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Has Harold Evans’s thalidomide crusade been forgotten by today’s editors?  


THE word thalidomide sends a chill down the spine of anyone old enough to remember the catastrophe the drug caused. The exposure of its effects, as well as the securing of proper compensation for its victims, was largely the result of a tenacious and courageous, years-long campaign fought by Harold Evans as editor of the Sunday Times, and his team at the investigative unit Insight.It took sustained commitment in the face of manifold obstacles to expose the poisonous nature of a drug, the inadequacies of the regulator and the legal framework, as well as the incestuous relationship between corporate and government interests.

The parallels with the present time are obvious. Where are today’s editors of integrity? Did Harold Evans’ monumental battle half a century ago not teach future journalists anything?

Thalidomide was a sedative marketed for pregnant women suffering from morning sickness, prescribed on the NHS between 1958 and 1961. It was manufactured in Britain by Distillers Biochemicals, a subsidiary of the liquor and spirits firm Distillers, under licence from Chemie Grunenthal of Germany. Animal testing failed to reveal that it was a toxin that passed the placental barrier into the foetus, and before this was realised it caused thousands of serious birth defects worldwide. The extent of miscarriages and stillbirths it caused is unknown.

Harold Evans took an early interest in the thalidomide children, before the extent of the tragedy came to light, when he was editor of the Northern Echo in Darlington (1961-66). He published some frank pictures, but was told by readers who were disturbed by them that they ‘didn’t want to know’.

As the effects of thalidomide were becoming clear, Minister of Health Enoch Powell refused to order a public inquiry. He declared that it had been ‘properly tested according to the knowledge of the time, when drugs were thought not to reach the foetus’. The Ministry of Health had been briefed by a Distillers’ medical adviser (evidence to the contrary would show negligence, strengthening victims’ claims against the company) and Fleet Street en masse duly recycled the assertion that ‘it was standard medical dogma that the foetus was effectively isolated’.

In 1967 Harold Evans became editor of the Sunday Times. He engaged a journalist with a degree in psychology to visit families of victims all over the country. In 1968 he acquired revealing internal Distillers and Grunenthal documents and published a four-page investigation on the ‘reckless deceits of Chemie Grunenthal’. He was walking a tightrope. The laws of contempt of court prohibited publication of any matters which were likely to be covered in pending claims cases, and a violation of the law landed editors in jail.

By 1972 Evans had the bit between his teeth and launched a campaign for the thalidomide children purely on a moral basis. Most of the children had reached the age of eleven without receiving a penny of compensation for the appalling injuries inflicted on them. There were more than 450 affected children in Britain, but only 62 claims had been settled for derisory sums.

Meanwhile, Evans continued to elicit factual evidence in support of their cases. He not only sailed close to the wind, he sailed headlong into it. Having exhausted all legal remedies in order to be able to publish the paper’s draft articles on how the drug was made, based on thousands of documents and the exhaustive investigations of his journalists, in 1973 he filed a complaint against the government with the European Commission of Human Rights. In 1977 the Commission judged the restrictions imposed on the paper’s right to freedom of expression to be in breach of Article 10, and the matter should proceed to trial. The Sunday Times was at last free to publish, being finally vindicated in the European Court of Human Rights in 1979.

 Evans made history as it was the first time a Law Lords’ judgement had been reviewed at the ECtHR, and the law of contempt was liberalised. Alongside his battle on behalf of the thalidomide victims, he saw it as vital that the press be unshackled when it came to matters of grave importance to the public, ‘to make it harder for any similar scandal to languish in secrecy’. This is case-law which has to be taken account of by the Supreme Court.

So to the present time. At the TCWDF Celebration of Dissent, Andrew Bridgen MP told the audience that in an effort to rally support amongst his colleagues for a full investigation into the Covid-19 ‘vaccines’, one had replied: ‘We are not going to take on Big Pharma’, whilst another had said: ‘It will be like thalidomide which took twenty years to come out’.

The first reaction to that apathy must surely be what sort of MP is willing to sit back and knowingly watch another thalidomide unfold? It was a health disaster of grave proportions, but in terms of scale, it was taken by a fraction of those who have taken mRNA ‘vaccines’, and the population was not mandated or covertly coerced into taking it.

In early 2021 Frederick Edward shone a spotlight in these pages on to the staggering sums of taxpayers’ money that since spring 2020 had been incrementally allocated by the Cabinet Office to advertising agencies, in order to sell the government’s Covid-19 agenda to the public via the press and media. He detailed how commercial advertising during lockdowns had fallen through the floor, leaving the way wide open for government to slide seamlessly into the gap and replace lost revenues, at a price. The price exacted was to set aside everything editors know to be their core role and betray wholesale the public they purport to serve.

When Harold Evans began his campaign for the thalidomide children, Distillers were the paper’s largest single advertiser. As a group they spent £600,000 a year, in today’s money double-digit millions. Harry Evans warned his advertising manager, Donald Barrett, who replied: ‘I know it won’t stop you, and it shouldn’t.’ Distillers withdrew all their advertising after the beginning of the campaign.

Does Harry Evans’ legacy not register a beat in the breast of any current editor of a main title prepared to pick up the baton and rise above the fray?

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Serena Wylde
Serena Wylde
Serena Wylde is multi-lingual with a keen interest in law and ethics.

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