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 Times is more comfortable in the Thatcherism which it soon professed after the fall of Evans, and in a way more confident: the ‘op ed’ page, facing the letters and editorials, is now open to a wider variety of opinions, not merely those of the ‘new Hobbesians’ who regard even Mrs Thatcher as an accomplice in the decline of order and authority, but those of the Left as well. In the same way, the apparent readiness of the staff in the late Seventies and early Eighties to accept a slightly more radical position, more ‘caring’ and iconoclastic, was deceptive. The paper contained – still contains – a number of marvellous reporters and specialists whose approach is well to the left of the editorial line, but they looked much stronger than they were in a period when the Right was still divided over the advent of Thatcherism, and when the emergence of the SDP looked very much more promising and exciting than it does today. Here, perhaps, is the only shrewd judgment about the Times that Rupert Murdoch ever made. In trying to shove Mrs Thatcher’s opinions down Harry Evans’s throat, at a time when she was extraordinarily unpopular, he was unlikely to have foreseen that the new centre ground was no more than a raft of dried reeds on the swamp, certain to grow waterlogged in the course of time. He acted as he did no doubt because of his own Neanderthal views of politics and economics, and because, in his contorted way, he wanted to ingratiate himself with the British ruling caste that he also hated. But he turned out to have been right. It may be, too, that he understood that not all journalists are crusaders, but that even in the ‘higher’ reaches of the profession there are plenty who enjoy the frisson of betraying colleagues to further themselves, the shiver which accompanies writing copy hurtful to people who cannot defend themselves, the stylish nastiness of the present government. John Masefield wrote in one of his novels about a young devil after his first day in Hell, a bit singed but still thrilled by the angle at which Satan wore his bowler hat. People like him are Rupert Murdoch’s constituency – they and the fat-headed, complacent grandees who sat on his boards and let him do as he pleased.

The Evans story, it seems, is not over. He talks of taking matters to the European Commission of Human Rights. The revelations in Good Times, Bad Times about, for example, the transfer of the Times and Sunday Times titles to Murdoch’s own parent company News International (by adjusting the minutes of the board, he alleges, and failing to consult the national directors) ought to have legal consequences. Other fun for lawyers may result from Evans’s remarks about men and women whom he claims to have betrayed him: his secretary, who is alleged in the book to have consistently informed on him to his rivals, the eccentric and disastrous Gerald Long, and above all his successor Charles Douglas-Home, who is presented by Harry Evans as a schemer, double-dealer and back-stabber worthy of – well, not of Shakespeare or Renaissance Italy, where disloyalty had some sinister splendour, but perhaps of Eton with pimply boys insinuating themselves into ‘Pop’, the society of young magnificos in coloured waistcoats. ‘I would do anything to edit the Times. Wouldn’t you?’

It’s a compelling book, a wonderful ‘read’. It is often very funny, and Harry Evans manages to establish and make memorable almost all his enormous cast of characters through his own alertness to a way of dressing, a fad, a trick of speech. And it is not all about the long and complex intrigues which brought him down: it is also about journalism and good stories and editing. A fair amount is taken up by a permissibly boastful résumé of the great Harry Evans years at the Sunday Times – the DC10 story, the Philby exposure, the thalidomide campaign, and so on – and the legal battles to loosen the convention of secrecy which protects Britain’s rulers against the ruled. One can think of a long list of prime ministers who have done less for public liberties in this country than Harold Evans did.

Then comes his transition to the Times, a personal decision to which he gives little space and which perhaps caused him little hesitation. At once, the tone changes. The warmth with which he writes about his journalists at the Sunday Times evaporates. ‘Across the bridge’, the overhead passage which connects the Times and Sunday Times buildings in Gray’s Inn Road, he found few people to like. The portraits of his senior colleagues are acid, suggesting mutual distrust which evidently never entirely melted away. What Evans finds hard to accept, if we are to judge by this book, is that many of the Times staff saw him as simply another aspect of the general Murdoch threat: interference, turbulent and incessant changes, debasement of standards. His whole case is that the conflict was essentially between himself, representing the paper and its integrity, and the Murdoch gang who frustrated and subverted him. This is not the way in which many Times journalists, past and present, saw his editorship.

How important was the disaffection of the Times staff in the downfall of Evans? Murdoch, of course, used the argument that the journalists were in a state of rebellion to justify getting rid of him. Correspondingly, Harry Evans presents the unrest as a matter of a few irreconcilables and traditionalists who eventually went to the extreme of betraying him to Rupert Murdoch in order to restore their own ‘dignity and stability’. Talking to Times men and women now, one gets the feeling that discontent with Evans was pretty widespread and getting worse: not so much a matter of old shellbacks inconvenienced by his driving energy as of younger journalists who simply did not have faith in him, who still charge him with not defending them against the Murdoch management and who say that he damaged their own professional credibility (this from the specialist writers) by altering and adding to their copy. And they were afraid for their jobs. ‘He said the door to his office was always open,’ one told me, ‘but it was the door to the street.’ About the final crisis, when the resignation was already being demanded, another Times man said to me with frightening bitterness: ‘He stuck himself on that cross and begged us to pull the nails out, and we didn’t see why we should.’

But, of course, it is a myth originally launched by the Murdoch camarilla that Evans was removed because he could not get on with his own staff. It seems to me that he was sacked for two reasons: because, however unreliable some of his journalists thought him, he was not servile enough to Murdoch, and because he was too critical of Mrs Thatcher. Bad as relations inside the Times became, they were not decisive. And there is a more important point here. Even if the journalists had stood solidly behind him and refused to accept his dismissal, they would almost certainly have failed. The structures, let alone the legislation, which would have given them a chance to fight and win were simply not there. Instead, there was an absurd facade of indiarubber ‘national directors’ supposed to protect the newspaper’s independence, and a few token ‘participations’ by journalists. None of this gave Murdoch more than a moment’s trouble.

Some questions were raised by journalists in the early Seventies, all over Western Europe, which have never been answered in Britain. If the press is to be owned by private tycoons like Murdoch, or by international conglomerates with many other interests, how is editorial independence to be protected? How is the public, democratic function of the media to be guaranteed while they remain in private hands? In those days, the suggestion that journalists should have entrenched and specified rights over the integrity of what they wrote and over who was appointed or elected to be their editor was greeted by the newspaper proprietors as a threat to press liberty worse than that presented by the printing unions. A few experiments in that direction were made, none very encouraging. Yet the whole recent history of Times Newspapers raises that question again in its most acute form: only the journalists – not the readers, not ineffective ‘independent’ directors – can really guarantee the editor’s independence against a proprietor, and then only if their rights are solidly documented. Britain may think it does not need a written constitution, but British newspapers do, and that constitution should be written into law. After reading Good Times, Bad Times, nobody could believe that the present system, with the Government attaching a string of ad hoc conditions designed by itself to a given newspaper sale, is in any way effective.

The original sale of Times Newspapers to Murdoch went through in this way, to satisfy regulations against monopoly, and did so on the basis of Mr Biffen’s tendentious statement to the Commons that the Sunday Times was making a loss. The Sunday Times journalists banded together to stop the deal by writ of mandamus, which might have worked, but they ran out of money and, crucially, leaderships and the plan was dropped. Journalists entitled by law to preserve defined standards of journalism, and to have at the least a right of veto over major appointments and changes of ownership, could have fought that transfer on a sounder basis and with hope of success. They would probably have ended up, in that particular case, by owning the two newspapers themselves, and a good thing too. They might well have made a better job of managing them, into the bargain: the Evans book makes it – yet again – all too clear that British newspaper management is still staffed with a fatally large proportion of posturing amateurs. Most business journalists would do better.

The Story of theTimes’ is a remarkably bland book, less critical and more comforting to the old thing’s self-esteem than the official history (edited by Stanley Morrison). Too briefly treated is the story of the paper’s virile early days, when the Controller used to send a retired Irish officer round to the homes of gentlemen with erring wives with the threat that All Would Be Revealed unless a sensible financial understanding between the parties could be arranged. ‘Suppression money’, as it was termed, helped to get John Walter I’s Daily Universal Register off the ground. I’ve always found it a pity that Times editors have become so coy about these beginnings (which Harold Evans does at least refer to), especially now. ‘What would you pay to get all of Lady Fuddington off page three, sport?’ Or as John Walter’s man Finey used to say, pocketing the guineas, ‘Give me a few more, and by St Patrick I will knock out the brains of anyone in our office who dares ever whisper your name.’ Much of the book is pretty familiar material – Russell, de Blowitz, all the familiar heroes – but it is good that there is a whole chapter about Flora Shaw, who was the first woman to become a professional staff correspondent and was the first Colonial Editor of the Times in the 1890s (she eventually married Lord Lugard, that mighty but unattractive empire-builder). The chapter about appeasement and Munich is written much more in sorrow than in anger, the passions of that moment drained away. The authors rightly observe that the Munich stigma weighed indefinably on the confidence of the paper for nearly thirty years, affecting not only editorials but more intimate parts of the Times’s anatomy like the trust between foreign correspondents and the London office (even today, there is something wholehearted about that relationship on, say, the Guardian which the Times has never recovered). But the ancient function of upper-crust noticeboard still survives. Harry Evans had to deal on his first day with the problem of whether the title ‘Ms’ could be used on the Court Page: he decided that it could, which probably cooked his goose with some of the stuffier colleagues. And what was the solution chosen by Ms Sara Keays to put her injury before the world? Not a press conference, but a summons to the Times to attend her drawing-room in the country. And, yes, it was a world scoop.