Mick Brown meets legendary newspaper editor Harold Evans – who, at 88, is far from done with speaking truth to power
Voted the greatest newspaper editor of all time, at 88 – with a lifetime of campaigning for the powerless and standing up to the powerful behind him – Sir Harold Evans is nowhere near ready to retire. Mick Brown meets him in New York
During his years as Fleet Street’s pre-eminent editor, the drivers who would ferry him home late at night had a nickname for Sir Harold Evans. He was known as ‘the jockey’. It was a reference to his small, wiry build, but also to his quickness of movement, and of thought, too: the impression of a coiled spring forever unwinding. Evans, who in 2002 was voted, in a poll conducted by Press
Gazette and the British Journalism Review, the greatest newspaper editor of all time (‘and I had to pay a lot for that…’ he says drily), is now 88, yet his energy remains undiminished.
Sitting in the New York apartment he shares with his wife, the magazine editor and internet publisher Tina Brown, Evans ticks off his present activities: most days he walks the nine blocks to the Times Square offices of Thomson Reuters, where he works as editor-at-large of the news service. He has recently organised a forum on photojournalism, and in May will be moderating a debate by presidential historians to mark the first 100 days of Trump. He is often to be found in Washington and London. He writes, lectures, reads and follows cable news obsessively – a man still energised by politics and current affairs.
‘I’m glad you use that word,’ he says. ‘It reminds me of what somebody wrote when Arnold Weinstock took over General Electric, that “he is now enervating the company”.’ He laughs. Evans has just published a new book, Do I Make Myself Clear?
Why Writing Well Matters. An attack on obfuscation, jargon, cliché, lazy and inept sentence structure and what he calls the predator y clause (the long, rambling introduction that steals the reader’s attention from the main point – ‘I think I’m the first person in 200 years, along with Arthur Quiller-couch, to recognise the importance of the predator y clause in a sentence. And I’m very proud of that ’), the book is more than simply a guide to clear writing. It is a powerful argument for the importance of language, and a signal warning of the consequences of its abuse – insurance policies that don’t cover what the buyer believes t hey cover, instructions that don’t instruct, official statements that protect the guilty, and, not least, as Evans writes, ‘political campaigns created on a tower of untruths’.
As is more or less obligatory at such moments, Evans – who offers a definition of journalism as ‘a moral calling assisted by professional skill’ and says he has always regarded the pursuit of truth as‘ almost a saintly virtue ’– invoke s George Or well. ‘Political language–and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to anarchists–is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’
You can guess where this is leading… the master of ‘the malodorous tweet’, as Evans puts it, who ‘produces lies every time he exhales’, and wields the accusation of ‘fake news’ at anybody who rebuts them.
‘When Trump started telling so many lies, one went through various stages – first of all amazement, that somebody could lie and then repeat the same lie when they’re corrected, and still keep repeating it. And the lie always represents some distortion of values.’ Evans looks genuinely bewildered. ‘I’ve had t his problem before in my life when you’re dealing with sociopaths, where you think he couldn’t possibly say that or do that, because
‘It’s like li ving with a news volcano,’ Evans enthuses of his wife
it would be immoral .’ A somewhat naive view, he admits. ‘Because of course he bloody can!’
Evans has lived in America since 1984, and took dual nationality in 1993, but his accent and his choice of expletive remain determinedly Mancunian. He reaches forward to pour himself a cup of coffee from a fine china pot, which sits on the table beside a plate of Mcvitie’s digestive biscuits.
He has met Trump ‘many, many times’, he goes on. In 1997, as president of Random House, he published Trump’s book: The
Art of the Comeback (‘Blunt, outrageous, smart as hell, and full of hilarious stories,’ according to the blurb).
‘He was a genial fellow about town, you know? He wasn’t an ogre. He wasn’t what he became.’ So why then does Evans believes he ran for president? ‘He wanted to win everything. He wanted to be number one. If you were to ask him, he would say what’s t he point of being number two? He hates losers. If you look at all the characteristics of narcissistic obsession; the fact that he has to be number one, the greatest – you have to see them all as the workings of a mind that is not normal.’ So does he think Trump is dangerous?
‘Yes. I do. But fortunately the generals he has around him are on the whole good guys and realistic people – Mattis and Mcmaster. At least, we hope so.’
At such a time it is the duty of journalism, he says, simply – relentlessly – to pursue ‘the objective truth’. But it is not for the media, despite Trump’s declaration of war against them, to become the party of opposition. ‘Absolutely not. Because you have to oppose everything if you’re the party of opposition, and that’s a terrible trap to set for yourself.’
We meet on the morning after Trump ordered the missile strikes on Syria. Had Evans been editing a daily newspaper, he says, he would have written an editorial in support of the action. ‘Some of my friends on the left say, isn’t it outrageous. I said no. Trump is making it clear there’ll be no more chemical weapons in Syria. It’s a respectable argument. I do get a bit impatient with automatic passivism.’
A couple of weeks later I call him to ask what line as an editor he would have taken on Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election. He would have supported it. He would not, he says, have voted for Brexit in the first place – ‘Are you crazy?’ But with the country having decided on that, May has to make the best of it, and winning an election puts her in the best possible position to do that.
‘It’s a terrifically smart move by Theresa May. There’s no opposition worth talking about, the British economy is in quite good shape with no sign yet of inflation and with unemployment low, so she’ll get an increased majority. My only hope is that the saner people in the Tory party come to the fore instead of people like Boris Johnson, who are so buoyantly reckless it’s really time we saw the back of them.’
Evans and and his wife Tina Brown live in a rambling apartment that combines elegance and homeliness: marbled wallpaper, capacious sofas, paintings crowding the walls, bookshelves ascending to the ceiling, clusters of family photographs on tables. ‘That’s my daughter, Izzie,’ Evans says. ‘That’s my mum and dad at their wedding’ – a sepia portrait of Frederick Evans, a stoker and railway fireman, who rose to the position of train driver, and Mary Evans, a housewife who ran a grocery shop out of the family home in Eccles, Lancashire. ‘And this is my wife with Bill Clinton.’ The Evanses and Clintons are friends.
Evans describes his background as ‘respectable working class’, an evocative phrase. ‘Respectable,’ he says, ‘in the sense, firstly, that you were in employment. Secondly, law-abiding; not stealing, never beating your wife, being sober. My dad would go to the pub just once a week at the most.’
It was a background driven by the idea of self-improvement and the importance of education. His father would shovel coal by day and at night attend classes run by the Independent Labour Party. A clever man, says Evans, brilliant with numbers –tell him your date of birth and in at rice he could calculate what day of the week it had been – but whose prospects had been blighted by his station in life and having left school at 11.
‘I always had this fury, and fury is the right word for it, that he was so fantastically clever – in a way I’m not by the way – and yet he was imprisoned, he could never get above that level. The idea that he could advance in society would have been completely ridiculous. And he inculcated questioning in me, the sense that journalism had a responsibility – and this sounds really corn y–of discovering truth. That it should be educational, aspirational, and correct wrong sand soon and soon. Those things got into my heart and soul quite early on.’
Evans left school at 16 to work as a junior reporter on the Ashton-under-lyne Weekly Reporter. After national service in the RAF he attended night school to gain the qualifications to attend Durham university, going on to work at the Manchester
Evening News, before in June 1961, at the age of 32, becoming editor of The Northern Echo in Darlington. There he attained a reputation for his crusading campaigns on a range of issues, from the price of groceries, to demands for smear tests to detect cervical cancer (which led to national screening), to ‘the Teesside Smell’ – a sickly odour that blighted the air over the town, and which Evans charted with a black spot on a map and the rubric ‘Where Is The Smell Today?’. The source was eventually tracked down to an ICI factory.
In 1966 he was appointed editor of The Sunday Times, and set about assembling the legendary Insight investigations team. Under Evans, The Sunday Times exposed Kim Philby as a Soviet spy, published the diaries of the former Labour minister Richard Crossman, risking prosecution under the Official Secrets Act, and exposed the crooked financier Emil Savundra.
But his most celebrated campaign was on behalf of the hundreds of British children whose lives had been blighted by the morning-sickness drug Thalidomide, leaving many with severe birth defects. Sixty-two families sued Distillers, the manufacturer of the drug, which meant the press was gagged by the draconian sub judice rules of that era – what Evans calls ‘the most restrictive press laws in Western democracy’. Enoch Powell, the then health minister, refused to hold a public inquiry, his senior medical adviser having been briefed by Distillers.
In a campaign lasting eight years, Evans pursued Distillers through the English courts, eventually gaining victory in the European Court of Human Rights, which resulted in £28 million being paid to victims’ families. Moreover, the British government was compelled to change the law inhibiting the reporting of civil cases.
Thalidomide was the apotheosis of what a newspaper campaign should be – taking on the powerful, acting as the voice of the powerless, rectifying a terrible wrong in the face of evasion and obduracy. ‘We were faced there with a monstrous, monstrous evil,’ Evans now says. ‘With Enoch Powell, all of them, for years and years refusing to do anything for these kids – and their families had to bring their children to court without legs and arms. Aaaghh!’ He shrieks and stabs the air with his finger. ‘Let me get at them! You know?’
Would you regard that Thalidomide campaign as your greatest accomplishment? ‘If I want to be big-headed about it, my greatest accomplishment was enabling very clever investigative journalists to do good. The word “leadership” sounds pompous, but nonetheless the ability to get them all to work together on a common objective and keep, if you like, the moral standards by which we went about it.’
Evans was given virtually unlimited resources to mount his investigations. It was not unusual for a team of journalists and researchers to be despatched on a story that would take months to come to fruition - or fall apart altogether. So what future for investigative journalis min an industry facing falling newspaper circulation sand the encroachments of the web?
Evans refuses to see it as a problem. Newspapers, he says, need to be enterprising, and ‘be willing to be lucky’. His investigations would often be spun into a book to allay the costs: the Thalidomide story spawned three. ‘That was never going to be an obvious money-maker. Imagine trying to convince someone to invest in that story: it’s about the terrible thing that’s happened to these kids, and by the way it will require eight years in the law courts, it’s going to be a vast drain on your resources, you’ll lose a lot of advertising. They’d say, “But we don’t have the resources to do that.” Well f— off and find them then…’
Former colleagues talk of Evans in almost heroic terms, as an inspiring figure who‘ found almost everything interesting ’; a man who never walked when he could run, dashing off headlines, remaking pages at the last minute. (He once stopped production to play a game of chess to ensure the annotation was right in the paper – ‘we found an error in the movement of a pawn’.) He rallied the troops, ‘a bit like Hal on the eve of Agincourt’, as one colleague remembers, ‘going round the tents making speeches’.
‘What Harry wanted was to find out what was going on and harass people until they told us ,’ says Don Berry, who worked with Evans as a senior executive on The Northern Echo and The
Sunday Times. ‘He was always looking for a fight with the biggest and highest people in the land. But it was never politically motivated .’ Berry worked with Evans for 17 years .‘ And I never did know what his politics were.’
‘He was looking for a fight with the highest people in the land’
A fitness fanatic, Evans was a keen skier and squash and tennis player, and once competed in the English Open championships at table tennis .‘ He was a great organise r of teams, but never what you’d call a team player ,’ says one colleague, who remembers Evans insisting on turning out for the newspaper’s football team, ‘and he behaved just like a little dog, running like mad after the ball wherever it went. There was no idea of having a position and waiting for the ball to come to him. It was as if the whole game was a mystery to him.’
In 1978 The Sunday Times closed down for a year following a prolonged dispute with the print unions over the introduction of new technology. Its Canadian owner, Roy Thomson, The Lord Thomson of Fleet, who had given Evans a completely free editorial hand, sold the Times titles to Rupert Murdoch, who offered Evans editorship of The Times. ‘My ambition,’ he wrote in his book Good Times, Bad Times, ‘got the better of my judgement.’
Evans clashed with Murdoch over editorial control and his reluctance to give Margaret Thatcher the unconditional support that Murdoch demanded. In March 1982, returning to the office the day after his father’s funeral, Evans was sacked.
He now describes losing the Times as the greatest regret of his life. ‘About the only regret, actually.’ He pauses. ‘I was outwitted.’ Murdoch, he now says, ‘is in a class by himself as an entrepreneur, in movies, studios, television, print and so on. As a publisher he had the right perception about the willingness to fight the trade unions – and I’ll never forgive them for wrecking
The Sunday Times as they did. ‘But then if you say, what about the value of truth, integrity, public service… the nuanced view is almost entirely positive on the business side, and negative on the journalism.’
Following the Times debacle, Evans moved to America. He taught at Duke University and then became editorial director of the weekly magazine US News and World Report.
Evans had met his first wife, Enid, a schoolteacher, at university. The couple had three children (Ruth, Kate and Mike). But in 1974 Evans was introduced to Tina Brown, then in her final year at Oxford, and 25 years his junior, after her agent had submitted some of her work to him. Evans gave her a job, but it was not until a year later that he realised he was falling in love with her – an ‘absurd’ state of affairs, as he acknowledged. In 1978 Evans and Enid divorced. And three years later he married Brown, in a ceremony at Grey Gardens, in East Hampton, New York, the home of their friends, the then Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee and his wife Sally Quinn. The couple have two children, a son, Georgie, 31, and Isabel, who is 26. (Enid died in 2013.)
In 1987 Evans launched Condé Nast Traveler, and in 1990 he moved into publishing as president of Random House, where he published Colin Powell, Richard Nixon, Norman Mailer and a then obscure senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, whose book, Dreams From My Father, he acquired for $40,000 – ‘It made a fortune for Obama and for Random House.’
At the same time he continued to write books on subjects as various as photojournalism and American history; he has written more than a dozen in all. ‘Each one,’ he says with a theatrical sigh, ‘passing through my body like a sword through flesh.’
Tina Brown, meanwhile, became editor of Tatler, before moving to New York to edit Vanity Fair and then The New Yorker, attaining a celebrity that eclipsed her husband’s: the gossip columnist Liz Smith took to referring to him as ‘Mr Harold Brown’, the wistful shadow of a successful wife. Evans writes in his autobiography that he was ‘thrilled’ for his wife and rejoiced in her success. In 1999 Brown launched Talk, a high-gloss politics and celebrity magazine, withal avish party for 1,000 guests ranging from Henry Kissinger to Madonna, held in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. But in 2002 the magazine closed, with Politico.com estimating that Brown had ‘bombed through some
Retire? ‘It’s a perplexing question. I’ve never even thought about it’
$50 million’ in its two-and-a-half-year life. Brown went on to launch a news website, The Daily Beast, and write a bestselling biography of Diana, Princess of Wales, before founding her own company, Tina Brown Live Media, which st ages ‘summits, salons, flash forums and debates’ under the heading Women In The World. She comes into the room as we talk, fresh from a morning workout at the gym, dressed in blacklegging sand a T-shirt, her hair still damp from the shower, enthusing about her coup of a few days earlier of staging the first interview with Hillary Clinton since her election defeat. ‘It’s like living with a news volcano,’ Evans enthuses as his wife disappears upstairs to work, in a manner that suggests he could offer no higher compliment.
Many people of his age, I suggest, might prefer to be sitting on Long Island, where the couple have a home, watching the Atlantic rollers come in.
A flicker of impatience registers on his face. ‘So many people have asked me, when are you going to retire? It’s a perplexing question. I’ve never even thought about it. My concept of life is that I’m going along and somewhere there’s a cliff and I’m going to fall off it and I won’t be here any more. My concept of life is not that you go along until you find a sleepy valley and you lie in it for a bit until you expire. I don’t particularly want to expire.’ Deep down, he says, everybody believes they’re immortal, and he is no different .‘ I applied to join the club along time ago and I’m waiting to hear back from upstairs.’
In the meantime he continues to write, to lecture, to make himself heard. ‘The infusion of coming across new things is… rejuvenating .’ He pa uses .‘ Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time.’
Evans has had a passion for Shakespeare since he was a young boy, inspired by Mr Marsland, his headmaster at St Mary’s Road Central School in Newton Heath, an establishment, he write sin his autobiography My Paper Chase, later demolished‘ by an Education Committee which can have known nothing of the magic the Forest of Arden evoked, as dusk fell over the railway yards’.
At Random House he pursued Marlon Brando to publish his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, passing an afternoon at the actor’ s Beverly Hills home, playing chess and exchanging quotations from Shakespeare. ‘I said, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends ,” and then he said ,“Friends, Romans, countrymen…”’ Evans thumps the table. ‘“LEND me your ears.”
‘I wondered, why the emphasis on “lend”? And Marlon said, “LEND, because Marc Antony was saying to them, I don’t intend to stay a long time; I just want you to hear what I have to say about Caesar. I’m not trying to use Brutus and Cassius and there st .” That was a revelation. Emphasising that word throws it into a completely different light.’
Evans’ eyes gleam with enthusiasm. The words are ‘fantastically exciting’ in themselves, he says, ‘but when you have the privilege to hear them spoken by Marl on Brando… And then he switched gears to “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.” He was huge fun to be with – 300lb of huge fun. He was absolutely maddening as well; completely and totally unreliable. A genius.’
At one point in their meeting, Brando accused him of being a member of the CIA and pressed him on what music he would like to die to. He dodged the question at the time. But would he answer it now? He gives the question some thought.
‘How about, I’m Just Wild About Harry?’
Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters, by Harold Evans (Little, Brown, £20), is out on 16 May. To order your copy for £16.99 plus p&p, call 0844-871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
Harold Evans in Fleet Street, October 1980, and in New York City earlier this month
Evans with his wife, Tina Brown, last year