Thank Evans for Harry
Harold Evans’ autobiography doesn’t only reveal the sparkle of his long career in journalism and publishing – it also sheds light on what is (and is not) behind today’s crisis of reporting.
Legendary newspaper editor and publishing supremo Mr Evans is the Harold that Steptoe Jnr always wanted to be: the grooviest kind of guy, swinging from one chain of bright lights to another in a high-wire career of glittering prizes.
Just a few glints from all that sparkle: fired up by his father, a Mancunian engine driver in the age of coal; denied a grammar school place but coached for Matriculation by an exceptional headmaster; drilled into delivering the detail as a junior reporter in Ashton-under-Lyne; starting an RAF station newspaper while on national service (Empire Flying School Review, the first publication to put Diana Dors on the cover); degree at Durham (would the state give a university grant to an ex-serviceman who hadn’t fought in the Second World War? Doubtful, but, eventually, yes); sub-editor then assistant editor of the Manchester Evening News, campaigning against smog and investigating the dethronement of King Cotton; editor of the Northern Echo, campaigning for the introduction of cervical smear tests and against hanging; editor of The Sunday Times, nurturing young reporters, establishing the Insight team as the flag-carrier for investigative journalism, flouting corporate, government and judicial pressures and breaking stories on Kim Philby (the KGB agent in the British secret service), Thalidomide, Uganda, Northern Ireland – and still he found time to go skiing; modernising The Times under the ownership of Roy Thomson, then ousted by new owner Rupert Murdoch; author of influential textbooks on writing and producing newspaper pages; editor of the travel magazine whose reporters famously paid their own way (Conde Nast Traveler); Random House publisher; husband of much admired (and much younger) Tina Brown (editor: Vanity Fair, New Yorker, Daily Beast).
So much sparkle that Sir Harry has no space left in his autobiography, My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times, to write about the bauble he received from the Queen: he was knighted in 2004 (a photograph is included). Nor is there any mention of the accolade from UK journalists who in 2001 voted him the greatest British newspaper editor of all time.
The Evans story is so good it bears telling more than once. Just as well, since this is the second time that much of it has been told. In 1983, Harold Evans published Good Times, Bad Times, a blow-by-blow account of his days at The Sunday Times/Times under owners good and not-so-good (Thomson and Murdoch respectively).
The new memoir is different in that it spans Evans’ entire life until now. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, even The Times episodes are different second time round – less like a riposte and more of a reminiscence. In the current account, there is plenty of fine but not fancy writing; and keen observation, for example the Durham academic so short-sighted that when marking essays his nose ‘swept along the undulating contours’ of his students’ handwriting.
There is also some flatulence, occasionally unfortunate. Comparing terse British newspapermen to their long-winded American counterparts, Evans writes: ‘In Britain the effect of wartime newsprint rationing put a premium on conciseness’ – that is, paper shortage trained British journalists to write shorter. Maybe the copy editor at Little, Brown did not dare mess with the master’s prose; or perhaps it’s unrealistic of me to ask for ‘conciseness’ in anecdotes.
Leaving aside the Irish question (except to say: great journalism, lamentable politics), readers of this biography could ask Evans for more understanding of the print unions and the position of their members. He blames them for bringing Times Newspapers to financial ruin in the course of a year-long strike, thus allowing Murdoch to take over the company. Newly promoted to the officer class, Evans does not recognise the unrest in the ranks he had only recently left behind. While he and his peers in editorial were paid to describe events as they saw fit, to redraw the world and publish a new drawing with each edition of their newspaper, the men in blue overalls – every bit as intelligent and capable as the working-class boys Evans grew up with – were confined to the mechanical process of getting the paper out on time. Of course this is a skilled job with its own satisfactions. But it hardly compares with the opportunity to remake the world on the page: journalism’s job. No wonder the printers were restless and prone to cause disruption, especially when their window on the wider world – the Labour Party and is political horizons – became increasingly closed off from them.
Evans’ subtitle is ‘true stories of vanished times’, and the timeliness of his exploits is writ large in these memoirs. In journalism as in comedy (and sex): it’s (mostly) in the timing. Just as reporters must have a nose for what has occurred before the present time (what’s happened before that makes you want to tell me this now?), Evans also had a prominent nose for what is on the point of happening next. Though his professional timing was partly an accident of birth (when I met him he modestly reported that he happened to mature as an editor at a time when there were enough resources to do proper reporting), his being in the right place at the right time was also a habit which he managed to acquire.
Another factor is that the ruling elite of the time was very glad to acquire him. Appointing Evans editor of The Sunday Times, proprietor Roy Thomson is said to have opted for his ‘North-Country cheek’. In the late 1960s, Britain was still an industrial powerhouse, and there remained the possibility of reengineering British society in order to revive its industrial capacity. At just the right time, Evans emerged as the most talented of the boys from the blackstuff, the best man for the job of reporting the nation and its position in the world, back to and on behalf of the largely metropolitan elite.
In these stories of ‘vanished times’, is there anything that remains true for ours? Evans gives the lie to the notion that time pressure prevents proper journalism (the ‘churnalism’ thesis). In his account of sitting under the clock in the sub-editors’ room at the Manchester Evening News, the intense pressure of time made for good journalism and made him a much better journalist.
There is another message, perhaps even more positive, which also carries over from those times to these. Evans shows that reporting is not foraging for facts but more like forging truth out of factual information: the deliberate application of consciousness to uncontrolled occurrences, so that they may be represented through recognised, well-rehearsed techniques, and consequently understood. From his account, the concern that news is manufactured is misplaced. It turns out that the problem is not ‘the manufacture of news’ but that news wasn’t manufactured enough – not enough people were invited to the subs’ table to hammer it out. However, whereas hot-metal news bore the stamp of coal and steel production and monopoly ownership, in the digital age it is now feasible for large numbers of people to take part in the public production of truth. We ought to be able to expect more journalism that is more like the best of Harold Evans.
So come on, you corporate types, hurry up and find us a workable micropayment system and a decent (cheap enough) piece of kit for reading and writing the news.
Andrew Calcutt is editor of Proof: reading journalism and society.
My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times, by Harold Evans, is published by Little Brown. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
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