Sir Harold Evans

Sir Harold Evans file photo.

28-09-2020Bria Webb

With the death of Sir Harold Evans at the age of 92, I have lost an old friend and a formidable rival in the days when he was editing the Sunday Times and I was editing The Observer. As a tribute to the greatest newspaper editor of our time, I reproduce here a review of Harry’s autobiography, which I wrote 37 years ago but which still represents my opinion of him and his legendary battle with Rupert Murdoch. It appears in a book to be published later this year, Heroes & Villains, a selection of my journalism over the past 60 years.

The trouble with Harry is that he lost his job and it happened to be the best job in the world (except, of course, for mine). One of the lesser attractions of the job is that Rupert Murdoch thinks he could do it better himself, which may or may not be true. Evans’s book invites us to choose between them – a choice he presents as a stark one between Good and Evil. If one finally resists that choice, it is because neither emerges as perfectly suited to The Times.

For all their quarrels, Harry and Rupert had too much in common. Both could cry out with Northcliffe in Max Beerbohm’s cartoon: “Help! Again I feel the demons of sensationalism rising within me!” Both are intensely competitive men, in small things as well as large ones. Both have a chip; both make things fizz; neither stays to pick up the pieces.

Most people affected by the drama would agree with Evans about “the atmosphere of intrigue, fear and spite” at Murdoch’s Times, but they might share out the blame in different proportions. It was undoubtedly Murdoch’s brooding, jet-lagged restlessness that set the mood, but Evans made a basic mistake in failing to hold the journalists together. Also, The Times was costing a fortune and when a paper that is losing money an editor is never completely free.

Meanwhile, as they fought over the scalpel, the patient lay whimpering on the operating table. The dramatic events described in this book can only be understood against the background of industrial agony and acute personal strain in which Times Newspapers found themselves at the end of 1980. The Murdoch takeover followed two years of blood-letting at Printing House Square, including 11 months of non-publication and losses of £30 million.

When, over lunch at the Savoy Grill, Murdoch persuaded him to move to The Times, Harold Evans was 52, at the peak of his career. He had edited the Sunday Times successfully for 14 years. His campaigns to compensate the victims of thalidomide and to publish the Crossman Diaries had been acclaimed at home and abroad. His stock was so high that, in retrospect, he should have stayed where he was and fought Murdoch on the firm ground he knew, rather than on the shifting sands down the road – a verdict, one suspects he might privately acknowledge.

Even if the engine-driver’s son could not resist the kudos of The Times for ever, he might at least have stayed put for Murdoch’s initial blitzkrieg – and then, ironically, he might have had the satisfaction of succeeding Charles Douglas-Home there, rather than vice versa. If Evans is less than convincing about his own role at key moments, it isn’t for lack of candour. He is such an engaging, honest fellow that his faults, as well as his virtues, shine clearly through the book, and he makes no attempt to conceal them. It is much the raciest newspaper narrative since Hugh Cudlipp’s 20 years ago: rich in flavour, anecdote and personality. The frenzy of his final days at The Times is captured with verve, speed and economy. Even the faintly discernible whine of self-pity seems fully justified.

The man who stalks through this book – or rather “slouches, leading with a shoulder, dragging a foot”, with his deep frown and heavy howls – is Rupert Murdoch himself: the author even makes him look like Richard Nixon. One of the most moving moments in the book is the Soliloquy of St James’s Square, where Evans walks around in anguish trying to decide whether he can summon the strength for a campaign to fight Murdoch off.

This was the crucial decision, but he was making it too late: he should have faced that choice before “the vivid rascal” (Mrs Evans’s first impression of Murdoch) came to captivate him, as he has captivated so many otherwise sensible men. Instead of that, he was busy trying to set up a rival consortium to buy the Sunday Times, competing with (and losing to) Murdoch in tycoonery, and thereby starting at a disadvantage.

For all his tactical errors, though, Harold Evans holds an important place in the history of The Times. He forced “the black friars of Printing House Square” (Northcliffe’s phrase) to accept the idea of change and thereby cleared a path for his successors. As for his fight for editorial freedom, I am naturally prejudiced in his favour. It was an historic fight and an heroic ordeal.

A former Times editor, Sir William Haley said in his farewell address to the staff: “There are things which are bad and false and ugly, and no amount of specious casuistry will make them good or true or beautiful.” That is roughly what another former Times editor is saying here about the man who controls more of our newspapers than anyone else in history.

A tale of two friends

Even though we ran rival papers, Harry Evans and I became good friends because we had much in common. We were both short men from a Northern working-class background (railways in his case, coal mining in mine), we had both reached Fleet Street via regional papers and we shared a common interest in the craft of newspapers - typography, design and so on. We even looked a bit alike and I was once stopped on a train by Tony Benn, who thought I was Harry Evans and wouldn’t believe it when I told him I wasn’t.
When The Observer was threatened with closure a few years ago, Harry agreed to appear with me on BBC Newsnight to underline the importance of the paper’s survival.

In the TV studio in London we both appeared on giant screens – he (an octogenarian) in New York and me (then a septuagenarian) in Palma. I was distracted from answering Kirsty Walk’ questions by stragglers from the bars in Palma crossing the bridge where I was being filmed and watching my wife trying to stop them.

Our mission succeeded and The Observer was saved. I calculated afterwards that the combined ages of Harry and myself amounted to about three quarters of the paper’s entire history.

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