Remembering Harold Evans, the legendary newspaper editor who exposed the Thalidomide scandal

Hands on editor: Harold Evans at the Sunday Times. Photo: Sunday Times

There’s a two word reply to anyone who doubts the good that journalism can do: Harold Evans. The legendary campaigning editor of the Sunday Times and Northern Echo, who has died aged 92, fought for justice for the Thalidomide victims, exposed countless other scandals and won greater freedom of information in notoriously secretive Britain.

Harry Evans was proud of his northern roots, and his parents. In his autobiography My Paper Chase, he talks lovingly of his parents: how he was ‘bursting with pride’ when by chance he witnessed his engine driver father bringing a busy train into a station in Manchester. Later, Evans senior drove the royal train. He also described how his mother kept a flourishing corner shop, beating off competition from a new Co-op through dedication to her customers and canny pricing. (She spotted a few items that were cheaper in the rival store, and lowered her own prices to match.)

His interest in the press was stirred by a holiday encounter with soldiers who had been rescued from Dunkirk in the great evacuation of the remains of the British Expeditionary Force in 1940. His father asked the haggard men on Rhyl beach what had happened. Their harrowing stories contrasted with the newspaper headlines proclaiming Dunkirk as a victory. At the time, young Harry was embarrassed by his father’s keenness to talk to strangers. Later, he realised that Evans senior was doing what any good reporter would do: asking questions and finding out what happened. It inspired him to become a journalist and, in time, one of the greatest editors of the twentieth century.

Evans became editor of the Northern Echo in Darlington at the age of 32. He was following in the footsteps of the legendary Victorian campaigning editor of the Echo and Pall Mall Gazette, WT Stead. Stead died after the Titanic hit the iceberg on its maiden voyage. Evans’ editorial career ended when he collided with Rupert Murdoch in 1982. (More on that later.)

His first editorship set the scene for the next 21 years. He was a master craftsman, overseeing design and production as well as journalism. He wrote several classic books on newspaper design and photojournalism; as a teenager I enjoyed reading my sister’s copy of Pictures on a Page. In Good Times, Bad Times, he explained the design changes he instigated at The Times with Edwin Taylor, which made the paper more readable yet found extra room for text and illustrations. Just three weeks after Evans became editor of The Times in 1981, he shocked his new team by devoting the whole front page to coverage of the shooting of new American president Ronald Reagan.

But Harry Evans will always be remembered as the editor who pursued and published the truth about Thalidomide. In the early 1960s, the drug was prescribed to pregnant women to relieve morning sickness. Tragically, it had a terrible consequence: children born with missing limbs and other deformities. As Sunday Times editor, Evans took on Distillers, the company that marketed Thalidomide in Britain, even though it was the paper’s biggest advertiser. He won a famous European Court of Human Rights case during the campaign, forcing changes to the law and making campaigning journalism easier. Thalidomide survivors have paid tribute to their champion, with Glen Harrison calling Evans an outstanding human being.

The unsung hero of Harry Evans’ campaigning work at the Sunday Times was Roy Thomson, the Canadian owner of the paper and its daily sister. Thomson gave Evans editorial freedom, the money to create the Insight team of investigative journalists and the courage to back the paper’s campaigns against the rich and powerful. Aside from Thalidomide, the team investigated the cause of the 1974 Turkish DC10 crash near Paris. (I vividly remember the newsflash about the crash that Sunday lunchtime during ITV’s The Big Match.)

Harry Evans back at the High Court, fighting for freedom of speech

A common theme of Harry Evans’ work was shining light on the darkness created by the British establishment’s obsession with secrecy. He won a battle with the Wilson government to publish the diaries of former Labour cabinet minister Richard Crossman. Evans cleverly provoked an injunction that led to a legal judgment that declared that publication was in the public interest. Until then, the 30 year rule stopped all but historical memoirs. (Although Lloyd George and Churchill got round this with ease.) The Thalidomide campaign forced changes to the law of contempt, after the European Court of Human Rights declared the British government had violated press freedom in stopping reporting of an ongoing civil lawsuit. We can thank – or curse – Evans for the resulting flood of ministerial memoirs, and other accounts of the inner workings of government.

Evans, Murdoch and outgoing Times editor William Rees-Mogg

In 1981, Rupert Murdoch bought The Times and Sunday Times, and moved Evans to became editor of The Times. The Times was living on past glories. In Good Times, Bad Times, Evans recounts the paper’s failures: important stories missed and a complacency that left it adrift. One of my favourite anecdotes:

Reporter: “We should do a leader [editorial] on Belgium.” Evans: “Why? What’s happened?” Reporter: Nothing. Very long time since we wrote on Belgium.”

There were many other frustrations Evans recorded during his early months editing The Times:

“Some staff reports went into print untouched by human mind. We reported that Britain was going to oppose the European Economic Community’s planning code … without giving one clue what was in the code. Rolls Royce won an important order: in other papers, but not a word in The Times with nearly 40 columns of business news. I expected that the office would be bubbling about such failures, but there was not a ripple.”

Hyper-competitive Evans was a shock to the fabric of The Times. He made wholesale changes, partly to get the team he wanted, partly because Murdoch demanded redundancies. At first, the Sun King was all smiles, admiring the shock and awe tactics. But as the months went by, he changed his tune, as things went from bad to worse for Margaret Thatcher’s beleaguered government. 1981 was an unremittingly depressing year for Thatcher and supporters like Murdoch as job losses rocketed thanks to the government’s policies, and the new Social Democratic party soared in popularity. The Times gave qualified support for Thatcher’s policies but Murdoch seized on every slight criticism, including a story about Nobel economics prize winner James Tobin, who had criticised the government’s monetarist strategy. “Why d’ya run that stuff?” barked Murdoch. “What does he know anyway?” Evans responded, not unreasonably, “He won the Nobel prize.”

No one could dispute his successes. During a remarkable year for news, The Times was the only national to provide colour reporting of the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer. The paper brilliantly covered the maiden launch and landing of the space shuttle and the assassination of Egyptian president Sadat.

Within a year, Harry Evans was forced out. Amazingly, the battle between editor and proprietor played out on the evening news bulletins. The end came on 15 March. Evans said he only realised afterwards that it was the Ides of March, recalling that “Beware the Ides of March” was one of the passages from Shakespeare that his father knew well and liked to declaim. The vain battle to save his editorship of Britain’s most famous newspaper came in the month that his father died. “He was the hero of my life and I was deeply affected. He was proud of his craft as a steam-engine driver on the old LMS and his 50 years on the railway, and so was I.” No wonder Harry labelled March 1982 the cruellest month.

Murdoch told the grieving Evans that a good father and son relationship is one of the best experiences in life, adding that he should take any time he needed. It was a disgustingly hypocritical comment given that Murdoch demanded his editor’s resignation 24 hours later.

The greatest editor of the 20th century? Harold Evans in 1970

In time, Evans built a new career in America with his second wife, Tina Brown. He created Condé Nast Travel and became publisher at Random House. He persuaded Joe Klein to give his author’s name as ‘anonymous’ for his famous presidential novel Primary Colors, to increase the intrigue – and sales. But there were times when he was seen as Mr Tina Brown – an inversion of all those centuries when the male partner was centre stage.

To the end, Harry Evans was partly defined by his 12 month battle with Rupert Murdoch. That is so unjustified given all he achieved in his 21 years as one of Britain’s greatest newspaper editors. Anyone in the media looking for an anti-Murdoch view had Harry on speed dial. Yet Evans was generous in his autobiography about the man who ended his career in Britain. In My Paper Chase, he “found many things to admire” in Murdoch, including his long love affair with newspapers. And Harry described as positively heroic Murdoch’s destruction of the print unions with his masterful secret move to printing at Wapping. As Harry said in My Paper Chase, “Murdoch had struck a redemptive blow for freedom of the press. We in the old management that cared so much for responsible journalism had failed and he’d succeeded.” Few people know that the Sunday Times and The Times published not a single word about Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979, as the papers were shut down for a year because of the management’s unsuccessful campaign to force the unions to accept so-called new technology. Murdoch finally killed the dinosaurs with the move to Wapping.

I end this heartfelt tribute to my hero Harry Evans with words from Shakespeare’s Henry V with which his widow Tina Brown shared the news of his passing with his friend, Thalidomide survivor Guy Tweedy:

A largess universal, like the sun,
His liberal eye doth give to everyone,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.

Harry, you made the world a better place. Rest in peace.

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