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24 September 2020

Why Harold Evans will be remembered for his flair and courage

The late Sunday Times editor was a relentless foe of abuse of power and injustice. 

By Peter Wilby

The death of Harold Evans, aged 92, will leave a gaping hole in the life of any journalist who worked for him (as I did for four years) and of many who never met him. The flair and courage of his campaigns made him internationally renowned. He edited the Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981 when, under a benign proprietor, the paper had seemingly unlimited funds and unrestrained licence to embarrass power and privilege. Evans didn’t take up a cause for a few weeks and then drop it lest readers become bored. He pursued abuse of power and injustice relentlessly, sometimes over several years. 

His most famous victory came in the 1970s and won compensation for children born with missing limbs after their mothers took the Thalidomide drug during pregnancy. Distillers, the manufacturers, used court injunctions to prevent the paper publishing the full story. It took six years and the European Court of Human Rights to remove all restraints on publication. The British government was forced to change the law on contempt of court. Other long-running campaigns concerned the 1972 Bloody Sunday killings in Northern Ireland and the design flaws that, in 1974, led to a DC-10 crash in France, killing 346. 

Evans had four great strengths as an editor. First, a genius for presentation, layout and use of pictures, then rare among editors of upmarket papers. His five-volume Editing and Design, written while he was in the Sunday Times chair, became a sacred text for journalists across the world. Second, a grasp, surprisingly unusual among journalists, of narrative structure (in other words, telling a story) which shows in his two volumes of memoirs, Good Times, Bad Times (1983) and My Paper Chase (2009). Third, a sense of show business: he understood how Sunday newspapers had to make noise and, while reporting the arcane detail of, for example, drugs manufacturing or aircraft design, must entertain readers and engage their sympathies for the victims of negligence, secrecy and incompetence. Fourth, he commanded loyalty, even love, among staff. Irreverent, unpompous and perpetually curious, he seemed to embody the spirit of the 1960s. He did not, as he later admitted with a tinge of regret, frighten anybody. He led with an almost boyish enthusiasm.   

But he was also chronically indecisive, often dithering over stories and page layouts as the presses were ready to roll. He lacked firm opinions on most subjects, so leaders often lacked clarity and force. His recruitment policies were promiscuous. As the late Philip Knightley, a Sunday Times star of the Evans era, recalled, he hired “at parties, in lifts, in pubs, at his club and on the squash court”. The paper employed at least twice as many journalists as it needed, some almost forgotten in its warren of offices. 

These flaws became more apparent when, in 1981, Rupert Murdoch, immediately after taking over the Times and Sunday Times, moved Evans to the daily paper. Many established staff resented Evans’s sometimes sneering attitude to the Times’s traditions which put considered judgment above dramatic impact. Though under his editorship the paper won awards, Murdoch ousted him after a year. Missed print deadlines, uncontrolled spending and a staff revolt against what the paper’s official history described as “a state of perpetual revolution” were said to have forced Murdoch to act. 

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Evans’s supporters thought Murdoch set him up for failure, moving him from his Sunday Times power base with the aim of dispensing with his services as soon as he could decently do so. Evans, Murdoch feared, would be insufficiently friendly to Margaret Thatcher’s government, which had bent the law to allow him, the owner of the Sun and News of the World, to gobble two more papers. Murdoch looked for further favours as he moved into broadcast media. Besides, Evans, the right editor for the iconoclastic 1960s, was wrong for the 1980s. In both judgments, Murdoch was probably right.