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24 September 2020updated 30 Sep 2020 1:36pm

From the NS archive: Profile: Harold Evans

A 1975 profile of the legendary Sunday Times editor and investigative journalist, who has died at the age of 92.  

By New Statesman

Harold Evans, the editor of the Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981 and a champion of investigative journalism, has died at the age of 92. This 1975 NS profile explored why “ever since he was a schoolboy, Harold Evans has seen journalism as the most romantic of professions.”

“There has never been a greater newspaper sensation. But his objective was not to sell newspapers, whatever his detractors said. It was to get the Jaw altered and to make the public demand reform.”

Those words were published in 1962 by one Harold Evans, who had been editor of the Northern Echo for one year. They extolled the campaigning virtues of his zealous predecessor in that chair W T Stead, the Victorian editor who bought a child prostitute to prove a point, and went to prison for his pains. But they could equally apply to Harry Evans himself. Certainly, he has never been more in his element than when commuting this week (by motorbike) between his modernistic editor’s office in Gray’s Inn Road and the Lord Chief Justice’s Victorian court-room in the Strand. The casus belli on this occasion may have been no more than an incestuous Whitehall conflict over the Crossman Diaries: for the editor of the Sunday Times, however, it was undoubtedly the historical parallel that mattered.

Evans sat in Stead’s “very own chair” in Darlington for five years, overlooked continuously by a framed letter in which Stead rehearsed the pros and cons of becoming an editor. He concluded that it would be “a wonderful way of attacking the Devil I”. Harold Evans has always seen himself as carrying on that tradition. When he became editor of the Sunday Times – an earnest, bespectacled, serge-suited young man, very different from the dashing figure he now cuts – he told the Thomson house magazine how Stead was once called “a compound of Don Quixote and Phineas T. Barnum”. Those characteristics, promised Evans, could come in very useful today. If the Sunday Times‘s 4 million readership is anything to go by, he was right.

Ever since he was a schoolboy Harold Evans has seen journalism as the most romantic of professions. He grew up in a terraced house in Lancashire, failed the 11 plus, and went to St Mary’s central school in Manchester, which overlooked the Newton Heath railway sheds where his father, an engine driver, worked. Sometimes, in school holidays, he would don a white apron and help in the shop his mother had enterprisingly opened in the front room. One schoolmate recalled that Ewas called “posh Evans”, because his father was in secure employment and could even afford the unheard-of luxury of an old car. At school Evans became captain, edited the school magazine, gained five O-levels, and decided to become “a writer”. Hearing that “to get on” in journalism you needed shorthand, he went to business school in Manchester for a year, sitting awkwardly amongst 40 girls, learning the skills that got him his first job with the Ashton-under-Lyme Reporter, at £1 a week. He is still sentimental about the sooty redbrick building, the smell of ink and newsprint, the sense of importance. Once he was covering a visit by General Booth to the local Salvationists, when each person in the audience was asked “Do you want to be saved?” It came to Evans – who proudly said that he was from the press. “But you can still be saved,” he was kindly told. It rankled as an insult to his professional integrity. Already his religion was “The Truth”.

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Called up into the air force, Evans, always ambitious, took an intelligence test to become an officer, passed, but heard no more. Two important things happened to him while he worked as an RAF clerk. For the first time he met men who had been to university, so was spurred to enrol for a fortnight’s residential course on “The Rights of Man”. It was a great influence on him – and he also realised that to “get on” in journalism he should go to university. Then he started a camp newspaper, rushing out excitedly to sell the first dozen copies himself. “Bugger off,” he was told. In his slightly prim innocence Evans had put pictures of aeroplanes on the front of the paper – making his first serious journalistic error. Later, perhaps disapproving of his own action, he walked from hut to hut selling an issue flaunting Diana Dors naked on a stile. It was a sell-out.

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After Durham University, where he edited the college newspaper and continued his fanatical interest in sport, Evans achieved his first ambition – a job on the Manchester Evening News. An excellent sub-editor, he was soon chosen by the International Press Institute to go to India to teach newspaper techniques. He also won a Commonwealth Fund fellowship to study journalism in the US, returning to be assistant editor of the MEN. One day he heard that the Oxford Mail needed a new editor, and wrote for the job. The chairman of the British committee of the IPI was also editorial director of Westminster Press, and he wrote to Evans praising his work in India. But, it was decided, the lad from the north was not “right” for the Oxford Mail. Instead, the editor of the Northern Echo – a Balliol man – would be moved there, and Evans could have the northern paper. A part of him probably resented the north/south discrimination. He still has a tendency to approve those who’ve come from the provinces like himself, and to show irritation at “these Oxbridge types”.

Greatest Campaign

“Even before he was in complete control he flung himself into the fray to make the newspaper readable and an instrument for his will… He was a tireless talker and interviewer.” Again the words refer to W T Stead, but accurately describe Evans’s style on the Northern Echo – cand since. A former sub-editor recalls that his interview lasted just half-an-hour, with Evans doing all the talking, executives wandering in and out, and Evans terminating it abruptly by switching on the radio to listen to himself doing a broadcast. He would infuriate the staff by remaking pages at the last minute, yet excited them by his re-design of the paper, his enthusiasm and personal skill. When President Kennedy was assassinated Evans was on his way, in evening dress, to a press ball. Hearing the news on the radio he turned around, went to the office, and prepared a four-page wrap-round supplement which went to press on time. When the circulation, static for years, rose to the target 110,000, Evans gave all his staff strawberries and champagne on the lawn of his large house. The Northern Echo began to win national praise and its editor found himself a local celebrity – dashing in and out of the office to meetings, functions, even regularly to Manchester for Granada TV’s What the Papers Say.

It was his namesake, the hapless Timothy Evans, who crystallised Evans’s fame, both locally and nationally. From the start he had styled himself as a campaigner, and would set his staff to pursue “The Vandals”, or “The Lorry Menace” or “The Smell” with obsessive eccentricity. Each campaign had its own identifying block, which no one could omit. But the greatest campaign was the Timothy Evans one: “Man On Our Conscience” it was called – day after day, practising Evans’s belief that you continue a campaign at the point when everyone is sick of it. It is probably true – even allowing for Ludovic Kennedy’s book, Ten Rillington Place – that without Evans and the Northern Echo a free pardon would not have been granted. Like his hero Stead, Evans had made his provincial paper exert national influence. Like Stead he would move to London – already feeling, as he put it, “like a barracuda in a boating pond”.

In 1966 C D Hamilton, then editor of the Sunday Times, was talent spotting. It is said that he asked who was the best provincial editor. The name was Evans. So Evans came to Fleet Street, to become chief assistant to the editor, managing editor, then (in 1967) editor of the Sunday Times. The boating pond had become an ocean. It is now nearly ten years since Evans swapped the plain little office in Darlington (still overlooked by his smiling portrait) for the Heal’s-and-glass of the Sunday Times. Now, more than ever, he must remember his “Barnum and Quixote” remark of ten years ago.

Knight Errantry

It is important for those who call Evans “flashy” and sneer at showmanship, to remember that Phineas Barnum was, after all, a success. Though Evans’s campaigns have cost Thomson vast sums of money (an estimated £30,000 for thalidomide) their public relations value has been enormous. When acquaintances smile a little at Evans’s style –the speed, the sport, the TV appearances – it is easy to detect a hint of (sometimes affectionate) snobbery. For all his success he is still the outsider who is not supposed to be quite so pushy – the meritocracy is uneasy with its provincial successes. Evans is frequently criticised for showmanship by those who want the terraced house to show.

At the same time, showmanship can obscure the other, more private, internal function of an editor. It necessitates outside preoccupations, absence, carelessness with the day-to-day running of the newspaper. Evans is criticised for indecisiveness – which he will rebut with indignation, pointing to thalidomide and Crossman. The major decisions he takes; the more mundane ones he puts off. The result is a paper where no one quite knows what is happening, where the wrong men are left in the wrong jobs, and an almost accidental “policy” of divide-and-rule causes some unhappiness and irritation. The man who did not like taking unpleasant decisions on the Northern Echo still fears unpopularity. If Harold Evans realised how much actual authority, and professional respect, as well as affection, he commands among his staff, he might (as one of his executives put it) “calm down and organise a better newspaper”. But his combination of talents is also his weakness: intelligent, charming, a brilliant journalist, he still has to prove it, still has to be seen to be good.

There are also two sides to Don Quixote. Knight Errantry can make for exciting, responsible journalism. Evans’s youthful romanticism has served him well – his desire to right wrongs preferable to much of the cynicism that surrounds him. In deciding to arouse Tory anger by an analysis of Ulster, or publish a document about the railways, or press the claims or the Thalidomide children, or publish Crossman, Evans has pushed forward the boundaries of press freedom, and aroused debate about the rule of law. To question his personal motives is irrelevant – both to the affected children and to those members of the judiciary who see him as an evil influence.

But knight-errantry, too, can diffuse the function of a newspaper. Recalling his Timothy Evans campaign, Evans himself admits this: “I began to wonder, in a moment of self-doubt, if this is what journalism should be doing. Are you not getting engaged in politics? How much should a journalist be a campaigner?” He says “I don’t believe in the religion of socialism, just in the religion of truth” – and his campaigns have been in pursuit of “truth”. But once you steer a newspaper away from news, from fact, into the more opaque depths of investigation and expose, your view of the truth can become self-serving. Whose account is true – Crossman’s or Wilson’s? Which is the true view of the Sunday Times – that of Arnold Wesker (who cast aspersions on its moral validity) or that of Bruce Page and those who censored Wesker because they did not like what he said, just as the Establishment has sought to censor the press? Evans himself not so long ago banned an investigative, indiscreet left-wing journalist from the portals of the Sunday Times, because he did not like his style of “truth”.

Static Vessel

In his introduction to the Insight book on Ulster, Evans quotes Mencken: “Reporters come in as newspapermen, trained to get the news and eager to get it; they end as tin-horn statesmen, full of dark secrets and unable to publish the truth if they tried.” Since the Sixties the Sunday Times has remained static – the self-conscious search for the truth, laboriously mined by a horde of diligent investigative brains, leaving no room for the gleam of personal reaction to hard facts that always produces the best reporting. At the same time the article on the making of the thalidomide drug remains unpublished. It could be argued that this failure was more important than the decision deliberately to become involved in the legal case over Crossman. W. T. Stead came to London, published, and went to prison . Harold Evans did not go to prison. With the third anniversary of the suppression of the article coming up this autumn he is debating his strategy. On the one hand, the journalist, with Crossman as a precedent, knows he should publish. But the “statesman”, the campaigner who wants above all to see the law of contempt changed, still hesitates.

Evans is only 47. He turned down the Cudlipp succession at IPC because (he says) it would have removed him from actual editing, and besides, he was still too excited by the possibilities of the Sunday Times. But what will he do with it? Evans’s hero, Stead, went down at last with the Titanic, gazing at the horizon as less noble souls scrambled for the boats. Harold Evans will not sink. His unwieldy vessel, overmanned but always impressive, and enthusiastically captained, will steam on securely, steering bravely near the occasional iceberg – its only problem being to set a course.