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Column: The insights of Harold Evans, a journalist of tenacity

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a writer for Reuters.)

FILE PHOTO: Reuters Editor-at-Large Sir Harold Evans speaks at the "Iconic in an Instant? One Trillion Images" panel event hosted by Reuters and ICP at ICP in Manhattan, New York, U.S., December 5, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo

LONDON (Reuters) - 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.

Harold Evans liked to quote his famous 19th Century predecessor at the Northern Echo regional paper, William Stead, who on appointment declared: “What a glorious opportunity of attacking the devil, isn’t it?”

Just as young American students idolized Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and their storied role in toppling President Richard Nixon, in Britain, Harry Evans stood high in a pantheon of home-grown heroes of the late 20th Century who made us think that investigative reporting and journalistic campaigns could not only make the world better, but also be tremendous fun.

For Evans was not just the champion of using journalism to set wrongs right. He was also a quintessential British editor who, for all his high-minded causes, understood that journalism was foremost not an intellectual pursuit but a craft – one that demanded muscular and clear language, captivating pictures, arresting headlines, perfect layout of the newspaper page (remember those?) and, above all else, in a phrase coined by his foreign correspondent Nicholas Tomalin, a strong dose of “ratlike cunning.”

As a cub reporter in Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s Britain, I knew of Evans as the crusading editor of the Sunday Times who made famous its Insight Team, the paper’s investigative unit, established by his predecessor as a feature squad. Insight under Evans exposed Russia’s most infamous spy in Britain, Kim Philby. It challenged the official account of the 1972 Bloody Sunday killings in Northern Ireland. And it fought for years and won justice against a corporation, Distillers, on behalf of the children disabled by the company’s drug, thalidomide.

CONFRONTING BRITAIN’S RESTRICTIVE PRESS LAWS

Evans did not invent campaigning newspaper journalism – the practice of running a series of shocking news reports not only to expose the facts but also to push for change. Tabloids got there sooner. But honing his experience on the Northern Echo and continuing on the Sunday Times, where he took charge in 1967, Evans added unheard-of persistence.

Backed by benevolent owners, what also made Evans special was his realisation that, boxed in by the most restrictive press laws in democratic Europe, he needed to master and confront those laws to pull off his campaigns.

As Evans said in “Attacking The Devil,” a documentary about his life and thalidomide, a reporter could not move his arm in those years without touching the walls of libel laws, contempt of court laws and the Official Secrets Acts.

“That was the situation – how could anyone stand for that?” he asked.

Britain’s laws on contempt of court barred coverage of ongoing civil lawsuits, including the one brought by thalidomide families against Distillers, the manufacturer. Determined to reveal the company’s role in the scandal, Evans took his case to the European Court of Human Rights. He won, forcing legal reform and enabling the UK press to cover matters in court that are in the public interest.

This willingness to go to all lengths set the tone for an incredibly creative newsroom. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian newspaper from 1995 to 2015, said Evans’ reporters “felt very well supported and protected by him, and therefore would do anything for him.”

“THE METICULOUS CRAFTSMAN”

I first came across Evans when, as a trainee on the regional Eastern Daily Press, I was drilled in the classroom with his textbook on how to write plain newspaper English (without unnecessary commas). As David Leigh, retired editor of the Guardian’s investigative team, put it: “He was the meticulous craftsman. It wasn’t just about the story but in putting together the page.”

Later, I got to know Evans indirectly through his friends. That came after I got the call in 2001 from John Witherow, his longest-serving successor at the Sunday Times, to take over as editor of the still-running Insight Team. One of the first acts of my new team was to head down to the microfilm reader in the newspaper’s library and print out poster-size copies of some of Evans’ great scoops – to put them up on the wall to inspire us.

In Insight, Evans had established a formidable forensic machine. The object of each investigation, veterans told me, was to “find the guilty person or the guilty part.” Insight did the latter in its investigation of DC-10 aircraft crashes, which were linked to a cargo door lock. The formula: relentless effort and team work, bold source cultivation, over-research of every detail, and then constant condensing of essential facts and a timeline into a “state of knowledge” memo.

Among Evans’ top reporters was the late Phillip Knightley: He uncovered the truth that former British diplomat Philby, who’d defected to Moscow, had been a mole while serving as head of anti-Soviet operations for British secret intelligence – a stunning revelation that MI6 had been penetrated by the Russians. From Knightley, I learned of Evans’ optimism that, given the right approach, almost any person, in almost any position, could be persuaded to tell the secrets that needed telling.

I learned too from Knightley that Evans was a journalist of his time and place. To nail the thalidomide story, Evans used a tactic common then on Fleet Street, reaching for the cheque book to pay a source £8,000 for key documents. The decision was recounted by Evans in his memoir “My Paper Chase”:

“I debated the ethics of paying him .... Every last doubt fell before my intense curiosity about what the documents revealed on the origins of the disaster. Was I to put my precious journalistic conscience before gaining access to crucial information that might never see the light of day if, as seemed likely, an out-of-court settlement was reached? No.”

For Evans it wasn’t enough to print a story on the front page of his paper, one of the most respected broadsheets in the western world. He also wanted to make sure that every decision maker read it. That wasn’t so easy before social media and email. In the case of thalidomide, that meant, as his assistant recalled, writing personal letters enclosing an article to every one of Britain’s 600-plus members of parliament.

“HE NEVER LET GO” OF THE CHILDREN

According to Elaine Potter, one of the main reporters on the story, one key to Evans was his big heart – an empathy that made him approachable in the newsroom, alert to injustice in society, and passionately interested in the stories of those affected. “Of all the things he did in his career, I think thalidomide meant the most to him. He never let go of the thalidomide story or the thalidomiders” – the children – “who had only to ask and he would make himself available.”

Though an advocate of the public interest, Evans was not a political figure; certainly, at least, not partisan. But Britain’s media and political landscape, like America’s, changed around him.

In 1981, the Sunday Times was purchased by Rupert Murdoch from the Thomson family, who had supported Evans and who now control the company that owns Reuters. Evans was moved by Murdoch to run the Times, the sister daily, but left within a year after a dispute over editorial control.

After that, there grew among some in Britain the suspicion that some of the Sunday Times’ investigations came to be driven by Murdoch’s own conservative agenda. Evans would later write that Murdoch went on to “manipulate” both papers for political ends; Murdoch denied this. In any event, we who followed in Harry’s footsteps at the two papers are proud of the investigations we did.

Still, a sense of partisanship has bedeviled British journalism ever since. According to Rusbridger, the era before the Evans-Murdoch clash was “a sort of high-water mark of disinterested campaigning.”

Harry Evans used to say that some of the greatest stories often passed unnoticed, like trees growing in the forest. Evans set a golden standard for investigative journalism – and he has been inspiring reporters for over 50 years. But more than his techniques, what shone through for me were his impulses, his sensibility. It was his humanity and fierce sense of injustice that drove his career – helping him to spot those trees.

By Stephen Grey in London. Edited by Michael Williams and Janet McBride.

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