on August 25, 2005
I grew up reading Harold Evan's Sunday Times - in the late 1970s it provided a window on the world that few other papers could. I particularly remember comprehensive coverage of Egyptian President Sadats historic visit to Jerusalem; ongoing coverage of Soviet dissidents and a very welcome (I'm Irish) editorial urging Britain to consider withdrawal from Northern Ireland. However, from today's perspective, the paper's foreign coverage seemed to be written from a point of view which could be summarised as `what would the world do without Henry Kissinger?' [Indeed this has always seemed to be Mr. Kissinger's view also]; and that Soviet unreasonableness was a product of American hawkish unreasonableness and that balance, compromise and reasonableness were achievable with enough negotiation. My memory is of positive disdain for the emerging tax revolt in California and absolute dread at the more confrontational foreign policy approach being urged by followers of Governor Reagan. A major positive for me was the explanatory diagrams and the furtively taken photographs of Soviet missiles (SS-20s?) being deployed in Russian forests. I was reminded of these diagrams in 2002/3 when the modern Sunday Times gave excellent descriptions - supported by diagrams - of Saddam's mobile chemical/biological weapons labs - which turned out not to exist.
In saying all the above, I mean both to pay tribute to Harold Evans and to put in context the criticisms I have of this book - which contains descriptions of his triumphs as Sunday Times editor and his difficulties as Times Editor under Rupert Murdoch. The book has three sections - the first describes some of the episodes which made Evan's Sunday Times great - the investigative reports from the Insight team and others, of malicious cover-ups of poor quality in the pharmaceutical industry (Thalidomide) and the aircraft industry (McDonnell Douglas); the publication of the Crossman Diaries - laying bare the rivalries and mutual disdain of the members of the British Labour Cabinet. Having established his credentials as a `vertical' journalist - Evan's term, which he describes as `seeking to get to the bottom of things' - and lauding his proprietors, the Thomson's, for allowing him to do so, the second part of the book deals with the advent of Mr. Murdoch as owner. The machinations of Murdoch to gain control are fascinating, the Thomson's were drained both financially and personally by the losses induced by union activity, and they secretly dealt with Murdoch while other offers were being pursued by the editors. Murdoch eventually won ownership of both the Times and Sunday Times, having given guarantees of editorial freedom to a board of `national directors', guarantees, which if breached, were theoretically amenable to criminal legal sanction. As part of the change of ownership Evans was offered the editorship of the Times - one of the free worlds most revered titles. In his description of the paper, Evans reveals an almost po-faced reverence for the place of the Times as part of the British Establishment - he sees it as the paper of record, upholding fair, non-partisan and accurate journalism which British society has come to expect. One feature of this is his constant enumeration of people's educational background, almost every colleague is named and then his/her school and university are listed - for example Joe Smith, Winchester, Oxford, to establish both social class and academic (perhaps intellectual) credentials. He documents the `four pillars' of the Times as its reporting of Parliament, its legal coverage, its obituaries and its leader columns. Oh dear! Stolid stuff, from the fearless, vertical, investigative editor. Nonetheless this section contains fascinating accounts of Evan's new broom editorship coming to terms with the rather lazy attitude to scoops and freshness of news which, by implication, criticise his predecessor as editor (William Rees Mogg); and show that change was indeed necessary at the institution. Looming behind this story is Murdoch's general management style - haphazard interventions, secretive finances and lack of budgeting and planning. From the text it seems to me that Murdoch was overstretched with transatlantic acquisitions, rather than covertly scheming to undermine Evans.
The third section of the book reads a bit like Macbeth - Murdoch plots to renege on his guarantees and to impose his will on the editors. The text here is well paced and descriptive - the tension plays havoc with everyone, save perhaps Murdoch, Evan's second-in-command betrays him, various functionaries within the paper either resign or become lackeys, the `national directors' turn out to be paper tigers (this is too good a pun to delete), the Thatcher government sides with Murdoch and fails to taken any action as the guarantees are broken, piecemeal. The thrust of this section reveals Evans as tragic hero, valiantly striving to uphold freedom of speech against the devious, double-dealing Murdoch, whose lackeys live in fear of his disapproval. However, by the time I got to this section I had, sadly, lost a lot of respect for Evan's impartiality, his defence of press freedom seemed to me to cloak an innate inability to face change in the form of new commercial and political realities. This was reaffirmed in my mind when, on the day that Evan's agreed to reign, who should phone to commiserate but Henry Kissinger!
In the end I think the book is important in that it is illustrates that one important feature of change and leadership is that they are neither comfortable nor, initially at least, popular. Evans, though personally engaging - and I'm sure mercurial and demanding - came to represent a set of fading political beliefs. The change occurring at the times these events described were taking place saw the emergence of economic individualism unleashed by lowering taxation rates; the antipathy to organised labour and active military competition with the Soviet Union. The fading, indeed failing, Social Democratic consensus was overthrown by a more individualistic and competitive set of beliefs and the process was quite ugly, given the sincerely held beliefs on both sides. I believe Evans and Murdoch were representative shadows of this change. The rest of the story - Evans attractive forthrightness, Murdoch's furtive acquisitiveness - while the human interest focus of the story, are ultimately a side show.
This book is well told, highly dramatic and engaging, however seen at a remove of twenty five years it is a lament from someone who worked hard to become part of an establishment whose day was done.
on June 2, 2012
This book covers the remarkable career of an editor from about 1960 to 1983. He edited the Sunday Times and then, when Murdoch bought it out, he took over the Times itself as well. He began as a courageous challenger on neglected issues: there are wonderful stories of his pioneering efforts on Thalidomide children, the uncovering of the extent of Philby's espionnage, and many other adventures. Evans and his team braved threats from the government, law suits, and extremists. That is the first 3rd of the book. Evans also gives a wonderful explanation of the political ecology of a great newspaper: an independent staff working for a proprietor who believes in the journalistic mission of informing and serving society. It is a compelling plea, one that I believe in. He also gives a clear idea of the economics of the Times and hence, all British newspapers. Most significantly, the unions were out of control and damaging the company with strikes and ruinous disobedience. He also gives a wonderful history of the Times and the role it played in British society, with an analysis of the institutional factors that enabled it to have the impact that it did. It is absolutely fascinating and essential, a testament to idealism of a sort.
The rest of the book is about his professional relationship, and then desperate, cutthroat conflict with Rupert Murdoch, who is the most powerful media mogul of this time. After a long and enervating struggle with the unions, the original ("good") proprietor decided to sell quickly. Murdoch, who is nothing if not a business man of genius, was ready: he had the cash and a relentless drive to own the prestige of the Times, one of the world's oldest and greatest newspapers.
According to Evans, Murdoch was the exact opposite of the former owner. Instead of creating a space of independence so that journalists could pursue their mission with the proper degree of freedom and confidence, he sought to control things with the egotism and lack of empathy of a dictator. Murdoch set out to break everyone at the Times, to make it an organ to serve Thatcher, who apparently gave the approval of the purchase in direct contravention of the anti-monopoly laws regulating the media, i.e. a special dispensation as a result of a corrupt deal between her and Murdoch. To do so, he offered promises of independence to the staff, which he ignored when he saw fit to do so. In a fascinating explanation of how the institutional safeguards failed, Evans was forced out after one year under Murdoch. (He was later voted the greatest editor of the century by his peers.)
The relentless pressure that built on Evans is hard for me to imagine: personal harassment, repeated humiliations, accusations of professional misconduct without substance, lack of clear criteria for success beyond bending to Murdoch's erratic directives, and a conflict of principal so basic that he worried it would compromise his integrity if he stayed. For a year, Evans resisted in accordance with his personal and professional ideals. Unfortunately, by replacing Evans with a sop who belonged to him, Murdoch essentially decimated an institution and turned it into an organ of propaganda that would fit his whims. If Evans is telling the truth, which I believe he is, it is a story of corruption and control that is frightening to contemplate. Evans is a passionate advocate for a different kind of journalism that seeks the truth and what is good for society rather than in service to the agenda of the proprietor.
The current backdrop to the story, upon which Evans comments in a new introduction in the edition that I bought (not this one, but a British reissue), is the hacking and bribery scandals that may be Murdoch's downfall, the end of his career at the age of 81. This book offers essential background into how this situation developed, from a vantage point of the way Murdoch operates.
Evans writes with a subtle elegance. There are many references and ironies that I could not fully comprehend - I am an American who does not know British culture all that well, but have some inkling from my wife, who is English and a voracious consumer of British journalism. This book is truly a masterpiece. As such, I warmly recommend it. Unfortunately, my edition is marred with typos and sloppy editorial errors - it reads as if it were scanned from the original edition without proofreading.