Lucky Lad

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

  • 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.

Although Harry didn’t make it to grammar school, he won a priceless second chance by taking the Joint Matriculation Board exams. Then it was Loreburn Business College to learn shorthand and typing, his first job on the Ashton-under-Lyne Reporter, and the exultant moment of seeing his first paragraphs in print (not of course bylined), before his life was changed again by the call-up. He had no thought of continuing his education until he joined the RAF in 1946, but he found himself editing the air station newspaper, and was sent on a short course at Manchester University. ‘For a working-class boy to say he was going to university was like announcing he was about to marry Betty Grable,’ he says with a touch of exaggeration, but his ambition was now ignited. Demobbed and back on his old paper, he took to travelling by bus rather than bike so as ‘to catch up with a few centuries of political philosophy’, before he fulfilled that ambition by getting a place at Durham University, where he worked on the student magazine and met his first wife.

Then it was back to Manchester, the Evening News, and another lost world. If the description of his childhood is touching, his account of the good old days of subediting with scissors, gluepot and spike, of hot metal, copy boys and editions changing all afternoon and evening, is poignantly evocative for those of us who go back before the technological revolution which has transformed newspapers, for worse or better. I left the Evening Standard in 1986, which doesn’t seem so distant, but I have to blink to remember that only 23 years ago the newsroom was a cacophony of typewriters at 7.15 in the morning (by when the room was also an opaque shroud of cigarette smoke), while the Linotype machines rattled and presses whirred on the floor below. One might be talking about ploughing with yoked oxen.

Before long Evans was a political correspondent, and then away on his first visit to America (‘at once a vast mystery and an inspiration’) as a Harkness scholar, filing for the Manchester Guardian from the Midwest during the 1956 presidential election. It was clear that he was an unusually gifted newspaperman, and by the time he had made enough of a mark to be offered the editorship of the Northern Echo he had grown so ‘inordinately ambitious’ that he jumped at it. In Darlington he waged his first campaign, against pollution caused by an ICI factory, in which he received no help at all from the health minister, Enoch Powell, and another wholly admirable campaign to secure a posthumous pardon for Timothy Evans, hanged for a crime he didn’t commit. This time there was an unlikely political hero in the form of the elderly Lord Chuter Ede. As home secretary in the Attlee government he had approved the execution, and thus, as Evans says, had less to gain than anyone alive from reopening the case, but he was driven by conscience to help do so.

By now Evans had hoved into the view of Denis Hamilton, the editor of the Sunday Times, who summoned him and told him that he saw him as a possible managing editor, without revealing that he himself was hoping to retire soon. ‘The Sunday Times! I hadn’t allowed that possibility to enter my mind when he’d asked me down to London.’ With anyone else this Pooterish tone might be irritating, but in Evans’s case it seems completely unaffected, as are his awestruck words about the famous writers on the paper. And so in January 1967, aged 38, Evans became editor of the Sunday Times.

Sad to say, when he reaches that apogee his autobiography begins to flag. He relates the grandeurs et servitudes of his years at the Sunday Times until 1981, and then as editor of the Times in 1981-82, the brevity of that latter span marking his servitude under Murdoch. But he has already described much of this in Good Times, Bad Times, his 1983 book in which he tried to put the record straight and settle the score. Still, he was a remarkable editor who is writing about a remarkable newspaper, and the great Sunday Times stories and campaigns of the 1970s – Philby, thalidomide, Bloody Sunday, the Crossman diaries – resonate to this day.

As he says, Evans was very lucky. He inherited what had been somewhat complacently called the Rolls-Royce of Fleet Street, an efficient and highly profitable paper with a lively staff and, far from least, a model proprietor. Roy (Lord) Thomson was a Canadian businessman who had acquired the Sunday Times from Lord Kemsley in 1959 and the – then unrelated – Times from the Astor family in 1968. His flair for making money was matched by a lack of any political or social ambition, and he believed, as one biographer put it, that on grounds both of practicality and principle newspaper editors were best left alone to do their job as long as the papers turned a healthy profit, which the Sunday Times certainly did.

Not only will many editors today think ruefully back to the benevolent Thomson, but all of them will sob with envy at what Evans had going for him. Stories could be pursued in any detail, however long it took, with no expense spared: the paper had money to burn. Every week Evans had to choose from more good copy than there was room for (a contrast indeed to today’s papers, which often give the impression of having much more room than they know how to fill). And, what is the most unbearable thought of all a generation later, there was also far more advertising on offer than they could carry. Every hot agency in London fought for space in the Sunday Times, and sometimes whole new campaigns were turned away.

Not that the paper was always loveable; the Sunday Times of those days could have a displeasing flavour, at once cocky, smug and glib. But that didn’t apply to Evans in person, and still doesn’t. So far from being cocksure, he has in some ways always been an innocent in the great wicked world, and his book is touchingly ingenuous. It is also frankly rambling, and one can well imagine Evans the editor telling the scribbler who submitted My Paper Chase: ‘Sub it down, lad, and don’t waste a word.’ An old Manchester Evening News sub of the kind he learned the trade from might also have Anglicised the Americanisms (elevator, pants, dime) as well as correcting various errors.

So, far from being ‘an anti-appeasement supporter of Churchill’, Quintin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham, was the official Tory candidate who won the 1938 Oxford by-election defending the Munich agreement as a ‘great deliverance’ (against the anti-appeasement master of Balliol, A.D. Lindsay, standing on the unofficial slogan ‘a vote for Hogg is a vote for Hitler’). Evans could not have seen the movie Ace in the Hole as a boy since it came out in 1951; India became independent in 1947 not 1948; and although calling the non-commissioned RAF rank ‘aircraftsman’ seems an almost universal and incorrigible error, Evans was once an aircraftman himself and should know better.

The fairytale was too good to last, and what were euphemistically called industrial relations plagued Fleet Street more and more throughout the 1970s. It was amusing to watch so many radical-chic Sunday Times journalists turn into rabid union-bashers, or premature Thatcherites. Solidarity with the workers did not easily survive the experience of working on a big story for weeks, and then seeing it destroyed on a Saturday night by the bullying caprice and greed of the printers. Evans correctly distinguishes between the lino-ops and comps, honourable artisans who keyed the type and put it in page, of whom I too have happy memories, and the machine-minders, barely skilled workers who insisted on ludicrous overmanning, who resisted all technical innovation, and who got their way by an arbitrary readiness to stop the presses at any time for any reason or none, not to say by blackmail and sheer corruption.

After 30 years Evans still burns with hatred at the name of ‘Reg Brady, a Communist “father of the chapel” in the pressroom’. He also admits that the paper’s management were well and truly outfought in this continual guerrilla warfare with the printers, sourly adding that Brady’s great achievement was to shut down the Sunday Times for a year and pave the way for its acquisition by a ruthless Australian. By 1981, Thomson was in his eighties and had had enough. Murdoch stepped in, though this required another form of skulduggery, on the part of the Thatcher government. Murdoch already owned enough papers for his acquisition of the Times and Sunday Times to contravene monopoly law. But the rules could be waived when losses amounted to financial urgency and John Biffen, the trade secretary and one of the more likeable Tories of the time, pretended falsely that this was the case, when in fact the Times’s losses were covered by the Sunday Times’s profits. The appalling Woodrow Wyatt later gloated that he had fixed this as go-between from Murdoch to Thatcher, and he may have been right.

As soon as he had the papers, Murdoch began rearranging their editors, with Evans shunted from Sunday to daily, a mistake in itself, and telling them what to do, and what to write. At the time Evans pretended that Murdoch didn’t dictate policy, later sheepishly admitting he had done just that. But by then Evans had been summarily sacked, to be replaced by a more pliable editor. His successor at the Sunday Times had been the excessively fastidious Frank Giles, though he didn’t last long either. Murdoch was quick to tell him that he must leave his desk, and that from now on he would be ‘editor emeritus’, adding that ‘“e” means you’re out, and “meritus” means you deserve it.’ Sometimes it’s possible to warm to the old monster.

While it took Evans a long time to get over his sacking, he has by now come to terms with the man who sacked him, for reasons not all LRB readers will perhaps approve of, though anyone who worked in ancien régime Fleet Street will understand. Evans had left London well before the Wapping putsch, when the papers were moved bodily and with great stealth to a new high-tech plant, to the impotent rage of the unions, but he acknowledges that Murdoch was right, and so he was. Whatever else one thinks of him and what he has done to our press (and to our politics), the truth is that, after decades of arrogantly bending weak managements to their will, the print unions finally got, in the form of Rupert Murdoch, the proprietor they deserved. Without Wapping, the Guardian would not have flourished as it did, and the Independent would not exist at all.

One reviewer has said that Murdoch did Evans a favour by sacking him, which is a little reminiscent of Clementine Churchill telling her husband that the 1945 Labour landslide might be a blessing in disguise. Like Churchill, Evans would perhaps think it was very heavily disguised. But at least he missed the proverbial bullet: shortly after he left came the fiasco of the ‘Hitler diaries’, not Murdoch’s finest hour, and a humiliation Evans would have felt keenly. In his American exile, he has never been short of work, and has held a bewildering variety of magazine and publishing jobs, which he writes about with his usual puppyish enthusiasm (‘the galaxy of writers in the history of Random House was stunning,’ he says, before listing 28 names from the galaxy). Even so, between these lines we can detect a yearning for edition times and breaking stories.

In New York, he and his second wife became cheerleaders for the Clintons and then for Blair and New Labour, which is to say that Harry and Tina were the most prominent supporters on the Upper East Side of the party that was totally relaxed about people who become filthy rich; they are now Sir Harold Evans and Lady Evans CBE. Even in his eighties, Harry hankers after public life, although his recent interventions have not been happy, including his latest effusion in the Guardian, in which he insisted that ‘Israel is not an “occupying power” in Gaza,’ even if she committed ‘blunders’ there earlier this year while waging ‘a defensive war’. It was a mark of Peter Hain’s extreme unpopularity in the Labour Party – he came fifth for the deputy leadership in an unimpressive field of six – that he had to find someone across the Atlantic to defend him over his undeclared donations, as Evans did last year.

More perplexing was another piece in the Guardian. Evans accused the American press of an excessive fondness for Barack Obama, which was fair enough, but also lamented ‘the persecution of Hillary Clinton’, and the ‘continuous insinuations’ that ‘the Clintons were race-baiters,’ which Evans called ‘absurd defamation’. Why absurd? When Bill Clinton suggested that Obama was unelectable by comparing him with Jesse Jackson, his meaning was oblique but easily understood; on 7 May last year, when Hillary Clinton said that, in the two primaries taking place at that time, she was being supported by ‘whites in both states’, and that ‘hardworking Americans, white Americans’ would never vote for Obama, her meaning wasn’t oblique at all.

Then again, one could say that Evans was sticking up for chums, a good fault in a man who still bears the unmistakable decency and amiability of his origins. At the beginning of his own journalistic career, Ferdinand Mount somewhat incongruously worked at the tabloid Daily Sketch, under the man who later transformed the Daily Mail. In his memoir Cold Cream, Mount says drily that great editors are rarely nice men, ‘and David English was a great editor.’ Harry Evans defies that rule.

And now that the 20th century has turned into the 21st, the English press is diverse but not financially vigorous; compared with the 1890s or even the 1970s, the outlook seems bleak. The threat isn’t from vulgarians like Harmsworth or meddling proprietors like the men who made the Daily News and Daily Chronicle perform their about-turns (although Murdoch has played both those parts), nor yet from the print unions, which have vanished from the pages of newspaper history. It comes from an unhappy conjunction of economic and social forces, declining circulations, a collapse in advertising revenue, and the internet, where we have all got used to reading the papers for free – so far.

Who would have guessed, when the Sunday Times was closed down 30 years ago, or when the new printing technology seemed to have transformed the fortunes of the press 20 years ago, that this cyberspace cuckoo in the media nest would have such extreme consequences? Newspapers are vanishing all across the United States, the Boston Globe was on the brink of closing not long ago, the mighty New York Times itself is in trouble, and things are better here only by comparison. For the moment, the Observer hangs on, but it would be quite plausible if it merged with the Independent on Sunday, as the News and the Chronicle once did, while the Evening Standard is now a free sheet perilously dependent on advertising alone for its revenue. As to the provincial press, the Birmingham Post, one of those once famous dailies, has just announced that it will be published weekly.

But Harry Evans himself survives with his unquenchable optimism, as much about newspapers as anything. He might even be right, as long as we can work out what we are good at. Newspapers haven’t been the immediate providers of news since radio arrived in advance of television; those provincial evening papers lost their market long before racing results could be found on a Blackberry; and we all now check the headlines by clicking buttons. And yet papers can – if they want, and if they try – offer a breadth of detailed investigation and a depth of intelligent analysis that no other medium matches.

At melancholy moments, one of the best loved of journalistic clichés, about rearranging the deckchairs, might seem to apply to our trade itself. It has a particular resonance for Evans. In September 1956, his family waved him off ‘as Cunard’s RMS Franconia steamed out of Liverpool harbour’, but at least he returned, unlike his hero. As Harry Evans doubtless knows, in April 1912, W.T. Stead also embarked for an Atlantic crossing, aboard the Titanic. Absit omen: we must hope the press proves ultimately unsinkable.