AS I SEE IT
The death of Harold Evans marks the passing of an era in newspapers, says STEVE SAMPSON
Harold Evans may well have been one of the greatest ever newspaper Editors. He was also a parable of a modern Britain in the 1960s. His father was a railway engine driver. His grandfather was illiterate.
If you remember black and white television, you remember Evans’ tumultuous years as the campaigning editor of The Sunday Times. He exposed the thalidomide scandal, a pregnancy drug which cruelly deformed babies. He unmasked MI6 spy Kim Philby as a Russian double agent and locked horns with the Government over a scandalous ministerial memoir.
He was the classic outsider. The brilliant working-class hero who rose through the ranks on pure intellect, not patronage. Handsome, sharp, driven and opinionated. In his world, newspapers were for news and causes. The one battle he couldn’t win was with the greatest outsider of them all – his owner and publisher Rupert Murdoch.
Harry – to his friends – was everywhere. On radio and TV, meeting and greeting the famous and powerful. Murdoch thought him no more than Macavity, found his grandstanding a bore. His lack of respect and financial rigour irksome. Evans wanted to be left alone to run the paper as he saw fit, taking decisions without reference.
He sneered at Murdoch’s apparent low moral fibre and support for Margaret Thatcher whom he loathed and attacked at every opportunity. The meritocracy that allowed him to rise had been usurped by the unworthy.
He had also failed to buy the paper from then owner Roy Thomson. Murdoch had stolen his prize with false promises and dirty tabloid money. It’s easy to forget that the paper had been kept off the streets for a whole year by power-mad unions. Whatever happened to them? Those winters of discontent.
Rupert shrewdly moved him to The Times as editor. If you know newspapers, you know the vastly different pace. It was a poisoned chalice. He lasted a year – the shortest tenure of any editor in the paper’s history.
‘Without question he was a brilliant practitioner. His pages still stand up today. As an editor he was everywhere, over every full stop’
That didn’t stop him. He dumped his wife and went to America with his sexy lover Tina Brown. Got married to her, started a new family and career as a publisher of some of the great political memoirs of the age. They founded the Daily Beast and wowed Manhattan society.
And continued to put the knife into Murdoch as every turn, supporting the Hacked Off movement – to the surprise of his old colleagues.
Without question he was a brilliant practitioner. His pages still stand up today. As an editor he was everywhere, over every full stop. The papers he ran lost money by the boatload and continued to do so for years under Murdoch, who has poured in more than £100m to keep them afloat.
But don’t look for legacy. There is no such thing, only faded memories. Legacy will be Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple phones. Changing the world in ways that Evans, Cudlipp, English and MacKenzie could never have dreamt. Or Murdoch, for that matter.
Harold Evans has gone. His generation of working-class heroes changed everything and nothing. We are governed by an old Etonian. Who sat in Cabinet with another old Etonian as Prime Minister. We get our news on our phones, not sure if the Russians or the Chinese have hacked it.
If newspapers are a shadow of their former selves it’s because they are. Name the current editors of our biggest publications. You can’t. We had better hope that another Evans comes along, lots like him. Who else will hold power to account. Not students dancing on Tik Tok.
Sir Harold Evans, newspaper editor and publisher, born on June 28, 1928. Died of congestive heart failure on September 23, 2020, aged 92
Steve Sampson is former Assistant, Northern and Scottish Editor of The Sun newspaper, and a Director of Trinity Mirror publications. He was a launch presenter of Radio5 Live, founder of First Press Publishing and contributes to the BBC. Based in Scotland, he is an investor/owner across a series of digital initiatives, and a media adviser.