Former colleagues and friends lined up last week to pay tribute to Sir Harold Evans, the feted editor of the Sunday Times in the 1970s, who died on Wednesday, aged 92. Unanimity is a rare commodity in the tribal world of newspapers, but there has, rightly, been no dissent from the view that Evans was the most inspiring editor of his generation, and perhaps of any.

A good deal of this reputation rests on his relentless pursuit of a series of truths that were deeply uncomfortable to the British establishment: exposing Kim Philby as a Soviet spy; revealing the full story of the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry; and, indelibly, campaigning for justice and compensation, over eight years, for the 10,000 people damaged before birth by the morning sickness drug thalidomide. Of all the eulogies offered to Evans, you imagine the ones he might have appreciated most were those from thalidomide survivors, including Mikey Argy, who, like many, remained in touch with him: “He thought of us as his children,” Argy said, “and we thought of him as our hero. He was willing to break the law for us… He had total respect for us and we had total awe for him.”

That sentiment was shared by many of those who worked closely with Evans. It derived from his undying faith in the craft and importance of print journalism and for the best of those curious and driven individuals who practise it. As his long-time deputy Frank Giles once observed: “Harry’s career provided a living negation of the theory that to be a successful leader you have to be a bit of a shit.”

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Evans could not always rely on that principle in others. His career in British journalism ended, while he was still only in his early 50s, when, having refused attempts at editorial interference by his new proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, he was sacked on the day after returning to the office from his father’s funeral. The timing of his departure has come to mark a before and after history of Fleet Street: Evans represented the end of that era when editorial decisions were not made in the whispers of keyboards, but in the industrial clamour of the compositor’s room. “I liked nothing better than being poised with a galley proof, trying to anticipate where a cut might come from,” he recalled. “What I loved about hot-metal printing, apart from the aromatic urgency of all the paraphernalia, was the discipline it imposed in writing and editing.”

Evans was always too much of a newsman to be seduced by nostalgia, though. In the 40 years of his subsequent career in New York, he remained a staunch champion of all the best values of this industry, particularly in recent years when it has been challenged by the new hegemony of social media, and the rise of political populism, with its partisan attacks on the business of truth-telling. Evans rose to the top table of New York’s publishing industry, but he did not forget the spirit and values that had got him there. As he said in an interview with this newspaper as he approached his 90th birthday: “When all authority is against you, well, then you must be right!”

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Those values were clearly inculcated in Evans from an early age. The son of a train driver, he left school at 16 and applied for his first job at the Ashton-under-Lyne weekly Reporter at a pound a week, armed only with a shorthand qualification and a letter of recommendation from his headmaster. That letter rings as true of him now as it did 75 years ago.

“Harold Evans is a boy with very lively intelligence, possessing powers of original thought along with a very retentive memory. He is perhaps too impetuous at present, but will outgrow that. He has won his success, because he never spares himself, and seldom flags in his interest. We shall miss his integrity and willing service.”



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