INTERVIEW:Legendary newspaper editor Harold Evans is still passionate about good journalism and its value to society, but for now he is waiting on the Saville Report, which he is convinced will vindicate his original reporting on Bloody Sunday, writes MARK HENNESSY, London Editor
SEVENTY YEARS AGO this month, Harold Evans learned a lesson about journalism on the beaches of Rhyl in north Wales in the sun-kissed summer of 1940, even though he did not realise at the time that it was a lesson.
Just days before, hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers had been rescued from Dunkirk, mostly by the Royal Navy, but also by “the little ships” of legend, from the clutches of the all-conquering German Wehrmacht.
In a sea-front boarding house run by one Mrs McCann, a clipping from the Daily Mirrorwas pinned to the wall, declaring “Bloody Marvellous!”, reflecting the national mood that Dunkirk was some kind of victory.
His railway driver father, Frederick, who had spent months hauling munitions through a blacked-out Britain, talked to each of the soldiers on the beach who had been shipped to Rhyl for rest. All of them had been brought home from Dunkirk.
“How was it then that Dad found nothing marvellous, only dejection, as he moved among them,” Evans has written in his autobiography, My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times, now out in paperback.
“Only two years later when my ambitions to be a newspaper reporter flowered, did I understand that Dad was doing what a good reporter would do. Asking questions. Listening,” he writes.
In the years since, Evans remembered the lesson of Rhyl in a career which saw him lead the Sunday Timesand London Timesin some of the most glorious chapters of journalism.
Still deeply involved in the trade, Evans, who has lived for decades in New York, remains convinced of the need for a strong press. He despairs of its daily failings and lack of persistence, and endlessly encourages new and younger talent.
“One of the reasons for writing my book, apart from saying where I came from, was to emphasise the importance of reporting, which is why no democracy can flourish without good reporting. It can survive, but it can’t flourish,” he says.
Evans, born in 1931, was fortunate to get beyond the age of three – he contracted pneumonia and was not expected to survive. In the late 1930s, pneumonia, meningitis, diphtheria and tuberculosis were still claiming one in 20 children.
Evans has travelled far from 14 May Street, Munton, the terraced house with a tiny garden in front, where he was raised by his father and mother, Mary Hannah. Today, he travels across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2 – it eliminates, he says, the difficulties of getting used to the time difference and allows plenty of time to read undisturbed – and stays in the Berkeley in Knightsbridge.
And there is much to read, and to ponder. Internationally, he believes, the media failed abysmally to spot looming major issues, in particular the global financial crisis. Too often, the press blames its failures on a lack of money and resources, although this cuts little ice with a man who led major campaigns when he was editor of the Northern Echoin Darlington in the 1960s.
During that time, the paper spurred national cervical cancer testing for women, halted dangerous pollution by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) on Teesside and saw Timothy Evans, who had been wrongly hanged for murders committed by John Christie, exonerated.
“On the Northern Echo I had absolutely no money whatsoever. Money is an excuse for indolence. It really gets me mad that: that we can’t do because we would have to strain an intellectual muscle. That’s no good at all. I don’t accept that,” he says, although he concedes that some of the investigations conducted by the Sunday Times, the most famous being the Thalidomide scandal, “were expensive”.
The issue for Evans is imagination. The public’s attention span is short. The media’s is even shorter, but the latter too often fails to present important matters to the public in a way that will interest them.
“The attention span is short, but the press has always had that tendency to move on to the next story. One of the challenges of journalism, apart from staying awake to things like the financial meltdown, is to keep a story interesting,” he said.
Take the Haitian earthquake, for example. The story was covered 24/7 in the opening days, yet it has disappeared off the public’s radar in the months since, although millions of people have individually contributed to charities working in the country.
“Where are those people living now? What has happened to the people who had legs amputated? What is happening with their health service? All of these people here and elsewhere who gave 25 quid to Oxfam should want to know what is being done with their money. But it is not just a simple question of repeating what you have said before. You have to make it interesting, and it is interesting.
“It is a failure of imagination not to make it so. The amnesia is incredible. The very simple thing to do is a recap: whatever happened to the Haitian crisis?”
Besides brilliantly editing great newspapers, Evans also wrote the most respected training manuals for the trade – covering everything from writing, to photographs and design. In 2001, he was voted by British journalists as the greatest editor ever.
However, he is no Luddite, hankering for a vanished past. His wife, Tina Brown, who edited Vanity Fairmagazine, among others, is now in charge of the Daily Beast, a news website delivering original content that has 25 million readers. Clearly proud of her achievements, Evans points to her recent success where the American Academy of Paediatricians was forced to row back on a decision to support limited female genital mutilation for Muslim women in the US.
“The academy said that women were coming to them saying that they want a cutting [which is designed to end a woman’s ability to enjoy sexual pleasure], for their daughters before marriage. The academy should have said, ‘Fuck off’.
“Tina published an article [about it] that the New York Timesrefused. It had a huge number of hits. At the end of the week, the academy renounced its decision. That was a victory within two weeks for the power of the web.
“The web does have its potency, apart from the scabrous sites and I hate those ones. There are so many of them, filled with inaccuracies and pernicious evil,” says Evans, who remains optimistic that good journalism will survive in the internet age.
“Papers like The Irish Times, and the authenticity they supply, are worth a lot to the public. The more scabrous sites don’t carry anything like the conviction that a paper provides. I read The Irish Timesthis morning and I took it almost as gospel.
“I believed it. That is the foundation of great newspapers. I don’t say that for every paper. Say the New York Post, for example,” says Evans, though he does not point out that it is owned by his one-time arch-enemy, Rupert Murdoch.
For Evans, their battle over Murdoch’s takeover of the Timesnewspapers in the early 1980s and Murdoch’s subsequent failure to keep promises made, is old news. “Everyone seems to think that I automatically object to him drawing breath. I don’t.”
Besides accelerating the speed at which information is consumed, the internet is open to manipulation on a gargantuan scale, unless great care and diligence is taken, he believes.
In the internet’s early days, during the Bosnian crisis in the early 1990s, Evans said he had been “impressed” by the quality of the information that emerged by email. “They weren’t even called blogs then. We had ones, saying: ‘They are taking every Muslim out of the houses’.
“But we now have a new situation in which we assume that because it has come to us via a Tweet, or Facebook, or an email, that it is genuine. But we have no idea. I could be sitting in Thailand as a military man and write one saying: ‘I have quit being one of the protesters because they were behaving so badly. I saw them assault a policeman the other day and take his eye out.’ Invented stuff! If you have 10 people putting out stuff like that you can create a total impression quite easily.” Evans clearly favours journalism carried out as a trade, rather than citizen reporting, although he acknowledges that the latter has value.
During his long career, Evans has often been pre-occupied with Ireland. His journalists exposed British torture of interned IRA prisoners; however, before doing so they exposed the IRA’s production of a “fake” torture victim.
“Before we published the internment story, we showed that the whole of the British press had been deceived when it reported a press conference when the IRA brought forward a man with cigarette burns on his arm.
“They were self-inflicted but the rest of the press bought it. We exposed it and when we exposed the hoax, what happened? Did anybody correct anything: the London Times? None of them.
“They printed a lie and then they wouldn’t correct it. That irritated me a very great deal indeed. The internees’ story [published subsequently] was a very difficult decision. Did we have enough proof? Had we verified it enough?”
They had, although Evans for a time faced vitriolic charges that he was “the editor of the IRA Gazette”; despite this, Republicans were later unhappy following a Sunday Timesinvestigation into Bloody Sunday.
Next week, the 12-year-long Saville Inquiry into the events in Derry will finally be published, although Evans, who has given testimony to the inquiry, is confident that the Sunday Times’verdict of the time – that the paratroopers panicked, but a massacre was not planned – “will be vindicated”.
Before it reported, the Sunday Times’sInsight team collected 500 photographs from the scene, identified the people in them and collected statements from each of them. “I was very proud of that and I remain proud of it. We faulted Widgery [baron John, who produced a report in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday that largely cleared British soldiers and authorities of culpability] but we also faulted the thesis that the paratroopers had been sent in to massacre. Our conclusion was that the paratroopers panicked and did some terrible things.
“Saville will be interesting about why the paras started firing. I think the answer is that they panicked: not that they were following orders. If they wanted to murder innocent Irish people that was possibly the worst way they could have done it.
“I will be fascinated by the inquiry’s findings. I hope it will not dodge conclusions that may be uncomfortable for the British government, or, indeed, for the IRA. I think it will be an uncomfortable report. You can’t kill 13 people and expect to get anything benign out of it. You shouldn’t.
“I think in that kind of military operation you could prosecute their superiors who maybe gave orders that were carried out imperfectly. I don’t know what the answer is. I may be wrong.
“I have read a lot of the evidence. I haven’t read all of it. Maybe I am being a little too patriotic,” says Evans, who came close at the time to publishing an early report “from a reporter who wasn’t given enough time” that found that the IRA had not fired shots.
“I am glad that I didn’t run that first report, because it was false. The big danger in journalism, which I have succumbed to, I’m sure, is to construct a seamless narrative when there isn’t a seamless narrative.”
By now, Evans is running badly late; not helped by the fact that The Irish Times was late turning up, a lapse gracefully accepted, but the conversation carries on as book recommendations are shared – “you must read that” – and opinions are shared.
Never meet a hero, it is said, for they will always disappoint up close. Usually, it is wise advice, but then there is the exception.
Harold Evans, the original afflicter of the comfortable and the comforter of the afflicted, is certainly one.
My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Timesis published in paperback by Abacus, £9.99