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Sir Harold Evans: One of the greatest newspaper editors of all time

Unquestionably one of the most widely and consistently admired industry figures who set the standard for serious journalism

Michael Leapman
Tuesday 29 September 2020 11:32 BST
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Evans pictured in 2007. Because his journalists felt that he was ultimately on their side, they were loyal to him
Evans pictured in 2007. Because his journalists felt that he was ultimately on their side, they were loyal to him (AFP/Getty)

Sir Harold Evans, editor of The Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981, was voted the greatest newspaper editor of all time in a 2002 poll of readers of the British Journalism Review and Press Gazette – most of them journalists. While the significance of such an accolade can be debated, he was unquestionably the national newspaper editor most widely and consistently admired by his staff, his colleagues and his peers. During his tenure, The Sunday Times set a standard for serious journalism, especially investigative reporting, which other papers sought – with varying success – to emulate. With energy and passion, Evans challenged official secrecy, corporate evasion and institutional corruption, and possessed the technical skills to translate these crusades into gripping journalism. Without his influence the modern Sunday newspaper would not have evolved as it did, for many of the innovations that he oversaw have become established as journalistic best practice.

“We were tenacious, it’s true,” he recalled in a 2011 interview in The Independent. “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.”

Yet he would never take the whole credit for the creation of the all-powerful Sunday Times of the 1970s. He acknowledged that many of the foundations on which he built had been laid by Sir Denis Hamilton, his predecessor as editor and the man responsible for bringing him to London from the north of England. It was under Hamilton that the paper’s circulation reached its highest-ever figure of one and a half million. The Insight team, the vehicle for the most successful investigations, was already in place when Evans took over, although he gave it a harder, campaigning edge. “I inherited a number of very talented people, and found more,” he wrote in 2002. “The velocity of The Sunday Times was the product, first and foremost, of reporters zealous for real news and not gossip or kite-flying.”

His most important contribution was to back those reporters to the hilt, allowing them the time and facilities they needed to bring an investigation to a successful conclusion. If – as often happened – legal obstacles were put in the way of publishing a story, his staff knew that, once he was convince that the facts were correct, the material important and its publication in the public interest, Evans would pursue the case through the courts if necessary.

His courage was put to the test when he clashed more than once with the government over the paper’s reporting of the Northern Ireland conflict and the serialisation of the intimate diaries of Richard Crossman, a former Labour cabinet minister. The single story that best defined his editorial imperatives was The Sunday Times’s long and tortuous campaign to gain adequate compensation for the victims of thalidomide – the morning-sickness drug that caused deformities in the children of mothers who had taken it. He was twice named editor of the year in national press awards.

Circumstances, though, conspired to bring his career as a newspaper editor to a premature close. After the Thomson Organisation, owners of The Sunday Times and its sister The Times, suspended publication for a year in an industrial dispute with the printers, the titles were acquired in 1981 by the Australian-born entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch moved Evans from the Sunday paper and appointed him editor of the daily – and then, after a year of what Evans described as harassment and sniping, effectively forced him to resign.

Soon afterwards he moved to New York with his second wife, Tina Brown, and remained resident there for the rest of his life, holding a number of senior editorial positions and writing some successful books. But he returned frequently to Britain, where his reputation as an inspirational and principled editor remained undimmed by his bruising from Murdoch.

In January 2016 he attended the premiere in central London of a full-length documentary: Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime. Essentially biographical, it emphasised his and The Sunday Times’s role in exposing the thalidomide scandal. Hundreds of former colleagues, friends and admirers – including some thalidomide victims – joined him at the event, where he was widely praised and gave a short, modest speech. As his successor and long-time deputy Frank Giles had written some years earlier: “Harry’s career provided a living negation of the theory that to be a successful leader … you have to be a bit of a shit.”

In 1998 ‘The American Century’, was published, a history of Evans’s adopted country in the 20th century (AP)

Born in 1928, the son of a Manchester train driver, Evans left school at 16 to work as a reporter on a Lancashire weekly paper. In 1946 he was conscripted into the RAF and on his discharge spent three years at Durham University, graduating in 1952, when he joined the Manchester Evening News. The following year he married Enid Parker, a fellow student at Durham. The couple had two daughters, Ruth and Kate, and a son, Michael, before parting in 1974 and divorcing in 1978.

Early on he was spotted as a journalist of great promise, and in 1956 was awarded a Harkness Fellowship, allowing him to spend two years in the United States at Stanford and Chicago universities, studying journalism and foreign affairs. On his return he was appointed assistant editor of the Manchester Evening News and in 1961 he moved to Darlington and his first editorial chair, at The Northern Echo, the daily newspaper serving the northeast of England.

Here he achieved a national reputation by pursuing a dogged campaign to establish the innocence of Timothy Evans, who had been hanged in 1950 for murdering his wife. The paper ran stories almost daily suggesting that the murder was committed by John Christie, convicted in 1953 of other killings in the same London house. The case and the Echo campaign were important factors in parliament’s decision in 1964 to abolish capital punishment for murder. In 1966 Timothy Evans was granted a posthumous royal pardon.

By then Harold Evans had already moved on from Darlington. He was recruited earlier that year by Denis Hamilton as his chief assistant at The Sunday Times, and then as managing editor. The Thomson group, which had owned the Sunday paper since 1959, bought The Times in 1966 and Hamilton was appointed editor-in-chief of the two titles. At his suggestion, Evans succeeded him as editor of The Sunday Times in 1967.

A free, cultivated, diverse, resourceful and honest press can only try, and if we ever get one it will be interesting to see what it achieves

Harold Evans

If the traditional image of a broadsheet editor was of an imposing, judicious figure, solemnly and calmly weighing up the pros and cons of alternative arguments or courses of action, then Evans was entirely atypical. In appearance he was short, thin and wiry; in demeanour impatient and excitable. “Harold could be wild and impulsive,” Hamilton wrote in his 1989 memoir, Editor-in-Chief, “but he had the sort of crusading energy a Sunday editor requires.” Although his colleagues admired that energy and enthusiasm, those very qualities often made Evans difficult to work with. Giles, in his 1986 book Sundry Times, described his working habits as “extremely disconcerting”.

“He disliked doing anything for very long, above all sitting still. In the midst of an important conversation he would dart from the room, as he did so encouraging his visitor to keep talking because he would shortly be back … Never walking when he could run, Harry would streak along the passages en route to one or other of the editorial departments, there to discuss, advise upon, redirect or breathe new fire into whatever project was afoot … His unexplained absences from his own office were marked by a growing queue of people waiting frustratedly to see him.”

This unorthodox and superficially disorganised approach to editing, although it could be infuriating, endeared him to the young journalists that he recruited. He listened to their opinions and was for the most part prepared to trust their professional judgments, although they sometimes complained about the time he took to reach decisions. While recognising his ultimate authority, and respecting his technical expertise, they appreciated his reluctance to pull rank. He encouraged a team ethos and was prepared to tolerate eccentricity among his staff if it was allied to manifest talent. Because the journalists felt that he was ultimately on their side, they were loyal to him and morale remained unusually high throughout his tenure.

Apart from being an inspirational leader, Evans was also skilled in the arts of newspaper production. As early as 1961 he wrote an instructional book, The Active Newsroom, and between 1972 and 1977 he produced a five-part work on editing and design – including volumes on headlines, pictures and language – many of whose precepts were to remain valid in the subsequent age of computerised typesetting and page make-up.            

The single aspect of newspaper production that Evans was unable to master (a failing he shared with almost every other executive in the industry) was how to control the increasingly outrageous demands of the print unions, who had no compunction about using their power to stop the presses in pursuit of ever-escalating demands. In particular, they blocked the introduction of computerised typesetting because of the job losses that it would entail. In 1978 the issue came to a head when the management of The Times and The Sunday Times decided to suspend publication in the hope of forcing the unions into agreement. The stoppage dragged on for 50 weeks and ended with no real progress on the principal issues. During that time Evans did his best to bring the disputants together, but to no avail.

18 January 1967: (from left): William Rees-Mogg, editor of ‘The Times’; Harold Evans, editor of ‘The Sunday Times’; and Denis Hamilton, editor-in-chief of both newspapers (Getty)

On assuming control Murdoch invited Evans to switch from The Sunday Times to The Times – although he had been advised against this by those who knew Evans well, including Hamilton. Murdoch’s explanation for the appointment was that The Times needed to change radically and Evans, acknowledged as the best editor in the country, was the right man to effect the transformation. Some, though, believed that the new proprietor’s real motive was to remove Evans from his power base at The Sunday Times, where he could have thwarted changes that Murdoch thought necessary. Certainly his departure devastated the journalists he left behind at the Sunday paper.

Evans, for his part, had also been advised against accepting the appointment. Murdoch had a reputation for undermining his editors, especially those of an independent turn of mind. Moreover, the two men had contrasting political instincts: Murdoch was an arch-conservative and Evans an archetypal 1960s liberal. But an invitation to edit The Times was something that no journalist could turn down lightly. In his memoir, Good Times Bad Times, Evans described how he convinced himself that the agreement under which Murdoch assumed control of the paper, by which the editor’s prerogative was protected by a board of independent directors, would ensure that he would be allowed to do the job without interference.

When Murdoch gave as one of his reasons for demanding his resignation that ‘the place is in chaos ... your senior staff is up in arms’, he was essentially speaking the truth

It was wishful thinking. Murdoch made life difficult for him almost from the start, complaining especially about what he saw as the lack of consistent and trenchant views in the editorial columns. He was also concerned about Evans’s extravagance in hiring new staff: although 53 journalists had applied for voluntary redundancy since the change of ownership, within months Evans had recruited 56 new people to replace them. Just a year after he was appointed, Murdoch asked him for his resignation.

The proprietor’s growing antipathy towards him was not the only reason why Evans’s editorship of The Times has on balance to be judged as his only failure in a distinguished career. It is true that circulation went up by about 10 per cent during his tenure, to 300,000 copies a day, and that many of the improvements he introduced, especially on the features side, survived longer than he did; but he crucially failed to engage the loyalty or sympathy of many of the paper’s journalists, especially the older ones.

His skittish and procrastinatory way of dealing with colleagues and their problems may have been endearing on a weekly paper but it caused difficulties on a daily, where clear decisions have to be made within minutes. He alienated many of the existing staff by bringing with him a few colleagues from The Sunday Times, who inevitably formed an influential and exclusive group around their editor. So when Murdoch gave as one of his reasons for demanding his resignation that “the place is in chaos ... your senior staff is up in arms”, he was essentially speaking the truth. For a few days Evans resisted the pressure to resign, until it became clear that the national directors of The Times had no real power to reverse Murdoch’s decision. He spent the next year writing Good Times, Bad Times, an indignant account of his experience with Murdoch.

Evans and Tina Brown were married for almost 40 years (PA)

In the summer of 1981, a few months into his editorship of The Times, he had married Tina Brown, a highly talented young journalist, 25 years his junior, who had made her mark as editor of Tatler, the society magazine. The wedding took place at the Long Island summer home of Benjamin Bradlee, editor of The Washington Post, and only a few close friends and former colleagues were invited. Staging the ceremony in the United States proved prophetic, since in 1984 the couple moved to New York, where Tina had been appointed editor of the magazine Vanity Fair, and would later take over the prestigious New Yorker. There they raised their two children, George and Izzy, and won a reputation as one of the most glamorous and sought-after couples on the Manhattan social circuit. In 1993 Evans became a naturalised US citizen.

From his new base, Evans was soon recruited to several high-profile posts in American journalism and publishing. In 1984 he was appointed editor-in-chief of the Atlantic Monthly Press and editorial director of the weekly US News & World Report. In 1986 Condé Nast, publishers of Vanity Fair, asked him to launch their upmarket travel magazine, Condé Nast Traveller, which was and remains a success. At the same time he was appointed vice-president of the American arm of the publisher Weidenfeld and Nicolson and in 1990 became president and publisher of the Random House group, a post he held until 1997.

He remained professionally active until well beyond the age when most people opt for a leisure-filled retirement. In 2001 he was appointed editor-at-large of The Week, an international news magazine, and in 2011 was given the same title at Thomson Reuters News Agency, where his duties were essentially those of a roving ambassador. For a while he was on the roster of speakers on A Point of View, the BBC Radio 4 programme that fills the Sunday morning slot once occupied by Alistair Cooke’s Letter From America.

Evans wrote a number of books, notably The American Century, a history of his adopted country in the 20th century, published in 1998. Yet despite his obvious appetite for the American way of life he was a frequent transatlantic traveller, and liked nothing better than to meet his former Sunday Times journalists in London to catch up with the gossip. Many of his closest friendships originated from the Sunday Times period, which remained the most productive and fulfilling of his career.

He continued to stay in touch with his ex-wife Enid up until her death in 2013. Describing her as an extremely intelligent woman with a strong sense of duty, he told The Independent:  “Her one serious mistake was to be married to me for 20 years.”

In 2004 he received a knighthood for services to journalism and in 2009 his autobiography, My Paper Chase, was published: a lively account of his career in the trade that, throughout his life, was his principal passion. He was convinced that it could be an important force for improving society. He summed up his approach eloquently in Good Times Bad Times: “The press is a frail vessel for the hopes it is meant to bear. The best that it can do can never quite be good enough to illuminate what Walter Lippmann called the ‘invisible environment’, the complexity of forces and agencies we cannot monitor for ourselves, but which affect all our lives. A free, cultivated, diverse, resourceful and honest press can only try, and if we ever get one it will be interesting to see what it achieves.”

Sir Harold Evans, born 28 June 1928, Eccles; died 23 September 2020

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