Journalists’ memoirs tend to be as transitory as the great stories they so lovingly recall.
Journalists’ memoirs tend to be as transitory as the great stories they so lovingly recall. Even the best of them — Arthur Christiansen’s Headlines All My Life, Otto Friedrich’s Decline and Fall, about the death of the Saturday Evening Post, Murray Sayle’s A Crooked Sixpence, recalling Soho gangs and press corruption — seem dated now, the scoops forgotten, the scandals long past. Few of them impart much of value, except perhaps for a fleeting sense of nostalgia.
Harold Evans must surely be counted an exception, because, for more than a decade, he ran the best newspaper in the world. The Sunday Times, in the 1970s, was good because it placed journalism at the heart of the paper, and allowed it free rein. It had no obvious political axe to grind, was unimpeded by an overbearing proprietor, and was served by an editorial team which was second to none; it is to Evans’s credit that he loses no opportunity to pay tribute to the talent he inherited and recruited. They would never have flourished, however, without his demonic energy and his sometimes uncontrolled enthusiasm; he was never a man to give two spreads to a story when four would do. ‘A newspaper is an argument on the way to a deadline,’ he writes, and he seemed always up against one; my memory of him is of someone permanently on the run, crouched forward to get to the next front page quicker, changing his mind at the last minute. He did not always get it right. ‘My ambition got the better of my judgment,’ he says at one stage, in mid-narrative. We remember that too, but mainly we remember the dynamism.
It is odd, then, that his account of the now familiar investigations which made the paper famous — Philby, thalidomide, British interrogation techniques in Ulster — is, somehow, unrewarding. We feel we have been here before; indeed, we have, because there have been several editions of Evans’s previous book, Good Times, Bad Times, to which he came raw from his fights with Rupert Murdoch. True, there is one fascinating chapter about the unsolved mystery of the murder of the Sunday Times’s star foreign correspondent, David Holden, in Egypt in 1977. But otherwise, the chronicle of memorable stories is almost dutiful; we learn little more about them. I found it strange, for instance, that Evans did not think it worth bringing closer scrutiny to the nature of investigative journalism, how it was done, what made it work then, and why it fell from favour. Above all, it would have been revealing to know how much it cost. The word ‘budget’ is nowhere to be found here, yet it is the reason most often given by editors today to explain its relative absence from the scene.
I was far more taken with the accounts of Evans’s shy beginnings on the Manchester Evening News, then later on the Northern Echo. Here, the characters spring off the pages in the unmistakable sepia tones of another era: sub-editors, copy-boys, compositors and printers, shirt-sleeved and green eye-shaded. Evans remembers them all as if it were yesterday. And he too seems more lifelike. His heart sinks as he sits in his office at the Echo, first day as editor, with not a single journalist in sight, wondering how on earth he is going to change a cramped little paper into a crusading organ. He has a nose for a story — literally, when he smells the pungent odour of noxious fumes floating over Darlington, and traces it to the big ICI plant, which he confronts head on, and wins. He runs a campaign to have women screened for cancer, which requires dogged persistence and the risk of boring his readers. He has a conscience over the execution of the innocent Timothy Evans, and belabours judges and home secretaries until he gets the conviction overturned. All of these qualities he will later deploy on the Sunday Times, but that paper, as he concedes, was a purring Rolls Royce by the time he got to it. Here he is jump-starting a Morris Minor, and that took more drive and determination at the outset.
What emerges here, and later on, is his ability to assess a risk and take it. In any worthwhile newspaper investigation, there comes a time when the evidence has been collected but the outcome remains uncertain. For the editor in charge, there will be no lack of negative advice — from lawyers, guilty men, and even dubious reporters; getting it wrong will cost reputations and possibly a job. That is the point where conviction and courage count. During the early years, one gets the sense that Evans relied heavily on the reassuringly military presence of his editor in chief, the late Sir Denis Hamilton — to back his judgment, or to suggest gently that he retreat. Later on, however, the decisions were his alone. I remember one occasion in 1979 — not mentioned here — when our news team was trying to identify the police officers responsible for the death of the demonstrator, Blair Peach. We had narrowed it down to one man, but we were still short of the document or the admission that most editors would have insisted on before publishing. Evans read the story, heard the legal arguments, then simply laid out a stark front page, with the name and picture of the officer on it. ‘We’ll run it,’ he said. I still remember the shock of that moment, but he was right.
The stories for which Evans and his papers were once celebrated have long faded. But there is nothing ephemeral about the journalistic standards which he embraced. His may have been the hot metal era, but its lessons remain as important for the bloggers of today as they were for the reporters of his time. Those of us who were there were proud to be part of it.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 19, 2009Tags: Journalism, Memoir, Non-fiction, Politics