In an era where polarised views can trump news, the legendary editor’s death is a reminder that facts and evidence matter, writes Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian, in tribute to the legendary journalist and writer Sir Harold Evans who died this week.
He could do it all. Write like a dream; design with impact; edit with flair; dash off the perfect headline; crop a picture; see off a writ. There was no one who knew more about the craft of journalism, nor anyone to match his passion for communicating that craft – documented in numerous textbooks that were, in turn, studied by generations of would-be journalists.
But Harry Evans, who has died aged 92, will be remembered for far more than his newspapering skills. Most surveys of British media over the past half a century would have nominated him the editor’s editor. His 14 years at the Sunday Times – after four blazing years at the Northern Echo – are still considered by many the high-water mark of what serious-minded, challenging journalism can, and should, be.
Though he retained a boyish appetite for all things journalistic and digital well beyond his 90th birthday, Harry was also a figure from vanished times (the subtitle of his second autobiography). The combination of circumstances that led him to the summit of his trade seems unlikely to recur in the foreseeable future.
First, he was born into an age of social mobility, when the son of a steam train driver from Eccles could – via national service, an apprenticeship at a local newspaper and eventually a place at Durham University with five school certificate credits – make it to the pinnacle of London media life. Being plucked straight from a provincial daily to edit a Fleet Street paper doesn’t happen these days.
Second, he was lucky in his proprietor – Roy Thomson, a Canadian without political ambitions or a wish to stamp his opinions on the world. Thomson invested in journalism and was pleased to pocket the profits – but was more than happy to let his editors edit. Evans had complete independence.
That golden age slammed shut when Rupert Murdoch bought the Sunday Times. The new proprietor had very different motives for owning a newspaper – and Evans was soon unceremoniously dumped.
Third – just as Thomson was apolitical in his ownership, so was Harry in his editing. His time in the editor’s chair was not driven by his views, but by an endless hunger to find things out. Reporting came first and last – “peeling the onion, peeling the onion,” he called it.
What was the one immutable rule of journalism, I asked him in 2010? “Things are not what they seem on the surface. Dig deeper, dig deeper, dig deeper.”
“Just find out what the bloody facts are,” he raged in an interview for this newspaper around the same time. He knew the importance of facts to a functioning society long before we descended into information chaos, with a majority now saying they no longer know what’s true and what isn’t. In an age of widening divisions there is delicious escape in thinking back to the simple comfort of evidence.
Fourth, resources. The Sunday Times under Evans was not quite a licence to print money – that was Thomson’s phrase to describe his investments in television – but it was quite seriously profitable. Evans could afford to build up a stable of writers, photographers, graphic artists and investigative reporters … and let them have their head. The Insight team of four reporters and a researcher, created in 1967, was the most notable result. Again, it is difficult to imagine most newspapers having those kinds of resources again.
Finally, resources bought time. Evans spent years at the Northern Echo campaigning for a pardon for Timothy Evans, a young illiterate man hanged for a murder he never committed. The probe into the cause of a devastating Paris air crash in 1974 took three years. His most famous campaign – for the victims of the thalidomide drug, taken by pregnant women and which led to birth deformities in thousands of babies – became a preoccupation for decades.
Along the way were months investigating the life and treachery of Kim Philby; the groundbreaking publication of the diaries of the Labour minister Richard Crossman; exhaustive reporting of what actually happened in Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1972, and much more. How many journalists today can bask in the luxury of time?
How Harry would have hated editing in an age of metrics. “The tyranny of numbers,” he called it. He preferred to go on his gut feeling. He knew that it was only when the newsroom was tiring of some campaigns that most readers began to take notice. He knew what sold; he also knew what mattered.
Harry knew there was no point in publishing stories if you didn’t defend them. Though often thin-skinned, he possessed that useful piece of editorial equipment: a backbone. He became expert in law and a tenacious litigant – seeing off numerous attempts to injunct, sue, punish or otherwise gag the paper. He helped change the laws around contempt and official secrecy in ways that have benefited thousands of British journalists since. He demonstrated time and time again that the institutional strength of a great independent newspaper really mattered.
Vanished times indeed. There are few proprietors around as enlightened or disinterested as Thomson. Polarised views too often trump news. The economic model that sustained reporting for 200 years or more is evaporating in front of our eyes. Harry’s adoptive country, once a beacon of free speech, is led by a man who deliberately seeks to delegitimise the workings of the press and to blur any distinction between truth and falsity.
He lived long enough to see the future of the BBC, which he revered, called into question. He deplored the “vultures stripping newspapers of all their flesh” instead of – as Thomson had done – investing in journalism.
So Harry was lucky – and he knew it.
He repaid that luck in generosity to a younger generation of editors and writers. When stuck with some legal problem, or a government snapping at my heels, I invariably turned to Harry for advice. He’d been there, done it and had got the campaign medals.
He knew why journalism mattered. He gave journalism a good name. He reminded us why we wanted to be journalists and what, at its best, journalism could – and should – be. None of us should forget that. – The Guardian.
- Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of the Guardian, is now chair of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford