Harold Evans: The editors’ editor


Photo from Harold Evans' personal collection.

Considered to be the editors’ editor and one of the finest journalists in modern times, Harold Evans is a big name and a big character. He has written many books on journalism, such as “Essential English”, which have now become standard textbooks for any budding journalist.

He has also recently released his memoir “My Paper Chase”, the paperback version of which will be released in the UK, in June.

He was the editor of The Sunday Times for fourteen years. While there, he created the team “Insight”, a group of investigative reporters, who uncovered the now infamous Thalidomide scandal, as well as other notable scoops.

With a plethora of awards under his belt, in 2004 he was knighted for services to journalism. The Linc spoke to Sir Harold about his career and how he sees today’s journalism.

With such a long and successful career, is there anything he regrets? “I’d say that my biggest regret is that our bid to take over Times Newspapers did not succeed. We made a gallant effort — but when sports writers refer to ‘a gallant effort’ you know you’re reading about an effort that failed,” he says.

In 1981, Rupert Murdoch took over Times Newspapers from previous owners the Thomson Corporation. Before eventually being given the editor’s job at The Times by Murdoch, Sir Harold mounted an unsuccessful bid for The Sunday Times, by trying to create a consortium of stakeholders including the journalists who worked there.

“We failed for several reasons. First, and most important, the Thomson management, certainly the management in London if not Canada, preferred Rupert because they thought he would deal with the wrecking print unions. Second regret I had, but don’t any longer, is that I did not flat out lead a campaign against Rupert Murdoch’s bid once it was more or less accepted by Thomson. The journalists’ chapel saw the writing on the wall, but at the last moment could not muster a majority to risk a court action under the monopolies law.

“That apart, Murdoch was much more adroit than we were, and Thomson sold it to him for a song,” says Sir Harold.

He believes that with more vision from the banks who backed him, after he had lots of trouble getting them to put up the money in the first place, they could have outbid Murdoch for Times Newspapers.

“We knew The Sunday Times was a great enterprise enterprise with a wonderful future if we could control the union wreckers, [of which] I was chairman of the executive committee. But Thomson [made] The Sunday Times look a poor bet. Having said that, Murdoch did prove to be a most effective owner in terms of getting in computers etc and his planning for that was quite brilliant.”

Within a year The Sunday Times was earning around £50 million profit.

He believes that, while journalism is in a state of change from the traditional models, the fundamentals each journalist should possess are the same. “Curiosity. Willingness to listen to bores. That will never change. Nor will the need for persistence in following a hint, a lead. Don’t take anything for granted – and follow up. Too many stories die on the vine.”

A “vigilant, intelligent scepticism” should be applied to official explanations and sources, but this doesn’t amount to “cynicism and mean spirited malice”. This is common on the internet and isn’t journalism, says Sir Harold: “Many people with some kind of authority in public life do want to serve and should not be automatically derided or abused.”

He also emphasises the importance for would-be journalists to be able to write sharp copy: “One of the delusions is that ‘writing’ is the thing — which leads to a lot of hot air.”

Having previously criticised US journalism schools for being “homogenous”, how does he think journalism should be taught? “I so strongly believe that at The Sunday Times we were enormously strengthened by the diversity of staff experience… Most of them had seen a bit of the world. They’d learned something of the complexities of life, beyond academic theorising. If I were teaching I’d take case histories of important investigative stories and go through them – without revealing the hidden path to the truth. For instance, the DC 10 airliner crashes killing 358 people.”

Sir Harold had the benefit of editing a paper which had heavy investment into its journalism. This allowed “Insight” to conduct lengthy and rewarding investigations. He laments the obsession with enormous profit from media proprietors, often at the expense of journalists.

“A good bottom line — viability — is essential, but greed is not. Too many newspapers milked the market over many years, not providing enough resources for emergencies — and then too many cut back on the reason for being.”

Bio

Born in Newton Heath, Manchester, on June 28th 1928, Harold Matthew Evans was very much a working class boy, his father being a railway driver.

After leaving secondary school, Evans’ journalistic career started at just 16-years-old, when he worked as a reporter for a weekly newspaper in Ashton-under-Lyne.

Following his national service, he studied politics and economics at Durham University, before completing a masters in foreign policy.

He subsequently worked as assistant editor at the Manchester Evening News, then after a year studying and travelling in the United States he returned to Britain in 1957 and became editor of The Northern Echo.

Eventually, having earned a great reputation, he became editor of The Sunday Times and then The Times, the director of Goldcrest Films and Television, editor of The Atlantic Monthly Press, editorial director and vice-chairman of US News and World Report, the founding editor of Conde Nast Traveller, president and publisher of Random House, as well as working for the New York Daily News, and The Atlantic Monthly.

He’s also written 18 books, including “They Made America” and “War Stories”.

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