evans above

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - LIFE AND TIMES - Portraits by Billy Kidd

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

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