Sir Harold Evans, invariably known as Harry by friends and rivals alike, was the finest newspaper editor of his generation. Evans, who died from heart failure on Wednesday aged 92, was a master craftsman and a crusading Fleet Street editor who later won fame as an author, broadcaster, publisher and showman in New York.
During his Sunday Times editorship from 1967 to 1981, Evans pioneered hard-hitting investigative journalism that produced a string of world class scoops: the Bloody Sunday killings in Northern Ireland, the unmasking of Kim Philby as a KGB agent working for MI6 and publication of the Crossman Diaries. Neither lawyers nor governments could restrain him.
An essential quality in editors, he had a great eye for talent, often eccentric, nurturing many star writers from Jilly Cooper and Marjorie Wallace to Hunter Davies and Hugo Young. Nor could many journalists match his genius for dramatic layout and basic editing, whether cropping a picture, reworking an intro or selecting the appropriate font size for a front-page headline.
Among his many books on journalism, the five-volume series on editing, design and photojournalism still ranks as the last word on the subject, a near sacred text. My father — who worked for him as the front page “splash sub” for 14 years — presented me with the Evans oeuvre on the day I became a journalist in the summer of 1978. And so began a lifelong friendship and mentorship.
As a cub business reporter at the Sunday Times, a Financial Times foreign correspondent and later as FT editor in London, I could always count on him. He was generous with advice and gossip, maintaining an infectious enthusiasm for the business of journalism.
Born in Manchester in 1928, he never tired of recalling that his father was a train driver. The diminutive but irrepressible Evans left school at 16, learning his trade at the Ashton-under-Lyne Weekly Reporter in the north of England. After national service in the RAF and a postwar degree in social studies at Durham university, he joined the Manchester Evening News, then a leading and profitable regional daily with 1m readers.
His first job was as a junior subeditor, accompanied by a gluepot, two pencils, scissors, a galley listing deadline times and an office book of typefaces, as he recounts in his elegiac 2009 memoir, Paper Chase. “Up North” he learnt his craft as a newspaperman (women were rarely seen in the newsroom in those days).
He went on to put those skills and his natural showmanship to great effect, first as editor of the Northern Echo in Darlington — where he secured a posthumous pardon for Timothy Evans (no relation), hanged for a murder committed by another man — and later as editor of the Sunday Times.
Most great editors enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the proprietor: Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham at the Washington Post; David English and Vere Harmsworth at the Daily Mail; and so, too, Harry Evans and Roy Thomson.
Packed with lucrative advertising, the Sunday Times was then so prosperous and its proprietors, the Thomson family, so tolerant that Evans could spend without restraint. Investigations sometimes involved teams devoting months to a story that might come to nothing. But often they did uncover something big.
Perhaps Evans’ most famous scoop won compensation for children born with missing limbs after their mothers took the Thalidomide drug during pregnancy. Distillers, the manufacturers, used court injunctions to prevent the paper publishing the full story. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 1979 that Evans could publish without further restraint. The British government was forced to change the law on contempt of court.
Evans was, however, undone by Rupert Murdoch after he launched his successful £12m bid for the unprofitable Times Newspapers in 1981. Mr Murdoch seduced Evans away from the Sunday Times, appealing to his vanity to edit the more prestigious Times of London — first established in 1785 as the Daily Universal Register.
Evans’ second wife Tina Brown, herself a distinguished journalist and later editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, observed sagely that Mr Murdoch had stuck her husband on the prong of a fork.
In fairness, Evans was neither the first nor the last editor to be eaten for breakfast by the voracious Australian media mogul, who had a keener eye for the bottom line. The late Phillip Knightley, a Sunday Times star of that era, recalled that Evans hired “at parties, in lifts, in pubs, at his club and on the squash court”. The paper employed at least twice as many journalists as it needed, some almost forgotten in its warren of offices.
Evans remained bitter about Mr Murdoch for many years, and blamed his cut-throat populism for debasing journalism and the body politic in the UK and the US. (He became a vociferous campaigner for a new regulatory system for the British press in the wake of the News International phone hacking scandal.) But Evans was also big enough to admit that by moving the newspaper titles from Gray’s Inn Road to Wapping in London’s Docklands in 1986, Mr Murdoch outwitted recalcitrant print unions and gave the newspaper industry a new lease of life.
After his abrupt downfall in Britain — he lasted barely a year as editor of the Times — Evans moved with Ms Brown to New York to begin a new life as an editor, launching Condé Nast Traveller, and later as a book publisher at Random House.
There he guided authors such as Calvin Trillin, Gail Sheehy and Shelby Foote. With characteristic marketing flair, he also published Primary Colors, a best-selling novel about a presidential election campaign featuring a thinly disguised Bill Clinton. Evans agreed with the author — Time magazine columnist Joe Klein — that it should be published anonymously, sparking speculation about the writer’s identity and the provenance of what was clearly inside knowledge.
Together, Harry and Tina became the Big Apple’s media power couple, throwing the best parties at their bijou duplex in mid town near the East River. He was a meritocrat, who once wrote that Britain has “a penchant for secrecy, social privilege and the nurturing of an educational elite which remained pervasive in the culture and has not been quite expunged to this day”. Nonetheless, in 2004 he accepted a UK knighthood from Tony Blair’s government. After all, it guaranteed a better table at a Manhattan restaurant and a more distinguished email address.
In his final years, Evans continued to write, to interview on stage (as editor-at-large of Thomson Reuters) and to encourage journalists old and young. “He was to journalism,” as former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said, “what Dr Spock was to child-rearing.” Evans was an outstanding table tennis player and until Covid-19 struck, kept up a daily swimming routine. He was an inspirational wordsmith who spoke softly and carried a mighty pen. His first wife Enid, with whom he had three children, Ruth, Kate and Michael, died in 2013; he is survived by Tina and their two children, Izzy and Georgie.
Peter Wilby also contributed to this obituary