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My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times

In almost anybody's list of great 20th-century editors, Harold Evans, editor of the Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981, would come high up and possibly at the very top. He presided over the most celebrated newspaper campaign since W T Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, exposed Victorian child prostitution and secured a rise in the age of consent. With a commitment to editorial resources that accountants would now surely veto, the Sunday Times, in defiance of the courts and conventional views of readers' boredom threshold, forced Distillers, the makers of Thalidomide, to compensate children born with missing limbs. So powerful and moving was this campaign that some pieces stick in the memory 35 years later.

There were other triumphs, some during Evans's earlier editorship at the Northern Echo, where he and his staff helped to secure a post­humous pardon for Timothy Evans, hanged in 1950 for a murder committed by the serial killer John Christie, and identified "the Teesside smell", tracing it to noxious emissions from an ICI plant. The Sunday Times, against intense Whitehall attempts at suppression, published the diaries of the former cabinet minister Richard Crossman and exposed the damage caused by the Soviet spy Kim Philby. It also, week after week, published peerless analyses of current events, notably on Northern Ireland.

Yet Evans was not a strong editor. As he writes in this autobiography, "I don't scare people". He was notoriously indecisive, dithering over alternative stories with deadlines seconds away. He was virtually incapable of sacking anybody; the paper was full of people, half forgotten in its warren of offices, who wrote nothing for months.

His recruitment policies were promiscuous. As one journalist, Phillip Knightley, has recalled, he hired "at parties, in lifts, in pubs, at his club and on the squash court until the Sunday Times probably had three times the number of journalists needed to produce it". He rightly took pride in the Sunday Times's political independence but, given that its editor lacked firm opinions on most subjects, the views expressed in its leaders, determined on Friday mornings by an editorial college, generally lacked clarity and force. Most of the paper seemed beyond Evans's control, with the mighty "space barons" deciding which stories staff had laboured over for a week or more should actually get into print. Evans was a meddler rather than an agenda-setter, behaving like a hyperactive child, easily distracted. Even on Thalidomide, he was not quite as steadfast as his account suggests: many staff believed he hesitated too long before publishing, hiding behind lawyers.

None of this should detract from his achievements, though it may help explain why Rupert Murdoch, who took over the company in 1981 and switched Evans to the Times, so easily ousted him barely a year later. His particular genius was for presentation and layout, then a rare skill among broadsheet editors. He also had a grasp, surprisingly unusual among journalists, of narrative structure (in other words, telling a story), which still shows in several chapters of this book. He understood, better than any editor before or since, what campaigning journalism is about: for example, precise and achievable targets rather than generalised laments about, say, the state of education.

Perhaps most important, his staff liked him, and some even loved him, though rarely without wry acknowledgement of his shortcomings. An upwardly mobile Lancastrian who struggled over his aitches (his father, as he never tired of reminding staff who thought him insufficiently left-wing, was a railway engine driver), he lacked self-importance or pomposity. He captured the essential qualities of the 1960s - irreverence, perpetual questioning, a sense of unlimited possibility - as surely as his successor-but-one, Andrew Neil, captured those of the 1980s.

Evans is now in his 82nd year and, although his second career in America has lasted over two decades and included running a news magazine, a glossy monthly and a publishing house, he is probably best known to younger generations as the husband of Tina Brown, the glamorous former editor of Tatler and the New Yorker. His old paper made rather a meal of this in an interview that accompanied extracts from this book.

That meanness contrasted sharply with the mellowness of these memoirs, which manage kind words even for the author's nemesis, Murdoch. They contain no startling revelations or stinging judgements; Evans settled scores in Good Times, Bad Times, which he wrote shortly after he left the Times. As the subtitle suggests, they are about a vanished world, where journalists dropped cigarette ash over typewriter keys, presses thundered in the basement and readers anxiously awaited the late-night final of their local evening paper. If you want to understand the magic of newspapers in their heyday, and what made the Sunday Times the most magical of all, you will not find a more vivid or eloquent account.

Peter Wilby worked for the Sunday Times from 1977 to 1986. For an archive of his writing for the New Statesman visit: newstatesman.com/writers/peter_wilby

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter