Allan Prosser: Remembering the eternal values of good journalism

On World News Day, ALLAN PROSSER remembers the eternal values of good journalism personified by the inspirational Harold Evans, who died last week
Allan Prosser: Remembering the eternal values of good journalism

Harold Evans: "Newsprint rationing put a premium on conciseness.” Picture: PA 

Back when I was an impressionable teenager, some time ago in the days of three-channel black and white TV, I became addicted to a scratchy programme broadcast out of Manchester and presented regularly by a Buddy Holly lookalike named Harold Evans.

What The Papers Say was a weekly reprise of the good and bad in the British Press and Evans was a laconic critic and a font of knowledge.

He also had a good story to tell because his newspaper, The Northern Echo, was running a vigorous campaign to clear the name of Timothy Evans, falsely accused of murdering his young wife and 13-month-old daughter at 10 Rillington Place in London’s Notting Hill, at that time one of the seedier parts of London.

Timothy Evans, a semi-literate Welshman and an inveterate fantasist was hanged at Pentonville Prison before it emerged that his landlord and neighbour in the same house was John Reginald Halliday Christie, special constable, serial killer and necrophiliac.

It was an unlikely coincidence that there would be two stranglers under the same roof.

The Northern Echo campaigned under the logo, Man On Our Conscience, and its impact weighed heavily in the abolition of capital punishment by the reforming UK Home Office led by Roy Jenkins.

What intrigued, and was inspirational, was that a newspaper in a small County Durham market town could change national policy through persistence and relentless attention to detail. This is an interesting job I thought.

Harold Evans: “The way to kill a newspaper is to ask more for less.” Picture: PA
Harold Evans: “The way to kill a newspaper is to ask more for less.” Picture: PA

A few years later, having become a young journalist, largely because of the example of Harold Evans, and coincidentally working for the company which owned his old newspaper I made a silent resolution: one day I would edit The Northern Echo.

And one day I did, learning much more about Harold Evans, his techniques and philosophy from those who had worked with him. And on World News Day, where many of the principles he espoused are to the forefront, it is worth remembering, following his death on Wednesday, this paramount newspaper leader and his continuing relevance in strange times.

Evans knew that campaigns had to be kept bubbling past the point where journalists and public became weary of them.

The first attempt to clear the name of Timothy Evans began 10 years earlier in 1955 and (whisper it to the hagiographers) under the auspices of a recently retired editor of the Yorkshire Post, the Echo’s Leeds-based rival. While Evans banged the drum a decade later not everyone was convinced.

He was told by the then chairman of Vaux Breweries in Sunderland that an inquiry would “waste the time of important people.”

Evans took up the cause when he was approached with a contribution from a Darlington industrialist and Liberal politician Herbert Wolfe.

As he tells it in his autobiography My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times he had a moment of revelation while reading Wolfe’s letter about the trial on a train journey from the North-East to London but his newsroom recounted the tale slightly differently.

They were stuck for a leader page piece one day and Wolfe’s article was to hand. And in it went.

Great moments can turn on serendipity.

Evans also attempted to launch his Thalidomide campaign from Darlington to win compensation for children born limbless or deformed after their mothers had taken a prenatal drug prescribed by the National Health Service but he couldn’t muster the critical mass to make it effective.

It travelled to the Sunday Times with him after he was talent-spotted by the then editor-in-chief Denis Hamilton whose origins in Middlesbrough and interest in training had assisted him in tracking the development of the young man from Lancashire who had failed his 11-plus.

Harold Evans: “A newspaper is an argument on the way to a deadline. If there isn’t any argument there’s not much of a newspaper.” 
Harold Evans: “A newspaper is an argument on the way to a deadline. If there isn’t any argument there’s not much of a newspaper.” 

Hamilton, a hero of the Battle of Arnhem and consummate networker, had set up many of the platforms that Evans was to exploit so successfully.

He launched the industry-changing Sunday Times colour supplement (proprietor Roy Thomson greeted it as a “disaster”).

Tellingly he had also established the Insight team of investigative reporters and reformed business coverage.

“Harold could be wild and impulsive, but he had the sort of crusading energy a Sunday editor requires,” said Hamilton.

Sadly for Harold Evans Hamilton was not there to throw a protective arm around him and provide counsel when the Sunday Times editor entered murky depths under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch and he reached the watershed of his career when he resigned from the Editorship of The Times after one year.

His departure after a decade of success on the sister title was marked by acrimony and betrayal among his daily colleagues.

In taking the lead at The Times, he was to say later, “my ambition got the better of my judgement.”

Evans left for the United States with his new wife Tina Brown, a process to which I made a tiny contribution by writing a statement of support for his US visa application testifying to his great work in the region and its unmitigated regard for him.

He attributed unquenchable curiosity to his experience as a 12-year-old when he and his railman father saw exhausted and dejected Dunkirk evacuees around the beaches and sand dunes of Rhyl in North Wales and compared them to the jingoistic and tub-thumping headlines which presented the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force and its allies as a military triumph.

“The discordance between the waterfront and the front pages was bewildering, the first vague stirring of doubt about my untutored trust in newspapers.

“There were to be many times when I found that what was presented as a truth did not square with what I discovered as a reporter or, as an editor, learned from good shoe-leather reporters,” Evans wrote later.

Evans learned his trade as a £1-a-week junior on the Ashton-under-Lyne Reporter (13 editions, 80,000 readers in what is now Tameside, Greater Manchester).

In his first daily editorship, he continued the traditions of a Victorian predecessor, W.T. Stead, the father of modern journalism, whose “Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon” established a lasting template for investigative reporting up to and including the jailing of the editor.

Evans left a lasting mark, not only with great newspapers and society changing campaigns but with an erudite series of five volumes on the practice of journalism: Newsman’s English; Handling Newspaper Text; News Headlines; Pictures on a Page: Newspaper Design.

They remain the gold standard for distilling the disciplines of news judgement under pressure despite their arcane references to case rooms, stones, x-heights, the foundry, the linotype, and calculations for the number of lines of nonpareil text which will fit within one inch (the answer is 12, set solid).

Even his biography gives an example of how to manage a running story (the Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash 1952. 112 deaths, 340 injuries, three trains) with editorial lessons that remain relevant, perhaps even more germane, for today’s digital world.

Evans describes managing such events with their tidal wave of information as the “supreme test” for a journalist.

In the days of hot metal production departing editors would be given the honour of pushing their last page off the stone to the foundry while colleagues rattled their typescales in appreciation.

Last week the world “banged out” Harold Evans at a time when the values and expertise he championed and demonstrated are needed more than ever in print and digital.

· Allan Prosser is a former editor of the Irish Examiner ·

CV of Harold Evans

  • Junior journalist: Ashton-under-Lyne Reporter 
  • Editor: Palatinate, Durham University Student Newspaper
  • Sub-editor, Leader writer, feature writer, political correspondent, assistant editor: Manchester Evening News 
  • Editor: The Northern Echo, Editor-in-Chief North of England Newspapers 
  • Managing Editor, then Editor: The Sunday Times
  • Editor: The Times 
  • Editor-in-chief: The Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Editorial director: U.S. News & World Report 
  • Editor: Conde Nast Traveler 
  • President: Random House Publishing 
  • Editor-at-large: Reuters
  • Harold Evans in his own words

  • “The way to kill a newspaper is to ask more for less.” 
  • “No journalist worth their salt would ever take a penny in any subsidy from anyone because it would compromise their independence.”
  • “Newsprint rationing put a premium on conciseness.” 
  • “A sub does a score of checks ― for grammatical barbarisms, for inner consistency and coherence, for apparent errors of fact, for fairness, for double meanings, for propaganda, for libel, for nonsense.” 
  • “One of the hardest things for a newspaper to do is halt a slide.” 
  • “Editors I heard boast that they never looked at readers’ letters invariably ran second-rate papers.”
  • “I am deficient as an authority figure because I don’t scare people. To say I am even-tempered is not a boast but an admission.” 
  • “My first edict as an editor was that place names were to be dropped from headlines. They deter the circle of readers who didn’t live there i.e. the majority.” 
  • “I read 15 newspapers daily and ten on Sundays.” 
  • “Team journalism...  facilitates the best investigative journalism. No single reporter or instant blogger can be expected in timely fashion to follow a multiplicity of trails false and real.” 
  • “A newspaper is an argument on the way to a deadline. If there isn’t any argument there’s not much of a newspaper.” 
  • “Television is limited for documenting the undercurrents in society. That required context and fine print. Television is preoccupied with immediacy and images.” 
  • “I’d encountered Murdoch often enough to appreciate the delusiveness of his charm. He was a chameleon who could switch from good humour to menace.” 
  • “My hopeful nature makes me believe that we are in a period of transition at the end of which we will see a perfect marriage of the Web and the traditional newspaper with its dedication to discovery, the careful calibration of news values, and its eclectic mix.
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