I just discovered to my surprise Harold Evans is now 81 and three years older than Rupert Murdoch.
Murdoch, the jowly, wrinkly, balding media mogul, has always seemed older than Evans, who had to have a bit of flash to be the legendary newspaper editor he was.
Young people won’t know how glamorous and influential he was as the editor of the Sunday Times back in the 1970s. Actually, his reign at what was then the trendiest newspaper in London (of course, the Guardian was just as good) began even earlier. He was appointed editor in 1967, when he was only 39. He edited the paper till 1981, when the Thomsons sold the Times newspapers to Murdoch, who made him editor of The Times. He had to leave a year later.
Evans wrote about all that in Good Times, Bad Times. He never had it so good again despite a succession of high-profile jobs in America.
Now his wife, Tina Brown, is probably better known than he is.
But, to old fogeys like me, he will always be the most famous newspaper editor there ever was.
Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post might have broken the Watergate scandal with his reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
He also wrote invaluable books about the art and craft of journalism.
Reviewing his memoir, My Paper Chase, Nicholas Lehman lovingly recalls Evans’ newspaper days. Lehman writes in the New Yorker:
Journalism in Britain may not have been a profession, but it was a skilled trade in the best sense. Manchester, when Evans joined the Evening News, in 1952, was home to twenty-six newspapers. Evans lovingly and evocatively describes the vanished newsroom of Linotype machines and gigantic manual typewriters, nearly as noisy and smelly as a factory floor. The best passage in this book is an extended set piece about the work that a copy editor (known as a “sub”) did on a British paper in the fifties, with all the calmness, efficiency, and speed that Evans’s father brought to his railroad work. Newspapers thrived because they had figured out a way to perform what was then an indispensable and logistically difficult service, one that was impossible for anybody else to replicate.
Lehman recalls the independence Evans enjoyed as the Sunday Times editor when the proprietor was Roy Thomson.
“You happy in your own mind, Harold?” was all Thomson said when Evans wanted to publish the diaries of a Cabinet minister despite government warnings that doing so might violate the Official Secrets Act.
All this was happening at roughly the same time as Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, and the early glories of magazine “new journalism” in the United States. Evans and the people he worked with were major contributors to a supercharged new conception of what journalism could be: at once powerful and devoted to the powerless, literary and intellectual, glamorous and dutiful, quasi-governmental in its status but in perpetual opposition to government. “No intelligence system, no bureaucracy, can offer the information provided by free competitive reporting,” Evans exclaims at one point. The financial condition of journalism was scarcely a topic of concern. Benign owners like Thomson were doing just fine for themselves; until quite recently, big-city newspaper publishing was a highly profitable business. (The Sunday Times under Evans had an editorial staff of a hundred and sixty; by 2000, a typical big metropolitan daily newspaper in the United States had a newsroom head count of double or triple that.) And if one owner’s interest in supporting journalism ever flagged, well, there was a long line of other rich people waiting to get into this exalted game.
Those were the days. One read the Guardian and The Times, the New Statesman and Time magazine not just for their stories; the language was also rich, more literary and descriptive. Prose has become more prosaic now.