Prince of prints

Country Life Every Week - - Spectator - Les­lie Ged­des-brown

MOST of us have at least one stroke of luck in life and mine came when I was work­ing on a weekly pa­per in York. The high­light of the week was rewrit­ing the re­ports from the WIS: ‘The prize for the three best tarts was won by Mes­dames Smith, Jones and Robin­son.’ An army boyfriend per­suaded me to write in the af­fil­i­ated re­gional morn­ing pa­per, The

North­ern Echo, about the trou­ble the lo­cal reg­i­ment, The Green Howards, was hav­ing in Ger­many. To my amaze­ment, it led the front page.

Shortly af­ter­wards, I got an in­vi­ta­tion from the edi­tor. Would I join their news­room? The edi­tor was Harold Evans. Like me, he started as a cub re­porter at 16; in 1961, aged 32, he was an edi­tor.

My work with him was some of the most ex­cit­ing a re­porter can imag­ine. We cam­paigned for a par­don for Ti­mothy Evans, ex­e­cuted for his baby’s mur­der. Later, it turned out that the killer Regi­nald Christie also lived at 10, Rilling­ton Place. Evans, hanged in 1950, was par­doned in 1966.

In 1963, as Harry was driv­ing to speak to a Ro­tary Club on the coast, he heard on the car ra­dio that Kennedy had been as­sas­si­nated. He drove straight back to the news­pa­per. The en­tire staff was mo­bilised and we pro­duced a four-page sup­ple­ment for the morn­ing pa­per. My role was to sit in his of­fice read­ing the telexes as they ar­rived (no emails then) and try­ing to make sense of what had hap­pened.

While deal­ing with this sort of high drama, Harry also re­mem­bered that his was a min­ing re­gion and so the pa­per cov­ered not just lo­cal min­ing news, but tri­umphs and dis­as­ters in mines around the world. He vir­tu­ally dou­bled the cir­cu­la­tion.

Not sur­pris­ingly, the young cam­paign­ing edi­tor came to the at­ten­tion of the na­tion­als and Harry was given the job of edi­tor of The Sun­day Times, then a rather dry weekly with a high opin­ion of it­self. It didn’t know what was in store.

Like many of The North­ern Echo staff, I was in­vited to join the team, where my job was to fill in for oth­ers who took the statu­tory sab­bat­i­cal. Var­i­ously, I was the women’s edi­tor, that of the en­vi­ron­men­tal and gar­den­ing pages, the let­ters edi­tor and given charge of such colum­nists as Jilly Cooper and Joan Bakewell.

I ended up on the Arts pages, which was a treat in it­self. The edi­tor was God­frey Smith, who would sum­mon all the crit­ics— Bernard Levin, Dilys Pow­ell, Alan Brien, Ma­rina Vaizey—on Fri­day to read their copy and have a good gos­sip. Claire To­ma­lin was lit­er­ary edi­tor and her as­sis­tant Ju­lian Barnes (now a fa­mous nov­el­ist).

To ease things along, Fort­num & Ma­son would de­liver lunch— some­thing like a whole brie cheese with gulls’ eggs on the side. As com­men­ta­tors said, The Sun­day Times un­der Lord Thom­son was a play­ground for jour­nal­ists.

Harry was a cam­paign­ing jour­nal­ist to his shoes and his most notable ef­fort was to get repa­ra­tions for those chil­dren per­ma­nently dis­fig­ured in the womb when their moth­ers took the drug Thalido­mide. It was a long, hard bat­tle, but he never gave up.

His ad­vice to other cam­paign­ers was never to start on a cru­sade you couldn’t win. Al­ways make sure there was a chance. I don’t think he was ever de­feated.

In 2002, he was voted as the great­est edi­tor of all time by two pro­fes­sional jour­nals. He lives in New York with his wife, Tina Brown, and has just pub­lished a book, Do I make My­self Clear? Why Writ­ing Well Mat­ters.

It should be es­sen­tial read­ing for any­one who, as the ti­tle says, wants to be clear. That in­cludes jour­nal­ists, man­agers and, above all, politi­cians. I am cer­tainly or­der­ing a copy.

The Sun­day Times was a play­ground for jour­nal­ists

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