Harold Evans: 'Just find the bloody facts!'

Sir Harold Evans opens the door and proceeds to hang himself by his tie. He's acting, of course, although the gurgling noises and the way his head lolls to one side is convincing. As the assembled throng of journalists waiting for him outside begin to show alarm, he smiles and wraps his silk navy blue tie around his hands then straightens his collar with a sigh and gets on with the job in hand — yet more interviews.

It is easy to assume that a media legend of Evans's standing should be adept at handling such a tedious press call. Yet for all his charming patter and good humour in the face of an endless barrage of questions, when he walks with an awkward limp to the dining room where the interview will take place and shifts his weight from side to side during the conversation, you remember that Harold Evans is 78 years old.

But the occasion of the International Press Institute congress in Edinburgh is one he says he couldn't refuse, having been a member of the institute's board since the 1960s, when he travelled across Asia educating journalists and editors and advised political leaders such as former Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. On its 50th birthday, the IPI named Evans among its top 50 "Press Freedom Heroes".

Evans began his journalism career in 1944 as a reporter on a weekly paper in Ashton-under-Lyne, moving on to be leader writer and assistant editor at the Manchester Evening News. He was editor of the Northern Echo from 1961 until 1967, when he moved to The Sunday Times. His 14-year reign as editor is now seen as a golden age for the paper.

Under Evans, the newly established Sunday Times Magazine supplement rewrote the rulebook of magazine photography and the Insight team flourished with a set of ground-breaking exposés.

The arrival of Rupert Murdoch as owner saw Evans move to edit The Times. The tumultuous 12 months that followed, culminating in Evans's resignation on the News at Ten, are documented in one of the more than 20 books he has written, Good Times, Bad Times.

In 1984, Evans moved to New York and went on to become founding editor of Condé Nast Traveller in 1986. He continues to dabble in journalism as the editor-at-large of Felix Dennis's The Week. Only last year, Evans was deemed sufficiently au fait with American culture to fill Alistair Cooke's boots by presenting his own version of Letter from America last year on the BBC.

When he tells me that he feels sorry for the celebrities, I can't help wonder if it is because he has inadvertently become one. Evans is often referred to in the United States as "Tina Brown's husband" through his marriage to the former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor — a sign of the status his wife holds, to the extent where the couple's garden wall was once the subject of a feature in the New York Times.

Evans remains as committed to campaigning journalism today as he was in the days when he called for an official inquiry into the hanging of Timothy Evans, a key factor in the abolition of the death penalty in England.

Evans is currently working on a memoir, going under the working title of Paper Chase. Why now?

Because Evans is the first to admit that he is not getting any younger and, as he puts it, "it's always better to write a book while you're still alive".

I supported the invasion of Iraq — I was what they call a ‘liberal hawk'.

I felt just as deceived and betrayed as everybody else. I thought: "Surely, if there are no WMD, one of these great independent organs will tell us that there is some doubt." But they didn't. So I think some of the outrage now is a reaction against our own failings. I think that we [the media] have a bit to feel guilty for, about what happened between the very successful invasion of Afghanistan and the very illjudged and appallingly executed invasion of Iraq.

Independent investigative journalism could have uncovered the fact that the WMD story was not right. The press is, in a sense, reacting with almost a guilt complex, having failed so significantly to understand the nature of the Salafist totalitarian movement, having failed to understand what the hell was happening in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

Now we are caught in a curious dilemma for the press.

On the one hand, the trust that was put in us was betrayed and on the other hand, in my judgment, it's an over-reaction to then condemn every antiterrorist measure. Say you're a newspaper editor, and I come to you with the story that the CIA has made a breakthrough and has been able to tap into the cellphone of Osama bin Laden. Would you publish it? That story was written, and it was true. Osama bin Laden, when that story was written, was actually plotting the murder of 3,000 people, or as many as he could manage to kill on 9/11. The Washington Times published that story and his cellphone was never heard again. So he got on with his plan and those people died. That, to me, was murder by the press. It was the height of irresponsibility.

It is necessary, sometimes, to offend every single last reader you have. But I think if it gets too far away for too long a time, it is a serious problem.

Just imagine this hypothetical situation. I learn something that the administration wants to keep secret, which might conceivably help forestall another 9/11. They ask me not to publish it. I say look, we're fighting for democratic values here — freedom of expression and openness of discussion are part of democratic values. So I go ahead and publish it. Then the outrage takes place — it's a nuclear explosion in Chicago. A million people have died.

Forget individual guilt, the reaction in any kind of society to that kind of thing. Forget even the antecedent I've spelt out, the reaction in terms of civil liberties would be so horrendous that it would make what's happening now look like nothing on earth. So we should be careful about these issues.

The obsession in American journalism with having a source is really pernicious.

The press didn't do a bad job in showing that the connections between Saddam and Al Qaeda were not real — the CIA was putting that claim out.

Once the press had a source like the CIA, they felt more emboldened to question it. The CIA did actually believe in WMD, as did the United Nations, European governments — almost everybody. So it needed a particularly skilful, well-informed press to be able to penetrate UNSCOM and the other documents that were available. I know for a fact that one correspondent who actually did that work couldn't get it published effectively, because it was his own work — there wasn't a quoted source he could identify.

Just find the bloody facts!

In independent investigative journalism it sometimes isn't possible, or even desirable, to say "this is according to so and so". With The Sunday Times, when the IRA was at its height and even before that, various reporters — Chris Ryder, John Barry, Peter Pringle, Lewis Chester, David Blundy and Bruce Page — uncovered stuff that wasn't given to them by an official source. I was in court in Belfast, having exposed the IRA embezzlement of funds, for instance. That wasn't because the British Government told us about it — Sunday Times reporters found it.

I've loved the Berliner format.

I like The Guardian. I prefer it to the straight tabloid, which yields a lot of pages. I do also like a broadsheet, although I think the Telegraph is making a mistake in trying to imitate the Daily Mail a bit.

I wrote a book called Newspaper Design and I argued some of the advantages of a tabloid format and I also recommended the middle format, which is pretty close to what The Guardian is using. I think The Guardian made a terrific job of that, to exemplify some of the better thinking about newspaper design.

This morning, I slightly missed the old size of The Observer when I read it. I thought it was well executed, but I just long for that old size. Of course, I used to be a competitor of theirs, so perhaps I would.

The Guardian and The Times have both done marvellous investigations.

The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal do very good things from time to time, so I mustn't be super-critical. The NYT's report on Condi Rice, the aluminum tubes and how she misled everybody was very interesting — a terrific piece of reporting and a terrific piece of investigation. And The Wall Street Journal, which is often thought of as right-wing, often exposes corruption in amazing ways.

I'll never forget the Daily Mail, ever, for their absolute courage and investigation in the Stephen Lawrence case. They basically came up with a page saying these men are guilty; they should be re-tried. I thought that was really phenomenal, I wish I'd done something like that.

In Britain you have a Prime Minister who is recognising the planetary menace of global warming. It is a fact.

When I did Letter from America for the BBC, I did one on Michael Crichton and his parody, his satirical fictional novel attacking global warming. I thought his whole attack was misguided. So I did a column that I broadcast about Crichton's mis-statements and about the fact that Exxon was funding the groups that were protesting against it. Do you know it received the biggest response that we had? We received 70,000 emails. 70,000 emails!

Don't underestimate the public. Sam Goldwyn said nobody will get broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. But you'll go broke underestimating the intelligence of the citizenry today. I think if I was a newspaper editor, I would do not just one piece, not just a feature, not just some report, I would have a campaign of continuing and daily scrutiny of the forces that are resisting doing something — not just in England, but also in other places.

I would have a continual public education campaign. Al Gore in America has made a film — it's a brilliant, elusive exposition of the scientific truths, but already the right-wing bloggers and the others are deriding him, saying that it is boring. I'd like to see them all on the last ice-float that melts in the Arctic and hear what they would have to say then.

Tony Blair is much more trustworthy that George Bush.

There are a lot of attacks on Blair, but many of them seem quite ridiculous, I mean poisonous, actually.

I think the British system is much more open at the end of the day. Some of the protests about press restrictions are justified and it is a mistake for the Government to attack a journalist's sources. It's understandable that we should feel that way, but I think we need to be a little bit careful. It comes down in the end to the margins of doubt. If you have a benefit of doubt at the margin, to whom do you give it?

Most journalists I know are highly responsible in the face of obfuscation and denial.

They have always been willing to reason, but not been willing to suppress something simply for the sake of avoiding somebody's political embarrassment, and I think that is right. At the same time, we have a lot of guilt, because we do terrible things sometimes; invasions of privacy, printing lies, distorting — so we lose public support.

I hate to see the pollution of news.

The American press, although its editorials tend to be right of centre, is not as guilty of the kind of partisan reporting as the kind of fratricidal nonsense that you read in the British press. I mean where stories are twisted, particularly during election time — it's disgusting. Now I'm not saying that it should be stopped — it's a free country, so the more expressions the better. It is up to other papers to monitor the way in which the news is reported, and they don't do that enough. The Guardian has done some good work in that area.

Murdoch, you have to give it to him, he's a man of tremendous enterprise.

It is a good idea to [do an American version of The Times] because the US needs much more life, it needs infiltration, it needs much more competition. And the tendency, of course, is totally towards monopoly.

Too many of the regional papers have succumbed to the accountants. They've really ruined the papers.

Even a great paper like the Philadelphia Inquirer was ruined by greed. The owner announced: "We have a great objective for next year." And I thought: "What is it? Is it to enliven the cultural pages? Is it to open a news internet site? Is it to expose some appalling abuse?" No. Their great objective was to go for 23 per cent profit next year. Forgive me. Now of course, some five years later, the paper is up for sale.

Murdoch is willing to take a risk — most of the time he's justified in doing that. I may have criticisms of him, which I have already annunciated at great length, but he's also the man who helped to liberate the British press from the trade unions.

We rely on the public trusting us, not just for entertainment, but also for integrity.

The New York Post is guilty of partisan reporting. It's Rupert's paper, but it is a very exhilaratingly wellproduced tabloid. There are two consequences of bias and pollution in the news. First of all, it is demoralising to the journalist who has to do it — you have to take this angle on that. Secondly, I think it destroys confidence in the press.

At the Northern Echo we did have a national impact.

I see the Northern Echo from time to time, which is very good. I don't read it daily, I haven't got any time, you know. It could have just as much influence as a national paper. A regional newspaper can obviously have a regional influence by reporting.

That's the crucial fact, by reporting. I worry sometimes about the bottom-line mania that affects so many publications. They'd rather close a bureau than tell a story.

The thing I'm proudest of is the establishment of the programme of cervical cancer, which started in the Northern Echo. I'm also pretty proud of the role we played in getting rid of the death penalty with Timothy Evans. Even the smallest newspaper can discover and report something that will have a national impact. It's harder — because they have fewer resources — and it takes time. It's very difficult to do. It took a year to get cervical cancer on the political agenda.

The growth of traditional media is certainly challenged by the internet.

There's no question that cyberspace is a terrific, liberating thing, particularly the search capacity. In terms of factual reporting, cyberspace is inferior to print. The great thing about the blogosphere is opinion and some of the factual reporting on the web can be very important. If during the Serbian crisis, when they were killing people in Sarajevo, there was a website where somebody filed the news: "Armed people are coming down the street." Now that is fantastically exciting, that we might have someone saying: "I'm in Pakistan — there is an earthquake."

So instead of having 10, 20 or 50 correspondents, you suddenly have millions. The factual enhancement of reporting may be increased by cyberspace. But at the same time, what's the authority of this source? Do you know if this person in Serbia has just invented this piece of information?

You've no idea, whereas with newspapers you have gatekeepers who are helpful.

Maybe it's the case that The Times shouldn't have a newsworthy editor.

I think Simon Jenkins is a brilliant columnist, and I think [William] Rees-Mogg was a very newsworthy editor of The Times and a fantastic writer. Bill Hayley used to say: "Keep your name out of the papers", and he never gave an interview. They seem very capable people, editing The Times. It seems slightly sad to me that I was the 12th editor in 200 years and there have now been… how many? I think there have been five editors since, including Peter Stothard, who was a great colleague of mine when I was on The Sunday Times and on The Times.

I feel sorry for the celebrities.

It's a celebrity culture, both in the States and here in the UK. But the trouble is that the general tendency is to make a celebrity into somebody, even if they have not done anything. Make a celebrity out of them, then destroy them, then build them up again.

You get a continual cycle of anointment, repudiation and resurrection. And I feel sorry for the celebrities, because very often lies are told about them, there are intrusions on their privacy. Some of them are invited, some of them do very well out of it and some of them don't. Some papers show restraint, some papers show none at all.

Of course I was also very lucky, I'll admit that.

I came from the working class. Some people thought that a working class boy shouldn't edit The Times, including Lord Dacre. Actually my academic background was terrific — Harkness Fellow, Master of the Arts, first class honours in moral philosophy and all those kind of things, but he said I wasn't academic. What he meant was that I didn't go to Oxford.

On the other hand, it can't have been all that onerous, because I was asked to edit the Northern Echo, I was asked to edit The Sunday Times, I was asked to edit The Times. So I wouldn't exaggerate it, but I think it has changed now.

Don't forget that when I went to university in 1949, I think only around two per cent of the population could go to university, so there was a great deal of selectivity against people who couldn't afford an education. A lot of that has changed now. How many people go to college now? I don't know, but I'm sure it is a huge percentage. Back then it was tiny. So education and class in my time certainly played a very important role, but it wasn't overwhelming.

To be honest about The Sunday Times, I inherited a lot of talent.

Denis Hamilton recruited Ron Hall, for instance, who was fantastic; Nicholas Tomalin, I think Phillip Knightley was already there, as was John Barry. So The Sunday Times really was given a fantastic opportunity by Denis Hamilton. In terms of my own signings, I was always pleased. On the cultural side, there was Claire Tomalin, John Whitley, Alan Brien and Bernard Levin. There was also Paul Eddy on Insight and Magnus Linklater.

I wouldn't like to single anyone out individually, because it was very much a team effort with Del Mercer on the news desk, Maurice Sale from Australia, Jon Swain — there was a gallery of really terrific reporters. And Mike Randall, who came from the Daily Mail, that was a great recruitment because he had been editor of the Daily Mail and he had been fired. George Darby… I mean I could just go on.

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