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  • Published 25.12.09
Evans, by the cartoonist, Mark Boxer

My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times, an autobiography By Harold Evans, Little, Brown, £ 25

Well might Harold Evans revel in riding the spectacular roller coaster of his life, for he is profoundly aware that his mix of investigative reporting, crusading editorials and intensive personal campaigning made newspaper history in Britain. This public role began even before he moved to London and the Sunday Times, which led to the Times. It started on the Northern Echo (his first editorship), a regional daily that uniquely sold more copies than there were people in its home town in northeast England. The legendary Echo editor, W.T. Stead, pioneered the personalized blend of reporting and feature-writing that is now the norm. He also fathered investigative journalism and went to jail for his pains.

Evans improved on that heritage, campaigning successfully for a cleaner environment and to have a man who had been wrongly executed for murder exonerated. His later battles with powerful business lobbies and the bureaucracy, and his defiance of contempt and secrecy laws, significantly expanded the boundaries of what the press can write about. It ensured financial compensation for children who were born deformed because their expecting mothers were prescribed the drug, thalidomide, and exposed MI6’s Kim Philby as a Soviet spy. That he managed at the same time not to ruffle establishment feathers was evident when he was knighted. As the son of a Manchester railway engine driver bent the knee before Queen Elizabeth, he took endearing pride in the distance he had travelled. “They’ve been awarding KBEs since the reign of King Henry III (1216-72) so I was a Johnny-come-lately,” he says with mock modesty.

Earlier, journalistic greats had little formal education. They started on small papers and learnt the craft as they rose. Later, editors were Oxbridge graduates. The in-between Evans — he started on a provincial weekly but had a degree, albeit from Durham — was acutely conscious of his humble roots, of being “branded on the tongue”, the picturesque phrase for giveaway accents George Orwell borrowed from Wyndham Lewis. He is entitled to gloat (if that isn’t too strong a word) on his achievements.

But it’s always risky accepting self-made men at their own valuation, and Evans’s Indian claims don’t make it easier for readers here to do so. The connection began with his boss on the Manchester Evening News ordering him to “spend a few weeks in India” with a grand “You can take time off to help Mr Nehru.” (Nehru had apparently complained to the International Press Institute about Indian newspapers). Then, the editorial director of Westminster Press, the Echo’s owner, says at the job interview, “I’ve heard about the work you did in India. Rather surprised you didn’t tell me about that.” Finally, Denis Hamilton, “the prodigiously successful editor of the Sunday Times”, says during another job interview, “I heard what you did for all those newspapers in India. Very important.”

Whatever he did that was so important, Evans gives the credit to subcontinental journalists. They are not alone at the receiving end of his bounty. In fact, it’s quite crowded there for the book hardly has an unkind word about anyone. Not even Rupert Murdoch, who outsmarted him in acquiring the Sunday Times and sacked him as Times editor after giving him the job. “If he hadn’t given me a shove,” Evans writes, “I wouldn’t have enjoyed twenty-five exuberant years exploring new frontiers.” During that quarter-century he wrote two highly successful books on American history, published a record number of bestsellers by other authors as president of Random House, launched the Condé Nast Traveler magazine and guided US News & World Report as its editorial director.

The meticulousness of reporting under his aegis is evident in his own writing. Apart from keeping a detailed diary and never throwing away a scrap of paper, Evans thoroughly researched his past, even revisiting the sites of earlier experiences. The result is a book within a book. The secondary book is mainly for journalists (“I am addicted to print”, “A newspaper is an argument on the way to a deadline”), and for pre-computer hot-metal-age journalists at that. But My Paper Chase is far more than a treatise on journalism. It is social history. Evans was not just witness to an age, he was a participant in some of its most stirring events. They come to life in a sparkling narrative that reads at times — David Holden’s murder for instance — like a thriller. There’s an exultancy in the telling, as he looks back from continuing triumphs beyond the Atlantic, that was missing in the more sedate Good Times, Bad Times in which he recounted the story of his troubled Times editorship.

Some readers may find the personal story he weaves into it — especially his divorce and second marriage to a much younger journalist, Tina Brown, who blazed her own professional trail — mawkish. But then, some readers also disapproved of the strident style he introduced in the Times. They are a dwindling breed in this age of pop infotainment. Evans is more than a man of his time, he sets the tone for the times. America is his spiritual home though one wonders whether, as an American citizen, he can still bask in the glory of being Sir Harold, the working-class lad made good.