- My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times – An Autobiography by Harold Evans
Little, Brown, 515 pp, £25.00, September 2009, ISBN 978 1 4087 0203 1
As the 19th century turned into the 20th, the English press was diverse and vigorous. Apart from the Times, whose threepenny price marked it as the newspaper of record for the ruling class, London had a clutch of what were conveniently known as penny papers. On one side were the Tory Morning Post, Daily Telegraph and Standard, on the other, the Liberal Daily News and Daily Chronicle, surviving or even thriving on circulations well under 50,000. To call them ‘quality’ or ‘serious’ morning papers was superfluous, as there were no others, until the great challenge – and the terrible portent – of 1896, when Alfred Harmsworth launched the Daily Mail at a halfpenny, far brighter and brasher, and soon hugely outselling all the others.
What happened to the Daily News and Daily Chronicle was curious, and likewise something of a portent. First they both performed weird political volte-faces. When the Boer War began, the News supported it and the Chronicle opposed it, but both saw their editors sacked and their policies on the war reversed: a warning of how little editorial independence can mean in practice, as Rupert Murdoch would be the first to agree. Then they went sharply downmarket, to keep company with the rampant Mail. By 1930, the two had merged as the News Chronicle, and by 1960 that sad survivor was itself folded, ironically enough, into the Mail.
There was also a flourishing provincial press, which good judges at the time reckoned perhaps the best papers in the country. The Yorkshire Post, the Scotsman, the Glasgow Herald, the Birmingham Post and, in a special position of repute and influence, the Manchester Guardian, yielded nothing in self-esteem to the London papers, although most of them had a guilty secret: they were supported by evening papers whose essential function was to provide the racing results. That was true not least of the austere Guardian, subsidised by the Manchester Evening News.
One other local paper had acquired considerable fame under a brilliant editor. W.T. Stead was a Yorkshire boy who had begun his working life as a clerk. In 1871, he was made editor of the Northern Echo of Darlington at the age of 21, and soon became the most famous campaigning journalist of the day, before he moved to the Pall Mall Gazette, one of several London evening papers with an influence quite out of proportion to their small sales. Stead continued campaigning there, most famously with the ‘Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ series, exposing the extent of child prostitution in London and leading to new legislation. While researching the series, Stead himself technically broke the law and was imprisoned for three months; after his release, he would ostentatiously wear his convict’s uniform once a year.
In 1961, 90 years after Stead, a young man who took him as his hero was appointed editor of his old paper, the Northern Echo. At 33, Harold Evans wasn’t quite as precocious as his predecessor, but he came from a world in some ways closer to Stead’s than to England today. In the engaging early pages of My Paper Chase, Evans describes his upbringing and entry into journalism: the heartening story of a likely lad of parts who rises from humble origins by ability and diligence. His grandfather had left Montgomeryshire to work on the railways at Crewe, where his son followed, climbing the ladder from ‘passed cleaner’ to ‘red ink fireman’ to ‘black ink driver’, and ending with a pension of seven shillings a week.
Born in 1928, Evans grew up ‘in the L.S. Lowry landscape’ of Eccles, which he describes in when-I-were-a-lad pages reminiscent less of Lowry than a Hovis ad. ‘I’ll see you never wear clogs,’ his mother said, and in their stockings every Christmas ‘there was always an apple, a nut and a shiny new penny.’ Despite living for many years in London and New York (and marrying Tina Brown), Evans has retained an agreeable touch of puzzled or even prudish innocence: ‘the effing and blinding that is the vernacular today’ was unknown in his family. Perhaps he doesn’t realise just how interesting he is in this respect. He comes from a society which has vanished almost without trace, the respectable or ‘self-helping working class’: the chapel-goers who went on to create a Labour movement infused by provincial Dissenting virtue. In this case they were literally self-helping. From selling ice cream at weekends, the Evanses opened a small corner shop and eased into modest prosperity.
Vol. 32 No. 1 · 7 January 2010
Writing about the sale of Times Newspapers to Rupert Murdoch in 1981, Geoffrey Wheatcroft claims that Lord Thomson was in his eighties and ‘had had enough’ of industrial disputes (LRB, 17 December 2009). Thomson had indeed ‘had enough’. He died in 1976. On a more serious level, Wheatcroft seems to have accepted uncritically Harold Evans’s assertion that it was the ‘great achievement’ of Reg Brady, a Communist shop steward in the pressroom, to shut down the Sunday Times for a year, thus paving the way for the paper’s acquisition ‘by a ruthless Australian’.
As it happens, Evans and William Rees-Mogg, the editor of the Times, repaid the loyalty of their journalists in April 1978 by collaborating with the commercial managers in a hare-brained scheme to crush the print unions. The journalists were warned that they, too, would be dismissed if, by 30 November 1978, the NUJ chapels at the two papers failed to sign new agreements covering the introduction of computer-based technology. (I was father of the Times chapel at the time.)
A week or so before the deadline expired, the Sunday Times NUJ chapel signed the agreement. The Times chapel, on the other hand, met a few hours before the deadline, and voted after long debate not to sign. Members felt that in spite of the provocative and disruptive behaviour of some groups of workers, it was wrong of management – including the editors – to threaten journalists with dismissal. It was seen as management by diktat, and instead of defending their journalists Evans and Rees-Mogg were party to the bullying.
Management made good their threat to suspend publication of all the titles in the group on 30 November, and the lockout, the longest in modern British industrial history, lasted 50 weeks. It ended in total defeat for the management. That the journalists – unlike the printers and clerical workers – were not sacked was not down to any residual affection but to the fact that both editors and management knew perfectly well that once sacked the editorial staffs could never be reassembled. I believe the threat to dismiss the journalists was synthetic from the outset, but that in no way absolves the management of causing great distress to Times employees. Harry Evans may indeed harbour a ‘burning hatred’ for Reg Brady, but to allege that this minor shop steward ‘shut down the Sunday Times for a year’ is to falsify the record.
The postscript to the lockout came with Murdoch’s purchase of the papers in January 1981. Shortly afterwards, having appointed Harry Evans as editor of the Times, Murdoch also appointed a new industrial relations manager – Reg Brady.
Vol. 32 No. 2 · 28 January 2010
In my review of Harold Evans’s My Paper Chase (LRB, 17 December 2009) I wrote that Lord Thomson, the proprietor of the Times and Sunday Times, ‘had had enough’ of industrial disputes by the time the papers were sold to Rupert Murdoch in 1981, to which Jacob Ecclestone responds that ‘Thomson had indeed “had enough”. He died in 1976’ (Letters, 7 January). My consolation, rather than excuse, is that this is less embarrassing than the contrary mistake, which I have also made in print, of referring to someone as dead when the someone is still very much alive.
As Ecclestone concedes, this is less important than the larger story of what happened to those papers – and the press as a whole, I would add – in the 1970s and 1980s. He is right in saying that the lockout of 1978-79 was a desperate measure which was mishandled by the management and ended in defeat, but then he is not an entirely detached witness. In The History of the Times, Vol. VI: The Thomson Years 1966-81, the late John Grigg described the surprising choice of Ecclestone as head of the Times chapel of the National Union of Journalists in 1976, at a time when ‘he had come to feel rather aggrieved that he had not progressed further on the paper.’ Because of his antagonism towards the management, and his inability to see ‘that the real interests of the NUJ were incompatible with those of print unions’, he ‘supported the print chapels’ resistance’ to modernisation.
These are old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago. What is most bitter in hindsight is the consequence of the printers’ doomed campaign of sabotage. Apart from Murdoch’s acquisition of those papers, David Astor had certainly had enough of trying to publish the Observer in impossible circumstances, so that a great liberal paper was sold to an American oil company and then a crooked businessman, while the Berry family, who had struggled to maintain the Telegraph as an honourable Tory paper, lost control of it to a man who now resides in an American prison.
Vol. 32 No. 3 · 11 February 2010
While Geoffrey Wheatcroft concedes the points made by Jacob Ecclestone, he can’t resist accusing him of being ‘not an entirely detached witness’ – who said he was? – and then exhuming a slur on Ecclestone from the not-entirely-detached official history of the Times (Letters, 29 January 2009). Wheatcroft is the prisoner of his prejudices. For him an industrial dispute must be caused by an antagonistic and manipulative leader who can bend the minds and the will of several hundred leading journalists. Did those journalists not meet, debate, vote and then act on their decision? Did the company not threaten them with the sack, only to withdraw the threat when their bluff was called? Were the journalists’ ‘real interests … incompatible with those of the print unions’ or did they suspect that once the printers had been seen off they would be the next victims of an incompetent and bullying management? Was it so odd that they followed the settled policy of the National Union of Journalists, that changes in production methods should be negotiated and agreed with all the unions affected? In what way was it ‘surprising’ that Ecclestone was elected to lead the chapel?
Not all the consequences of the lock-out were bitter – the year-long disappearance of the Times Literary Supplement led directly to the establishment of the London Review of Books.
Bernie Corbett, Former NUJ National Organiser
Vol. 32 No. 5 · 11 March 2010
It hardly matters now, but Jacob Ecclestone was wrong to correct Geoffrey Wheatcroft on the matter of who sold Times Newspapers to Rupert Murdoch (Letters, 7 January). It was Lord Thomson of Fleet – but the second one, Kenneth son of Roy – who decided he had had enough when Ecclestone led the Times journalists out on strike (I was one of them). He abandoned the use of the title, I believe, on returning to Canada.