist Joseph Heller wrote a chapter with the title 'Every Change is For the Worse'. When you reflect on all the extraordinary work you have done in your life," I ask, "do you think it's actually made any difference? Just look around you. Maybe everything has got worse."

Evans laughs, and gives me a look that suggests that I might, just this once, have a point.

"Do you sometimes think that, in the wider scheme of things, what you did changed nothing? That the drug companies and other major corporations got their way, and always will? That for every corrupt businessman like [1960s fraudster] Emil Savundra, who you publicly shamed, another 10 invariably emerge?"

The water feature gurgles, uninterrupted, for a short while.

"I'm trying to think what the answer is to that," he says. "I don't believe I ever imagined I could create a new and beautiful universe. All I tried to do – all I hoped to do – was to shed a little light. And if that light grew weeds, we'd have to try and pull them up."

"We're back with William Stead's remark..."

"About attacking the devil? Yes. And perhaps this is the answer. You can attack the devil. You can attack him with all your force. But you might have to accept... you might have to deal with the fact..." Evans pauses. "That the devil has a whole lot of life in him. You might have to recognise that."

'My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times' (Abacus, £9.99) is out now in paperback; thedailybeast.com