Harold Evans on Donald Trump and the free press

The former newspaper editor says the US president represents a grievous threat

After more than half a century at the top of journalism and publishing on both sides of the Atlantic, Harold Evans is neither easily shocked nor prone to panic. But Donald Trump's first weeks in office have persuaded him that the American president represents a grievous threat, not only to the free press, but to democracy itself. "It's worse than 1984. It's actually awful," he says.

Sitting in the cocktail bar of his Pall Mall club, Evans is in many ways the consummate insider, a knight of the realm on first name terms with many of the most powerful people in the world, including Trump. But at 88, the Lancashire-born son of working-class parents retains much of the scrappiness and determination that led him to confront the entire British establishment as editor of the Sunday Times during his campaign on behalf of victims of thalidomide, a drug given to women in pregnancy.

Evans is alarmed by Trump’s attempt, aided by his White House lieutenants Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, to portray the press as the opposition to the new administration.

“The best way to shut up criticism is to get everybody to think of the press as an opposition party. Therefore, everything it says is bound to be slightly biased, or totally biased, or hostile. And so undermining faith in the press is one of their objectives,” he says.


Free press

“The other objective of Trump, Bannon and two or three other acolytes around him, particularly Miller – who looks like Goebbels and talks like Goebbels – is to destroy faith in the free press, the judiciary and the universities. Because those are the three areas of independence and, where they are independent and free and do their job properly, a democracy or a civilisation survives and thrives. When they’re not allowed to do it, corruption, violence, brutality, racism and ethnic nationalism flourish.”

Evans says the press should resist the temptation to set itself up as an opposition to Trump, but should faithfully report and investigate, and should not be frightened of identifying falsehoods. He believes that Trump’s tax returns are likely to hold the key to the mystery surrounding the president’s relationship with Russia. And he encourages the media to study the “emoluments clause” in the US constitution, which prohibits the president from accepting any financial benefit from a foreign state.

Many of Trump’s critics are hoping that the whiff of scandal around his administration could lead to an early impeachment, but Evans is sceptical.

“Impeachment I regard as like the ice melting in the Arctic – it might happen but it’s not going to happen in our time. It’s not going to happen in the next three or four years. It might happen if he wins a second term because he might go a little bit wilder,” he says.

Investigative journalist

As editor-at-large for Reuters, Evans is still a working journalist, with a new book Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters coming out in May. As Sunday Times editor for 14 years, he introduced a new kind of investigative journalism to Britain, pursuing lengthy campaigns to expose injustice and reveal low standards in high places.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s Evans and his team uncovered the truth about thalidomide, a drug prescribed to pregnant women in the early 1960s, which caused children to be born with malformed or missing limbs. In the face of aggressive legal tactics by Distillers, the company that owned the drug, and indifference from politicians and the rest of the media, Evans exposed the truth about thalidomide’s origins and forced the company to properly compensate its victims.

The thalidomide story is, he says, an example of the importance of journalists working as a team, and of what he regards as the most important quality in any reporter – an awareness of his or her own ignorance.

“You don’t know a f**king thing, and go and ask a lot of questions and find out. You can’t be an investigative reporter unless you begin with a recognition of ignorance instead of a recognition of arrogance. I feel this very strongly,” he says.

“The reason we need reporters is that there’s a more likely chance of a good reporter finding the truth than a commission of inquiry.”

Forced out

Evans moved to the US in the early 1980s, after he was forced out of the editorship of the Times by Rupert Murdoch, becoming part of New York's most celebrated media couple with his wife Tina Brown.

In his 2009 memoir My Paper Chase, he sounded optimistic about the future of news in the digital age, as news organisations exploited new distribution systems to reach readers.

Today, he is a great deal gloomier, as he watches Facebook and Google monopolise distribution platforms and impoverish traditional newsrooms. “Facebook has taken the revenues, making tons and tons of money, at the same time depriving the press of its traditional source of revenue from advertising. My suggestion is that Mr Zuckerberg should make a bequest of exactly half of his fortune and it should go to various organisations so we can disseminate news without having to rely on Facebook and fake news, because there’s no monitoring system there,” he says.

“There used to be a lot of left-wing exultation that we don’t have gatekeepers any more. Well f**k you, look what you’ve got now: you’ve got fake news. So the traditional press, with editors and scrutiny – check that fact and if you get a name wrong you’re in trouble – that’s something important and valuable.”

Online subscriptions

Evans draws some comfort from the surge in online subscriptions to serious newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post following Trump’s election. He warns editors against relying too heavily on metrics that measure online readership to the point where a journalist’s instincts are suppressed. And he urges serious news organisations to pursue only the highest standards, on the basis that, if they are going to fail, it is better to fail at a high level. “I think it’s a race against time,” he says.

“It’s a blind man going along trying to feel his way, because he’s got fake news, he’s got Zuckerberg and he’s got Rupert Murdoch. And before he stumbles, maybe we can get some kind of vision back in terms of credibility, authority and reliability in the press. Otherwise, we’re f**ked.”