Sir Harold Evans dies aged 92: ‘The sort of journalist that in our hearts we would all like to be’

Harold Evans was physically a diminutive figure – but through his journalism, books and reported comments about the trade he had a giant influence over generations of journalists.

Many have shared their thoughts about the impact Sir Harry has had on them since his death was announced this morning at the age of 92.

Former Northern Echo editor Peter Barron said: “As editor of The Northern Echo between 1999 & 2016, I’d often find myself looking at his picture on the office wall and wondering: ‘What would you do, Harry?’ 50 years after he left, North-East readers still talked of him in awe. A true inspiration.”

Writing for Reuters, award-winning investigative journalist Stephen Grey said: “He was the icon that inspired a generation of young Britons to pick up a pen in anger – inspired by his example that the relentless and carefully crafted exposure of facts could be used to fight injustice.”

Reuters editor in chief Stephen Adler said: “Harry Evans was an inspiration, not only as a great journalist but as a great man. He had an insatiable intellect, extraordinary tenacity, high principle, and a generous heart.”

Former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan said: “One of the all-time great newspaper editors. His stunning Thalidomide investigation when he ran the Sunday Times epitomised his crusading, campaigning, fearless style.
A wonderful journalist & a witty, charming, fiercely intelligent man.”

Evans was still making waves with his journalism this year for Reuters, where he remained editor at large until his death. His April op-ed comparing his memory of calming comments made by the future queen Elizabeth in 1940 to her broadcast to the nation about the coronavirus crisis.

Evans began his career as a journalist on a weekly in Ashton-under-Lyne at the age of 16 in 1944.

He was editor of the Northern Echo from 1961 to 67, editor of The Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981 and then editor of The Times for a year before resigning after clashing with owner Rupert Murdoch about editorial independence.

His books about journalism and his life included:

  • Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers
  • Editing and Design
  • Pictures on a Page
  • Good Times Bad Times
  • My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times.

In 2013 leading editors paid tribute to Evans at a London dinner held in his honour by the media Society.

Then Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said: “No journalist of my generation could escape Harry’s influence…we were all brought up on his text books. Everything we knew about constructing an intro, subbing, cropping a picture, designing a page or writing a headline we knew it because of Harry. It was drummed into us, at Harlow Tech in my case…He was to journalism what Doctor Spock was to child-rearing.”

“The story that we want to believe about journalism and what great journalism is embodies a collection of these characteristics: these people are brave, they stand up for people when they are most needed, they stand up against authority and bullies, they are not easily intimidated, they write about big things – the things that really matter.

“They hate injustice and when they see it they right wrongs. They never give up on a cause and they have a kind of moral outrage. And that’s Harry…

“He is the sort of journalist that in our hearts we would all like to be. He took on big targets that included Governments, and judges, spies, enormous corporations…they were people with deep pockets, who had a lot of legal and institutional muscle.”

Then BBC head of news James Harding, who (like Evans) left The Times after a falling out with owner Mrurdoch said: “You transformed Fleet Street and you transformed the lives of all of us by understanding and appreciating that investigative journalism defines us. It earns our troublesome place in society and it makes clear for every journalist that what we do, for all our flaws, is invaluable.

“It seems a little odd for us all to be here given Fleet Street’s recent appetite for the circular firing squad. But we are here in this great group hug.

“It’s the most joyous gathering of newspaper people that I can remember. Entirely apt that is you who brought us together because in one form or another we all strive to do what you did in your editorships of the Sunday Times and the Times.”

Evans’ defining achievement was his exposure of the Thalidomide scandal.

In 1972, The Sunday Times sought to highlight the plight of the 370 known victims of the drug thalidomide, which caused major birth deformities in babies.

The UK distributor of the drug, Distillers, had offered the victims total compensation of £3.25m. The Sunday Times campaign helped prompt Commons action and a shareholder revolt at Distillers.

A new compensation deal worth £32.5m was eventually agreed.

After fighting an injunction all the way to European Court, in 1976 The Sunday Times also revealed that the drug’s developers had not met the basic testing requirements of the time before distributing it.

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