Cross Words

Neal Ascherson

  • The Story of the ‘Times’ by Oliver Woods and James Bishop
    Joseph, 392 pp, £14.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 7181 1462 0
  • Good Times, Bad Times by Harold Evans
    Weidenfeld, 430 pp, £11.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 297 78295 9

Rupert Murdoch’s decision to take on the Times was

an act of considerable courage. But it was also the act of a determined man who, as a shrewd entrepreneur and a newspaperman of great experience, had every reason to know what he was doing ...

The costly changes introduced by the Editor [Harold Evans] had been accompanied by a substantial number of new senior editorial appointments. Not all of these were welcomed by the existing editorial staff, whose responsibilities sometimes seemed to be in conflict with those of the new appointments. The result was confusion and a divergence of loyalties within the editorial team that went well beyond the creative tension normally to be found in newspaper offices. Matters came to a head early in 1982 when both the Deputy Editor, Charles Douglas-Home, and the Managing Editor, John Grant, tendered their resignations. The Chairman refused to accept them, and instead asked Evans for his resignation and appointed Douglas-Home to succeed him. After a few days of disorder on the editorial floor, when Evans declared that he was not resigning and continued to occupy the Chair, it was finally confirmed on 15 March that he had indeed resigned at the Chairman’s request and that the independent national directors had been asked to approve the appointment of Douglas-Home ...

The change restored a semblance of dignity and stability to the editorial department... After the alarms of the previous five years, no one was inclined to dispute the need for a period of tranquillity for the Times.

So, with a mild slurp and quake of satisfaction, the mud of the Establishment closes over Harold Evans’s editorship of the Times. The swamp regains its dignity and stability again. The flounderings and cries of protest are smoothed away, and tranquillity prevails. On the bank, the great Australian crocodile watches, one eye – as Harry Evans noticed in his final days of struggle to stay above the surface – much redder than the other, and contemplates his next meal. The quotations are from the Woods and Bishop Story of the ‘Times’, which, though commissioned by Sir Denis Hamilton, is not an ‘official’ history. With such an apologia for the status quo, who needs one?

And, in a way, one sees what they mean. As an organism, a collective entity, the Times today does seem a happier paper. Harry Evans endeavoured, as he keeps saying, to make it into a paper that asked questions and made challenges, rather than a ‘horizontal’ conveyer-belt that recorded events as they took place. He also tried to modify its relationship to Toryism, leading it towards a ‘wet’ but critical position that took account of what seemed to him, sitting in ‘the Chair’, to be a developing realignment of British politics. None of this was really natural to the old creature, although, like so many of our social institutions, its character is not as ancient as one is encouraged to think. The Times as Harry Evans found it was not the product of its mighty and energetic conductors and editors in the Victorian decades but of the lazy, prejudiced apathy which overcame the British ruling classes in the period between the world wars. Evans read diligently in the paper’s history, and thought he could resuscitate the vigour and courage of Delane and his proprietor John Walter, and that their tradition was alive but sleeping. It proved to be dead.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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