Anyone writing a history of British journalism in the 20th century will need to use plenty of ink printing the name Harold Evans. And they'd do well to spend some time with the words Evans himself has committed to paper. His new book, My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times, covers Evans' life from his childhood in Manchester, his run as editor of the Sunday Times and his two decades in the United States.
During his tenure at The Sunday Times, Evans was known for pursuing stories that had been hidden or lost from public view. One of his most famous crusades was his drive to cover the stories of families who had been affected by use of the drug thalidomide. The sedative, prescribed to pregnant mothers, had been shown to cause birth defects in children, but the case to compensate families languished in the courts for years.
When Evans arrived at the paper in 1967, the story was an immediate priority.
"When I became editor of the Sunday Times, I thought I must check how these children are doing," Evans tells Steve Inskeep. He was stymied.
"I found that I wasn't allowed to check," Evans says. "Why? Because the Ministry of Health had refused to have a public inquiry. [So] the parents were forced to sue. And in England, if you start a legal case, nobody, nobody, nobody is allowed to look into the facts, still less campaign about it."
Nonetheless, the Sunday Times published photos of so-called thalidomide children, many born without arms or legs. The response to the pictures forced the issue into the light.
"When we began the campaign, actually, of course, we got massive support from the readers," he says. "Before the popular will could express itself, we had to do something which only a newspaper could do."
The British government didn't respond as enthusiastically. They took Evans to court, where they traded victories and appeals before eventually bringing the case before the European Court of Human Rights. Evans' triumph there forced the British government to reform its law that blocked free speech in cases of "manifest injustice," as Evans puts it.
A New Era
Asked how journalism has changed since the days when he was at The Times, Evans recalls typing at his Underwood typewriter four carbon copies, but also notes that the focus of the press has shifted.
Evans left the Sunday Times in 1981 after it was acquired by Rupert Murdoch. Evans didn't discuss Murdoch or the specifics of his departure from the paper with Inskeep, but he has rough words for the owners of media corporations who, in his view, have lost sight of some of the key values of journalism.
"I think a certain commitment to the public good has vanished in the race for circulation," says Evans. "I think that is accentuated when you get newspapers taken over, as you have across America, by people who either borrow extensively to buy the paper, or never had any interest in what real journalism is about in the first place.
"The kind of investigative journalism, which I think is the absolute essence, is in danger and, in fact, in many places has vanished," Evans continues. "We have to have this searchlight to know what the hell is going on. So when newspapers or TV neglect reporting, so you get chunks of opinion without any factual basis whatsoever, we're all going to suffer for it."