Monday, October 26, 2020
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Harry Evans – brilliant editor, decent human being

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SIR Harold Evans, the legendary newspaper editor, has died in New York at the age of 92. I had the privilege of meeting him in his heyday.

I was on a Thomson Regional Newspapers (long gone) training course in Newcastle when Harry Evans came to talk to us. It was unscheduled; he had been visiting old colleagues when he was asked to come into the training centre and although he was a big noise by then, editor of the Sunday Times, he agreed. He sat on a table at the front of the room and held the dozen or so of us spellbound for an hour or more. This was in late 1973 and the reporter Nick Tomalin had been killed on a Sunday Times assignment in Israel only a few days before. Evans tried to talk about it but he couldn’t. He silently sobbed. It was a shocking moment. Getting on for 50 years later I still admire the man who was a brilliant editor and a decent human being. Believe me, that is not an inevitable combination.

For me, Evans’s crowning achievement was his campaign for the victims of thalidomide. The drug was given to expectant mothers as a treatment for morning sickness and resulted in thousands of infants being born with deformities of the limbs and other serious disabilities. The affair was so shocking, the life-long harm done to babies so tragic, that I have always felt people tried to put it out of their minds. It was too awful to think about.

The British company which marketed the drug, Distillers, reached a court settlement with families of damaged children in 1969/70, but it was pathetically inadequate. The amount awarded to a child without arms or legs, though with normal life expectancy, would have run out in a few years. Additionally, there was a condition that if only one parent in the group rejected the offer, the whole thing would be withdrawn.

The Sunday Times obtained documents which showed that thalidomide had been accidentally discovered after the war by a small German company called Chemie Grunenthal, then marketed aggressively as a perfectly safe treatment for morning sickness though it had not been remotely adequately tested. Evans put his Insight team on the case and an introductory article was published in September 1972. It ended with the words: ‘In future articles The Sunday Times will trace how the tragedy occurred.’ At the urging of Distillers the Attorney-General obtained an injunction stopping the Sunday Times from publishing any such article, and a lengthy court battle began. It was not until 1977 that the articles were published. As a consequence of the publication the compensation to the children was increased substantially, though it was still inadequate.

Reporter Phillip Knightley, who worked on the story, reflected in his 1997 memoirs that the campaign was not the triumph that legend claims it to be, that the Sunday Times had acted too late, that the story could and should have been covered years previously, and that the paper had relied partly on paying for information. I think he was being too hard on himself and the team. Without the Sunday Times and Harold Evans it is likely that the whole desperately sad affair would have been forgotten as soon as possible.

There were many other highlights in Evans’s career, as well as low points. I don’t suppose everyone liked him, in fact it would be surprising if many did – a good newspaper editor can’t be too keen on making friends. However that day in Newcastle was enough to convince me that this was a strong man with genuine feelings who tried his best.

I wonder what he would have thought about the Government’s response to the coronavirus? My guess is that he would not have swallowed the party line hook, line and sinker, as today’s newspapers have. He would have been analysing the figures, pointing out the glaring inconsistencies, and calling on the Government to account for its hysterical curbing of our liberties. Today’s editors should be ashamed.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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