Memories of Harry Evans

I joined the Sunday Times in 1969 and stayed until 1980. I worked for Harry Evans for 11 of his 14 years as the paper’s editor. Last week’s obituaries rightly described him as one of the great editors, arguably the greatest, of the 20th century. Here are some of my memories of those times.

Let’s start with an element more often found in fiction: a specific similarity between two bitter antagonists. A particular brand of Australian journalism influenced the careers of both Rupert Murdoch and Harry Evans. With Murdoch, the story is well-known: his father, Keith, exposed the scandalous causes of the failure of the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War. (Alongside British and other empire troops, 8,700 Australians lost their lives.)

With Harry, the story is less well-known. When I arrived at the paper, a group of around half a dozen Australian journalists shaped its fresh, investigative style. They were committed, tenacious and iconoclastic. Arriving in London in the late 1950s and 60s, they collided with the rigid class culture of its broadsheet papers—a characteristic Harry also wanted to break. He inherited some Australians, recruited others and gave them their head. He knew what he wanted and spotted who could do it. Their approach was eagerly adopted by younger, British, recruits.

Two of the Australians, Bruce Page and Phillip Knightley, were prominent in the most famous of Harry’s campaigns: Thalidomide. Last week’s obituaries highlighted Harry’s achievements but didn’t fully convey his guile and persistence in pursuing the story throughout his editorship.

Two things stood in the way of telling the full story. The first was that Distillers, which sold the drug in Britain, was spinning out legal battles with the Thalidomide families. This meant that newspapers had to avoid reports that would put them in contempt of court. The second was that settlements were reached out of court without parents having the chance to present the evidence in open court, where it could have been reported. Distillers’ shocking behaviour was in this respect hidden from public view.

Despite the mounting costs, Harry did not just insist on carrying on. He looked for innovative ways to get the story out. Two of the unsung heroes of the Thalidomide saga were John Prevett and James Evans (no relation). Prevett was an actuary who demonstrated, to the highest standards demanded by his profession, that the sums of money that Distillers were willing to pay were far less than half the compensation the children needed for a lifetime of dependency and suffering. James Evans was the Sunday Times’s in-house lawyer who devised the way to use this information to take on Distillers. He advised Harry to set out the moral as distinct from legal case against Distillers. This distinction had no legal precedent: James invented it. But he thought the risk worth taking. Harry would probably, but not definitely, preserve his liberty.

Harry took the risk. It paid off. On 24th September, 1972 the paper ran a two-page story under the headline “OUR THALIDOMIDE CHILDREN: A CAUSE FOR NATIONAL SHAME.” It criticised Distillers’ settlements as “grotesquely out of proportion to the injuries suffered” and also attacked the way that English law assessed damages. Its impact was huge. A debate in parliament, long denied, was finally held. Other papers added their voice. Harry insisted on having a Thalidomide story every week, with Marjorie Wallace telling the heart-rending stories of individual families. Shoppers began to boycott Johnnie Walker and other Distillers’ brands of alcohol. The company’s shareholders started to revolt. Distillers was on the run, and began to revise its approach to compensation—even without the full story being told.

Finally, thanks to the European Court of Human Rights, that story was published in 1976, years after it had been written. But the campaign to increase compensation did not stop. As recently as 2016, Diageo (which had taken over Distillers) added a further £45m in new compensation. Without Harry’s persistence, year in and year out, this success would not have been achieved.

I had direct cause to be grateful for Harry’s courage in two investigations that I was involved in later in the 1970s. During a brief spell as editor of Insight, the paper’s investigative unit, I persuaded Harry to let us mount what would inevitably be an expensive investigation into the way Israeli police and security forces treated Palestinian prisoners. Israeli human rights lawyers claimed that torture was common, but nobody independent had tested those claims. We did. Two of my team, Paul Eddy and Peter Gillman, spent weeks interviewing witnesses, doctors and lawyers. They had the best medical specialists examine a large number of photographs. They taped 110 hours of testimony, including that of 44 victims.

Eddy and Gillman concluded that some victims, doctors and lawyers exaggerated their evidence. This was discarded. We knew that if we got a single significant fact wrong, that would discredit the whole report. Nevertheless the number of cases where specific forms of torture clearly had taken place was large enough for the practice to be regarded as routine.

However, in order to persuade our readers that our story was true, we had to tell it at length, showing victim-by-victim why we had reached the conclusion we did. (By its very nature, torture is something for which there are seldom independent eyewitnesses.) Harry knew that to publish our gruelling 20,000-word account would arouse bitter controversy and possibly lose the Sunday Times readers and advertisers. He did not demur for a moment. On 19th June, 1977, our story was published over four pages.

It provoked an immense fuss. The Sunday Times was accused of antisemitism. In parts of the Israeli media I was condemned as a “self-hating Jew” (my father was a Jewish refugee from Hitler). But in time our story was generally (though not universally) accepted. Shortly after it was published, Menachem Begin, Israel’s prime minister, visited Washington, where president Jimmy Carter told him the torture had to stop. Begin denied it was happening but Carter refused to believe him. In any event, it seems that conditions for the worst-treated Palestinians started to improve.

Along the way we discovered that the Observer had commissioned its own investigation some time before us. This came to the same conclusions. The difference is that in the end the Observer didn’t publish: Harry did.

A year later I worked with two freelancers, Martin Bailey and Bernard Rivers, on a series of stories on how Rhodesia was still getting all the oil it needed, despite UN sanctions that should have broken the economy of the illegal white regime. Our first story contained BP’s secret admission that it had helped Rhodesia. However, the company claimed that its complex arrangements had ended and it was no longer helping Rhodesia at all.

We were sceptical: Rhodesia seemed to be importing as much oil as ever. We pursued the story and established that BP (and Shell) were still helping. When we challenged BP, the company issued a flat, unqualified denial. (Shell never responded to our inquiries.) Harry had to decide whether to publish our story, which accused Britain’s biggest company of continuing a squalid, international conspiracy —but, if we were shown to be wrong would cause the paper immense damage.

Again, Harry did not hesitate. He published our story over much of page one and two. BP then went oddly quiet as the political storm raged around them. Three weeks later, the company issued a statement confirming the truth of our story. It blamed its South African subsidiary for acting without London’s knowledge. How curious that three journalists were able in a fortnight to discover something that was utterly unknown in BP’s own headquarters.

Finally, a broader point. One of Harry’s great qualities was that he never confused truth with balance. He wanted his journalists never just to write he-said-she-said, but to find out who (if either) was right. This issue is brought out in my favourite journalists’ parable. I don’t know its origins: it would not surprise me to discover that Harry himself wrote it.

A local journalist walking through her village late one afternoon encounters two friends returning from the fields.

“What have you been doing?”, she asks.

“We have been mowing the meadow,” replies the first friend. “The grass has been cut and now looks wonderful.”

The second friend chips in. “That’s nonsense. We have been sitting under a tree all day drinking beer. We haven’t touched the grass.”

A bad journalist writes a story quoting one of the friends.

A mediocre journalist quotes both.

A good journalist goes and looks at the bleeding meadow. 

This blog was first published by Prospect