My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times by Harold Evans:
Melvyn Bragg enjoys My Paper Chase, the autobiography by ex-Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, a tough, optimistic books full of clarity and energy
By Melvyn Bragg
Published: 6:00AM BST 25 Sep 2009
My Paper Chase by Harold Evans
In Harold Evans’s cottage, behind a beach dune in Quogue, Long Island, there is a black-and-white photograph of a news conference at The Sunday Times when Evans was editor. “For me,” he writes, “it has the exalted resonance of a Nocturne painting” by Whistler. It represents “the culmination of my life in journalism, 35 years, from reporting in Lancashire to the Manchester Evening News, to foreign reporting in Europe and south-east Asia and the United States for the Evening News and The Guardian, to five years of daily newspaper editing in Darlington and then 14 more years editing The Sunday Times of London.”
It is a paragraph full of pride – and rightly so. Evans’s achievements have been outstanding. He was a master craftsman of every aspect of newspapers. “I am addicted to print… I savour the design of letters, the ascenders piercing the skyline, the fugues created by the descenders.”
Early on at Ashton-under-Lyne in Lancashire, he identified with “people of the backstreet”, where he himself had originated. In Ashton he wrote about the inadequate Services pension system. Over the years this was to mature into relentless campaigning journalism: at The Northern Echo he took on ICI, and he won a unique array of battle honours at The Sunday Times. The exposure of Kim Philby and the pursuit of compensation for the victims of thalidomide were just two of the cases his Insight team took up. Under Evans, Insight became the SAS of British journalism. It was dedicated to truth and justice and it achieved these high ambitions through intelligence, bloody-mindedness and a brilliantly talented team.
Here, as elsewhere, Evans picks out and sketches those who worked with him in Ashton, Manchester, Darlington and Gray’s Inn Road. He creates characters who could come from Dickens, with the dash of Kipling’s engineer and more than a touch of Raymond Chandler. And he makes journalism sound such fun.
Evans has always worked hard. He left school at 16 with five O-levels, but without Latin, which became a liability. Latin was the university class barrier at that time. How Evans swerved past that one to arrive at Durham after national service in the RAF (where he ran a newspaper, as he did at Durham), to take the top honours degree of his year in politics and economics, is just one of the warming tales in these memoirs of a fanatically dedicated Lancashire lad.
His father had been a train driver, another occupation for dedicated men who had a long ladder to climb. Evans’s skilled working-class background got him off to a flier. He was brought up with technology, with open debate, and with social and sporting opportunities that now seem enviable. Self-reliance is in his bones. By the time he left university, he had the confidence to aim high and the nerve to take on the dragons. He became an editing whirlwind.
His career on this side of the Atlantic hit the wall when Rupert Murdoch took over and persuaded him to leave his power base at The Sunday Times to take over The Times. He was easier to get rid of there and Murdoch moved in when Evans refused to cover up the failings of Margaret Thatcher’s financial policies. This was not a class thing. Evans had glided confidently up and down the classes taking notes on them all, claimed by none.
After his “resignation” he left for America to start again. And although a late emigrant, he succeeded there. He has become a deep admirer of his adopted country and celebrated it in beautifully produced books such as The American Century and They Made America: Two Centuries of Innovators. He also rejuvenated the travel magazine and became editor-in-chief of Random House.
Despite his book’s action-packed narrative, much is only briefly referred to: his two marriages, his brothers, times of desperation when his first marriage broke up and in those early months in the US. But this is a work of extravagant exuberance. It is tough, optimistic, full of verve and friendship, written with clarity and energy, and goes like a train.
My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times by Harold Evans
The Sunday Times review by Robert Harris
The internet age is a challenging time for newspapers — challenging in the sense that the rise of the motorcar was challenging for blacksmiths circa 1908. Total national UK circulation is falling by an annual 5%. Contributors to The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian have had their fees reduced by up to a half. There is talk of The Observer closing next month. True, The Observer has been about to close for almost as long as anyone can remember. But now there are whispers that even the mighty New York Times might go the same way.
One man at least surveys this darkening landscape with optimism. “My hopeful nature,” writes former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, “makes me believe that we are in a period of transition at the end of which we will see a perfect marriage of the web and the traditional newspaper? If we evolve the right financial model, we will enter a golden age of journalism.”
That cheerfully skipped-over “if” is what gives these memoirs their great charm. Evans has a young man’s perennial enthusiasm: he is 81 going on 18. Reading his autobiography, one quickly grasps how he became the most successful editor of his generation. He exudes a combination of boundless enthusiasm, relentless energy and an almost childlike delight in the sheer wonderfulness of newspapers. How can they not survive?
A droll subeditor — a species Evans much admires — might headline Evans’s life story “Clogs to Blogs”. His book early on contains an image of his mother, aged 13, clattering off in wooden shoes to work at the local mill in Stockport; it ends almost a century later with his glamorous second wife, Tina Brown, former editor of The New Yorker, launching a website in Manhattan. Along the way, Evans listens to Chamberlain’s announcement of war, sees evacuees from Dunkirk sprawled exhausted on the beach at Rhyl, fails the 11-plus and gets his first job on the Ashton-Under-Lyne Reporter in 1942 at a salary of £1 a week. “We roused grumpy caretakers in innumerable working men’s clubs rancid with stale beer and sawdust. We drank tea in vicarage and rectory, dropped in on union secretaries and Catholic priests, youth centres and party political offices. We wrote down the winners of whist drives, cribbage contests and darts championships, of speakers and candidates for office and cake-makers and soup-servers in the meals on wheels service.”
More than half of My Paper Chase is devoted to these “vanished times” in northern England — a sepia-tinted prose portrait of long-dead linotype operators and polymath comps, of bubbling hot metal and the aroma of fresh newsprint, of gnarled senior reporters who had “had a good war” and of taciturn men in shirtsleeves who were legends “on the stone”: “Nothing before, and nothing I have experienced since?matches the speed demanded of everyone on the [Manchester] Evening News.” When Big Tom — TE Henry, the editor in chief — sends a letter congratulating him on his “excellent work”, Evans records: “My euphoria was such I have kept the note all these years.”
By the age of 30, Evans was the editor of The Northern Echo, and so infectious is his nostalgia that one finds oneself actually gripped by whether or not there is enough money in the 1961 budget to pay for a night editor, or whether the Echo’s campaign against the “Teesside Smell” — a noxious stink of rotting fish emanating from the ICI plant at Billingham — will achieve success.
This was the sort of crusade that made Evans’s name and landed him, in 1967, at the age of only 38, the editorship of The Sunday Times. Looking back, the unexpected appointment of a young, northern working-class outsider to what was then smugly described as “the Rolls-Royce of Fleet Street” was perfectly à la mode. Evans’s Sunday Times — with its expanding colour magazine and its Insight investigations into Kim Philby and Thalidomide — was as quintessentially 1960s as Twiggy, Habitat and The Italian Job. This is a benign book, by and large, but Evans still carries a chip on his shoulder about the way he was made to feel socially inferior because of his accent: “I approached every ‘aitch’ as a pole-vaulter running at a high bar.”
He spent 14 years at the helm of The Sunday Times — ground he has already covered fairly thoroughly in his 1983 memoir, Good Times, Bad Times, which was chiefly concerned with his ill-fated move to The Times and his subsequent sacking, after only a year as editor, by Rupert Murdoch. His replacement by the aristocratic Charles Douglas-Home (“Eton and the Royal Scots Greys, the second son of the second son of the 13th Earl of Home”) clearly still rankles, but to his old foe Murdoch he tips his hat: “Today I have no residual emotional hostility towards him. On the contrary, I have found many things to admire.” In particular, he applauds News International’s union- busting move to Wapping in 1986: “We in the old management that cared so much for responsible journalism had failed and he’d succeeded?it opened the way for new publications to begin.”
In one sense, by firing him Murdoch did him a favour. Unemployed at 54, too young to retire but too old to go back to his old trade on Fleet Street, Evans was obliged to reinvent himself. He moved to America, took US citizenship, remarried to a woman 25 years his junior, had two more children, was given a knighthood and ended up in one of the best jobs in US publishing, as head of Random House. He even claims to remain on good terms with his first wife, who came over to stay with him when their daughter got married. Reading these evocative and enjoyable memoirs, one feels the warmth of his sunny personality even as the lights seem to be going out in much of print journalism. He saw the best of it — o, lucky man!
Making the running
Wednesday, 16th September 2009
MY PAPER CHASE: TRUE STORIES OF VANISHED TIMES
Little Brown, 528pp, £25
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.
My Paper Chase by Harold Evans
The memoirs of Harold Evans, crusading former editor of the Sunday Times, remind us of the glory days of newspaper journalism, says Donald Trelford
The Observer, Sunday 13 September 2009
Ten years ago, writing about Harold Evans, I wrote: "The book Harry should write now is the story of his own life, from St Mary's Road Central School in Manchester to the Sunday Times to the conquest of corporate America and rubbing shoulders with the Washington elite." This is it, well, sort of. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the memoirs of the man who was arguably Britain's greatest editor of the second half of the 20th century is that he doesn't reach the editorial chair of the Sunday Times until page 287, more than halfway through the book.
Although it is written in a crisp, amusing and highly readable style, this is not as well-organised a book as one might have expected from such a distinguished editor and former publisher of Random House. It is, in fact, three books loosely linked – a fondly remembered memoir of a northern childhood and youth, a summary of his campaigns on the Sunday Times (much of which appeared in his 1983 book, Good Times, Bad Times) and a brief account of his two decades in the United States. I would have willingly sacrificed, say, the chapter on the Sunday Times's coverage of Northern Ireland for his impressions of Nixon, Reagan, Kissinger and Brando.
Of the book's three parts, the new material about his early life is much the best. Two names – Samuel Smiles, the Victorian apostle of self-help, and Richard Hoggart, author of The Uses of Literacy – came to mind as I was reading this engaging tale of the poor lad from Eccles, the son of a train driver, who failed his 11-plus yet rose to become editor of the Times. I found this section moving, especially as our backgrounds had much in common, in my case, the Durham coalfield rather than the Lancashire railways, and we both had a mother who was one of more than a dozen children and a grandmother who couldn't read or write.
What struck me about the writing was not just the fizzing energy and the exactitude of recall – there is a memorable description of his father's life on the footplate – but the tone. Even Harry's best friends would admit that he can sometimes come across as rather boastfully brash, in the northern manner – more Michael Parkinson than Geoffrey Boycott – but here he is modesty incarnate. Has Harry Evans finally mellowed at the age of 81? One image I can't quite shake off is of the tiro journalist reading Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War on the top deck of a bus from Oldham to Ashton-under-Lyne.
Evans has not edited a British newspaper for 27 years, which means that only people in their 40s and above can remember his triumphs at the Sunday Times: the hunt for Kim Philby, the thalidomide scandal, the fight to publish The Crossman Diaries. He was the inventor of team journalism. In the editorial chair, he was a human dynamo and set in motion such a stream of powerful stories and campaigns that his rivals (I was one) could only struggle to keep up. Although he covers much of the same ground as in his earlier book, this is no bad thing, since it serves to remind a new generation what journalism at its truthful and serious best can achieve.
His editing style had been set earlier at the Northern Echo in Darlington, where his campaigns for cervical cancer smear tests for women and for a posthumous pardon for Timothy Evans, wrongly hanged for murder, captured national attention, including that of Denis Hamilton, who brought him to the Sunday Times in 1966 and anointed him as his own successor less than a year later. I sensed a rare false note in Evans's claim that he had agonised over accepting Hamilton's offer.
He sheds an unflattering sidelight on the late Enoch Powell, who was strongly opposed as minister of health to smear tests for women and compensation for thalidomide victims. The thalidomide campaign was one of the high points in British journalism, even though it resulted from a legally dubious payment for confidential court documents, something to be remembered in current debates about the ethics of paying for information.
One of the most intriguing stories he tells is about the murder of David Holden, the foreign correspondent, in Cairo in 1977. Holden, it turns out, had had a homosexual affair with Leo Silberman, a flamboyant ex-communist. When Sunday Times journalists investigated the murder, they discovered that the CIA HQ at Langley had a big file on Holden, the contents of which they refused to reveal. It seems probable that Holden was killed by Egyptian hitmen, but on whose behalf remains a mystery: was it Mossad, the CIA or the KGB?
If Holden was an agent, it seems most likely to me that it would have been for MI6. What seems certain is that his murder was linked to espionage. Evans sermonises that no journalist should ever get involved with a security service. That struck me as somewhat naive – he has clearly not been a foreign correspondent himself – especially coming from an editor of the paper for which Ian Fleming had recruited a number of spies disguised as overseas stringers.
The clearest example of the mellowing of Sir Harold is in his portrait of Rupert Murdoch, who sacked him from the Times after only a year in the job. In his earlier book, written at the time, Evans portrayed Murdoch as moody and malevolent. Now he says: "I have no residual hostility towards him" and goes on to praise his achievements. Evans also says he agrees with Murdoch that independent newspaper directors are useless. They certainly failed to protect him from Murdoch, but my job was saved by independent directors at the Observer in 1984 when I upset Tiny Rowland and his company, Lonrho, by reporting on Robert Mugabe's pogrom in Matabeleland.
Sir Harold built a successful and lucrative career for himself in the United States, but America's gain has been a loss for British journalism. Our press has missed his leadership in the many crises we have faced over ethics and threats to editorial freedom. He not only wrote the standard textbooks, he embodied the values of honest journalism. One can sense that he knows this and that he may harbour regrets that he gave up his addiction to print too soon. But he will never say this: northerners think it's soft to admit mistakes.
Donald Trelford was editor of the Observer, 1975-93, and is emeritus professor of journalism studies at Sheffield University
An editor with ink in his veins
Sat, Sep 26, 2009
AUTOBIOGRAPHY: HUGH LINEHAN reviews My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times by Harold Evans
Little Brown, 515pp, £25
IF THE DOOMSAYERS are correct, newspapers are entering their End of Days, and will soon, like Monty Python’s parrot, cease to be. Victim of “a broken business model”, the amusingly archaic practice of assembling information into lines of text and pictures and printing it all daily on millions of bits of dead tree will go the way of the gramophone player and the telegram. Well, we shall see. But, if so, who better to write an elegy for its passing than Sir Harold Evans?
Evans’s tenure as editor of the Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981 is regularly cited as a high-water mark of British journalism, and sometimes used to measure how standards have declined since. In Flat Earth News , Nick Davies’s polemical broadside at the current state of British newspapers, the investigative work of Evans’s Insight team, a group of highly skilled and persistent journalists assigned to spend months and even years in pursuit of stories (many of which inevitably never saw the light of day) is contrasted unfavourably with the never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-weight version of the Sunday Times since its acquisition by Rupert Murdoch.
Under Evans the newspaper exposed government lies about the Soviet defector Kim Philby, unearthed evidence of the culpability of the companies that produced the drug thalidomide, which harmed thousands of children, and exposed long-ignored miscarriages of justice. In some cases these campaigns lasted for years. (Thalidomide took nearly two decades.)
Evans has already given an account of his years at the Sunday Times , in his 1984 memoir, Good Times, Bad Times , and this new autobiography sheds little further light on the period, bar one interesting chapter exploring the murder of one of his foreign correspondents, David Holden, in Cairo in 1977, a deeply murky episode that may or may not have involved Mossad, the CIA and MI6.
By the time he becomes Sunday Times editor, though, we’re almost two-thirds into this autobiography. Some readers will regret this; others may be disappointed by the perfunctory retelling of the succeeding acts of Evans’s life after Murdoch defenestrated him from his short-lived editorship of the Times – the move to the US with his young and brilliant second wife, Tina Brown, his editorship of a succession of prestigious US titles, his role running the publisher Random House, the best-selling books he wrote – the past quarter-century is disposed of in less than 30 pages.
My Paper Chase is fascinating enough without all that, though, as an account of the making of a 20th-century newspaperman par excellence and his rise through the ranks, from reporting whist drives for local papers to rubbing shoulders with world leaders.
Born into a working-class Manchester family on the eve of the Great Depression, Harold Evans remembers a long-vanished world. His father worked on the railways; the streets where he lived were full of workers wearing clogs as they made their way to the mills. All this might sound dangerously like a Hovis commercial, but his writing is too good, the reporter’s instinct for clarity too strong, to fall into sepia-tinted sentimentality.
Having failed his 11-plus, the young Harry might easily have lost any opportunity to shine. Instead, an unexpected chance of a grammar-school education led to an apprenticeship at 16 with a local paper, followed by national service, which in turn made it possible for him to get a university grant (rare in those days) and a degree at Durham University.
The Manchester Evening News , where Evans became a subeditor in the early 1950s, sold a million copies every day, operating in a fiercely competitive environment. “Six million people in the north of England got their news through the city of Manchester,” he writes. “Daily and Sunday, no fewer than 26 newspapers were written, edited and published within a couple of square miles of the four central railway stations.”
Manchester journalists saw themselves as tougher, more meritocratic and less inclined to airs and graces than their London counterparts. Opinionated, energetic and ambitious, Evans thrived.
He brilliantly evokes the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the Evening News ’s subs’ room, where military discipline was enforced and it was not unusual for employees to get physically sick from tension. Every second counted as pages were replated every half-hour through the day. A superb passage details the process by which the story of a major train crash is assembled, reassembled, added to, updated, edited and re-edited for 10 successive editions over the course of 10 hours.
Evans is (rightly) admiring of the craft and skills of the good subeditor, skills which, he says, never existed in the US, “where the copy editors have been accustomed to grazing on acres of newsprint; in Britain, the effect of wartime newsprint rationing put a premium on concisesness”.
Rapid promotion soon saw him writing the News ’s editorial leaders and being sent on investigative journeys across Europe. His rise was interrupted only by a scholarship in the US, where he travelled from coast to coast, observed the appalling reality of segregation at first hand in the South, and, despite his reservations about US subbing skills, was deeply impressed by “the way newspapers consistently engaged in time-consuming investigations of a kind virtually unheard of then in Britain”.
His energy is impressive. No sooner is he back in England than he’s heading off again to train young journalists in the newly free countries of Asia. When he gets his first editorship, of the genteel and decaying Northern Echo , he doesn’t just turn the paper around; he drives across the Pennines every evening to tend a burgeoning TV career with Granada.
He acknowledges that his ascent to the top of Fleet Street was made easier by the increased social mobility of the 1960s, when class barriers seemed to be breaking down. The sour and self-destructive atmosphere of the 1970s, epitomised by the corrupt and bullying behaviour of powerful print unions, informs a surprisingly positive portrait of Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch may have forced Evans out of British newspapers, but he also saved them by breaking the power of those unions with his move to Wapping. “Murdoch and his managers had struck a redemptive blow for the freedom of the press. We in the old management that cared so much for responsible journalism had failed and he’d succeeded.”
JOURNALISM IS A BRUISING PROFESSION, but there’s very little score-settling done here. What venom there is is reserved for Enoch Powell, an early adversary when, as health minister, he refused to take up the case of thalidomide children, then stonewalled a proposal to introduce cervical smears, a decision that, Evans calculates, led directly to the deaths of thousands of women.
If you’re interested at all in the history of media and of newspapers in the 20th century, this is a fascinating memoir that evokes a disappeared world of Underwood typewriters and smoke-filled newsrooms. More importantly, it makes a compelling case for the importance of long-term, campaigning investigative journalism that breaks out of the goldfish memory of the 24-hour news cycle, defies the weight of establishment opinion and has the courage to keep pursuing a story even when the public’s interest is on the wane.
For all that, it seems a pity that, looking back on his life from the beachside house on Long Island where he now lives, Evans h asn’t gathered all its many threads together a little more coherently. Some of the Sunday Times material – the chapter on Northern Ireland, for example – seems more dutiful than insightful. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect that a life in journalism running from the era of glue pots and hot metal to the technology of blogs and iPhones might be expected to yield something a little more revealing than the pronouncement that “the question is not whether Internet journalism will be dominant, but whether it will maintain the quality of the best print journalism”.
But maybe, at 81, Sir Harold is saving his ink for another day.
Hugh Linehan is Online editor of The Irish Times