Harry Evans: The Editor Who Wouldn’t Be Gagged Paved the Way for a Golden Age of Journalism

Clive Irving
·7 mins read
Stephen Lovekin/Getty
Stephen Lovekin/Getty

Great newspaper editors leave a permanent stamp on journalism. Harry Evans’ salient achievement as an editor was to push investigative journalism in Britain across the line from dispassionate reporting into direct advocacy on issues of public interest.

That was a significant, controversial, and typically courageous step when it was taken.

Its consequences are now widely felt. They range from the Boston Globe’s exposure of the American Catholic Church’s cover-up of the sexual abuse of boys by priests to The New York Times’ revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predations that led to the #MeToo movement.

The force of reporting like this goes beyond simply exposing the scandals. It requires an editorial commitment and the will to campaign for social justice and reform.

The story that drove Harry over that line and filled him—and his staff—with a deeply felt outrage was slow in developing.

Bloody Sunday Inquiry: Harold Evans on the Sunday Times’ Work

In the early ’60s, after becoming at the age of 32 editor of the Northern Echo, a provincial daily, he had first learned about hundreds of children in Britain who had been born with foreshortened limbs, or no limbs at all. Their mothers had all taken the drug thalidomide, to treat morning sickness and other stresses of pregnancy.

In 1967, now as the editor of the London Sunday Times, he discovered that none of the families had received any compensation.

The paper’s Insight investigative team embarked on a long and rigorously forensic investigation into the making and marketing of thalidomide. This led to years of expensive legal combat between the Sunday Times, the British marketers of the drug, Distillers Biochemicals, and its German creators, Chemie Grunenthal.

By 1972 Harry and his reporters had steadfastly negotiated a minefield of legal bombs designed to suppress the paper’s reporting. The most dangerous to them was a favorite tool used in British courts to gag editors—the threat of being held in contempt of court. Time after time the legal teams of the two companies got judges to use this threat—even though the reporting was factually impeccable.

Eventually Harry came to a resolute conclusion:

“The much-feared law of contempt was going to sanctify a gross injustice. It was urgent to shout that it must not be allowed to happen. Was I emotional about the thalidomide families? Yes, I was, but my decision that Tuesday to launch a campaign was not a sudden impulse. Certain conditions had to be fulfilled before a newspaper undertook a campaign.

“The paper had to have investigated the subject thoroughly enough to be sure that there was a genuine grievance, it had to have defined a practical remedy, it had to be ready to commit the resources for a sustained effort, and it had to open its columns to counterarguments and corrections of fact.

“No campaign should be ended until it had succeeded—or was proved wrong.”

For a long while it was a lonely crusade. The paper faced a phalanx of corporate lawyers abetted by a legal establishment that saw investigative journalism as an impertinence to be slapped down. Other newspapers and the BBC cowered under the threat of expensive legal action—one editor, asked by Harry why his paper wasn’t equally exercised about the scandal, joked, “We’re saving the space to cover your trial.”

It took enormous courage—and deep pockets—to persist. It was another four years before Harry could get the full story published. He had finally to escape the suppressive laws and take his case beyond British shores to find justice for the families.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled by a vote of 13-11 that by suppressing the reporting that revealed the origins of the scandal the British law of contempt had breached the free speech article of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights.

And finally the British families were awarded the compensation they deserved. In Germany, though, where the flawed drug was designed, and where five times as many families were affected, the compensation was limited by a private settlement made in 1969, long before the companies’ full culpability was exposed, and was, as Harry said, stingy.

I followed all of this with a deep personal and admiring interest. I preceded Harry’s arrival at the Sunday Times where, in 1963, I created the Insight team. We had notable coups—exposing the full extent of the web of the political crisis known as the Profumo Affair, and an investigation into slum landlords that led to legislative reforms—but we never faced such an obdurate adversary as the malefactors of thalidomide.

Some of my team had qualms about being seen as crusaders rather than reporters, and those qualms persisted after I left the paper in 1966 and when Harry decided to devote greater resources to the development of Insight. All trace of those qualms vanished after Harry’s decision to back the reporting on thalidomide with powerful editorial commentary.

There is no doubt that the effectiveness of his campaigning was underpinned by the status of the paper itself. Before Insight, none of the British so-called “quality” newspapers had ever practiced investigative journalism. In Britain that was confined to a few of the tabloids, and then only in the pursuit of easy and salacious targets, like brothel owners and minor criminal gangs.

Harry oversaw many other investigations—design flaws that caused fatal air crashes, the deep penetration of Soviet moles into British intelligence services, a widespread racket in selling fake antiques. Under Harry, the Sunday Times deployed the integrity and the authority of a serious newspaper—as well as the generous budget provided by a supportive proprietor, Roy Thomson—to bring a far more powerful public interest role to journalism in cases where other effective scrutiny was lacking.

A lot of great scoops are the work of investigative reporters working alone. Investigative teams have a different dynamic. Insight under Harry grew into a colorful combination of disparate skills.

Some were old-style gumshoes with feral instincts and picaresque contacts. Others were specialists with academic backgrounds, like Elaine Potter, whose scholarship was fundamental to understanding the origins of the thalidomide story. In fact, Harry famously evaded the paper’s supposed staffing limits by “parking” people in various departments as freelancers until a slot on the team opened up for them.

It was truly a golden age for British journalism. Harry directly inspired other editors in print, in television, and in documentary film-making to go deep and ignore the pressure of everyday deadlines—to patiently build the incremental detail of a story into a blockbuster narrative.

His effort, and the groundbreaking record of the Sunday Times, was curtailed when that paper as well as the daily Times (which Harry took over as editor) were acquired by Rupert Murdoch. The new proprietor was not a hands-off boss like Roy Thomson. A campaigning editor seemed too much like a rival in authority, and Harry was forced out.

(In 1987, as though by the hand of destiny, I finally got to join Harry as together we launched Condé Nast Traveler, under the typically Harry rubric of “Truth in Travel,” and I finally got to experience first hand what a consummate master of his craft he was. He mentored many young talents who have since flourished.)

Meanwhile, some editors and reporters still agonize over crossing that line between deep forensic reporting and personal opinion.

Bob Woodward, in explaining how, for the first time in a long and distinguished career, he came to a judgmental conclusion in his new book on President Trump, Rage, laid out why it was so difficult.

He recalled that when President Richard Nixon resigned from office, driven out by the consequences of the Watergate reporting by Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Katharine Graham, the Washington Post’s publisher, warned them about having overmighty ideas about the power of journalism, and told them to confine themselves to objective reporting.

That’s a form of vocational restraint that seems ill-equipped to deal with today’s world. It’s not journalism that is the overmighty player now. It’s the advancing forces of a new autocracy that despise and fear the vigilance of investigative journalism, and editors with the courage and tenacity of Harry Evans.

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