Friday, December 18, 2009
Evans the Editor!
BOOKS: Northern echoes in Harry’s games with establishment club
December 17, 2009 Tribune arts
My Paper Chase by Harold Evans
Little Brown, £25
Harry Evans’ book is a remarkably evocative portrait of an eventful era in British history, painted with insight and candour – but without rancour. With self-deprecatory humour and affection, his anecdotes of life in journalism illuminate the changes that were taking place in society, in part spurred on by people like him.
He was especially well placed to observe. Son of a Manchester train driver, Evans made his way to the top of British journalism, shouldering aside the Oxbridge types who still dominate the upper echelons of government, even if their grip is not quite so firm as once it was. He doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder – but is well aware he has had every excuse for one!
His story implicitly explains his subsequent remaking of himself in the United States and his comfort with life there. As I can personally testify, Americans do not see northern vowels as a linguistic caste mark and most Brits are instant honorary WASPs. Evans is proud of his adopted home – as his recent books testify – but well aware of the warts that need to be included in any accurate portrait of the country. Typical of his sense of proportion, while deploring British libel and contempt laws, he was shocked by the propensity of the American media, unhindered by such restraints, to lynch the accused in the run up to a trial. As the knighthood he has accepted suggests, he is no self-hating Brit, and his pride in the better traditions of British journalism permeates this book.
He recounts with justified pride his work when editor at the Northern Echo – the exposure of ICI’s fishy attitude to emissions on Teesside and the NHS’ cavalier attitude to the long-proven efficacy of pap smears. It was there, too, that he began a campaign about the execution of Timothy Evans which finally had him declared innocent.
Too late for the victim, but it exposed the willingness of the judiciary to believe three impossible things before breakfast rather than admit that one of their colleagues had been wrong. The campaign played a significant role in the abolition of the death penalty. He is not boasting, just taking justified pride in a journalist’s job well done.
When he moved to the Sunday Times, Evans continued to erode the mutually protective mafia rules of silence and cover-up disguised as contempt of court and libel that covered the mistakes and injustices of our rulers. His Insight team’s investigations into Thalidomide and Rachmanism exposed a cozy nexus of legal indifference and corporate/state indifference to suffering and injustice.
He also confronted the Oxbridge omerta when his reporters waded through official excuses about national security to the revelation of the role of Kim Philby: the defector had actually spearheaded British intelligence efforts against the Soviets while working as a Soviet agent himself. Philby’s most redoubtable defence was not the coterie of comrades who had accompanied him from Cambridge into MI6, but the old school brigade who, as Evans points out, rallied to his defence when entirely justified suspicions were raised and almost appointed him as head of the organization. Even after Philby’s defection to Moscow, they closed ranks. Like the judges, they did not want the world to know about the incompetence and treachery of members of the ruling elite.
Ironically, Evans’ nemesis was an Oxford man, but the former “Red Rupert” Murdoch was by no means a member of the club, and that aspect clearly tickles Evans, even as he recounts the trail of dishonoured promises by which the media mogul destroyed any pretence of editorial independence. For some sections of the left, the Wapping strike by which Murdoch destroyed the print unions is still a litmus test. Evans is more nuanced. He had to deal with the same unions earlier – and he ruefully records that their obdurate leaders supported the Murdoch takeover because, they said, “We can work with Rupert.”