Six of the best with Phillip Knightley: ‘Harold Evans never tried to bring order to creative chaos’

Phillip Knightley was a special correspondent for The Sunday Times for 20 years (1965-85) and one of the leaders of its Insight investigative team.

He was twice named Journalist of the Year (1980 and 1988) in the British Press Awards.

Best editor?

Harold Evans. He wore his editor’s skills so lightly. He was master of every branch of journalism. He could lay out a page, choose a photograph, dash off a leader, write a headline.

The only thing he couldn’t do was say “No”. So he gave a job to anyone who asked which meant that The Sunday Times was wildly overmanned.

It had so many curious staffing arrangements that I doubt anyone really knew how many journalists worked there. Or what they did.

Sir Harold Evans

A business efficiency expert was hired to bring some order to the place but he left complaining that when he asked Nicholas Tomalin why any office he was assigned had to have an outside window, Tomalin had replied, “I might need it to jump out of”.

Evans never tried to bring order to the editorial department’s creative chaos.

He simply encouraged journalists to get on with whatever appealed to them. Such freedom was unprecedented and I mourn its passing.

Best journalist?

My old pal Stephen Fay. He was a feature writer with me on The Sunday Times and we often teamed up together on big stories like “The Death of Venice”.

He has an economist’s way of looking at things and brought his analytical financial mind to our collaborations. He had the skills to be an editor, but always seemed to choose the wrong proprietor.

Like a lot of fine general journalists who have turned to sports reporting, he now writes superbly on cricket, including the influence it has had on his life.

Best national newspaper?

Pic: Michael Bruntonspall, Flickr. Some rights reserved

The Guardian. Although it sometimes disappoints me with its sudden flashes of conservatism and eccentric stances on some issues, it is the only serious newspaper in Britain that makes any attempt to present a progressive view of life. And its readers’ letters are witty.

Best piece of investigative journalism in the past decade?

Nick Davies’s work on phone-hacking and the behaviour of the tabloid press. His patience, persistence, determination and refusal to let the story fade away, has been an example to all of us.

Nick Davies. Pic: Reuters

The main lesson is that when your colleagues are telling you that the readers are fed up with the story, in fact they are just beginning to take notice.

Best magazine?

I have stopped reading them. People like Godfrey Smith, Michael Rand and Francis Wyndham gave people like Don McCullin, Brian Moynihan, and David Leitch a free hand on the old Sunday Times Magazine to explore the big themes of life.

Now magazines seem to me to be dominated by advertisements for luxury items and celebrity trivia.

Best book about journalism?

Depends whether you mean a book that tells you how to do it, or the best insight on whether you should be doing it at all.

There are dozens of the former but only one of the latter: Murray Sayle’s novel, A Crooked Sixpence, first published in 1961, pulped after a threat of libel proceedings, and then re-issued in 2008 by Revel Barker Books (£9.99).

The morally-confused main character is Sayle and his story is based loosely on his time working for The People. It’s hilarious and raises interesting ethical issues about journalists and the people they write about.

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