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Thursday 24 September 2020

So Farewell Then Harold Evans

Those who look in regularly on Zelo Street are, on occasion, told that our free and fearless press has fallen a long way from the days when decent investigative journalism was the rule rather than the exception. Just how far that fall has been can be seen from the career of Harold Evans, one of the greatest of editors and a titan of good journalism, who has died at the age of 92, and who edited the Sunday Times in the 60s and 70s.

Harold Evans: the greatest of editors

Evans made the kind of journey that today would be unheard of: he went from editing the Northern Echo, based in Darlington, to the ST at the time the title was owned by Canadian magnate Roy Thomson. Editors of national titles today are more often appointed for their connections and their ideology, rather than there being any consideration of their ability.

Thomson gave Evans a totally free hand; there was no proprietorial direction or interference. Nor, of course, was there any on the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre at the Daily Mail, but Evans would not have had any truck with the idea of writing the headline before the story had been brought in. Thus the fall of journalism over the years.

Nor would Evans have indulged in the kinds of righteous vendettas that the Mail, as well as the Murdoch press, pursue and have pursued for so many years, and against so many victims. His kind of journalism was exemplified in the ST’s exposure of shameful behaviour by the Distillers Company over the drug Thalidomide, use of which had led to so many mothers giving birth to children with stunted limbs, heart defects, blindness and more.

Evans also doggedly pursued the story of Turkish Airlines flight 981’s loss shortly after departing Paris’ Orly airport in March 1974. The McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 aircraft’s rear left cargo door had blown open at altitude, with the subsequent decompression collapsing the cabin floor, severing the control cables and rendering the aircraft uncontrollable. 346 souls perished in the accident. The cargo door’s latch had not been properly secured.

Worse, McDonnell-Douglas had been warned about the potential for such an incident before the aircraft went into series production. Worse still, an American Airlines flight had suffered a similar failure, but had managed to land safely. The lawsuits following the Turkish Airlines crash were some of the most expensive ever.

But Evans fell foul of the new dispensation at the ST: Rupert Murdoch was not a benign proprietor. So he left the UK and forged a new career in the USA. That was not all: after the phone hacking revelations, Evans gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, where he passed severely adverse comment on the Murdoch mafiosi.

He also said “Murdoch’s News International came to think it was above the law, because it was”. He was right, but this, as with his support for the Leveson recommendations, went against the iron code of press Omertà; that is why so many in the media establishment are not giving Evans’ passing the kind of attention it deserves.

As former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger put it, Harold Evans “gave journalism a good name”. How many of today’s editors can aspire to that standard, when there is so little investigative work, and so much agenda-driven propaganda?

How far the press has fallen from the heyday of Harold Evans.

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Rosie said...

Good piece. I was not a big fan of Tina Brown and all that schmoozing and getting in with the in-crowd stuff in America and it did Evans' reputation no good, but she was good for him and loyal. He was without doubt a great campaigning Editor and used his power well for all of us. His My Paper Chase is a fascinating autobiography which I have read several times. In it, he reminds us that Enoch Powell was the Health Minister who would not do anything about Thalidomide and Distillers, and he refused to meet child victims and their parents. He did nothing to support them. Evans worked in the days when he could choose to spend time and money on investigative journalism that changed lives and helped society. I recall when training as a reporter on the KM at Harlow doing the NCTJ course, I became political, and was moved by the photograph of the naked girl in Vietnam running away from Agent Orange strikes (napalm). The My Lai Massacre was revealed in the S.Times under Evans. It was 1970. And, as was usual under Evans, a full report running over many weeks appeared. It was the turning point towards the end of the Vietnam War and against American Policy. My first letter to any national newspaper as a 19 year old about my feelings on My Lai, was published in the Sunday Times by Evans.

James said...

That was a great share, Rosie !

Thank you.