Harold Evans spent more than 25 years as an editor: almost 15 at The Sunday Times and The Times, preceded by more than four at The Northern Echo. In the United States, he was founding editor of Conde Nast Traveler; then intermittently over several years editorial director of the weekly news magazine U.S. News & World Report, the Daily News, and The Atlantic Monthly. He was president of Random House, 1990-97. He wrote a best-selling illustrated history of 100 years of American politics entitled The American Century and is presently writing a book and television series entitled The Innovators.
Use your whistle, ref 3
Editor's poll - Announcing the greatest editor of all time 6
Harold Evans - Attacking the devil 6
Government, media and democracy
Alastair Campbell - Time to bury spin 15
Geoffrey Goodman - Standards bearer: Charles Clarke speaks out 24
Peter Oborne - A flea in the Government's ear 32
Andrea Allen - Just whose side is God on? 41
Bob Connor - Stealing Cassandra's clothes 50
Marc Lee and Eamonn Rafferty - Lies, damned lies and headlines 56
Don Hale - Why regional editors should rock the boat 62
Tessa Mayes - Privacy versus freedom of speech 67
Victor Davis - There's nothing new about scandal 74
BOOK REVIEWSSteve Barnett on Lord Birt 81
MA Nicholas on William Randolph Hearst 83
Jonathan Holborow on Vere Harmsworth 86
Richard Stott on Max Hastings 89
Mark Killick on 50 years of Panorama 91
Saif Shahin discusses online journalism 94
In its last issue, the British Journalism Review invited readers to vote for the
greatest newspaper editor of all time. Subsequently a similar invitation was made
to its readers by Press Gazette. The results of the combined poll contained some
surprises. Until the week before this issue went to press, no current editor had
received a legitimate vote. The final tally in this area was: Paul Dacre, Daily
Mail, 1; the rest, 0. More than 20 editors featured in the voting, none of whom
was female. Of these, seven dominated. Although current editors were expressly
asked in the BJR not to vote for themselves, one did. No prizes for guessing whom.
And there was a handful of votes for the worst editor of all time, including one for
a current incumbent. Wild horses couldn't drag the name from us. Of the
magnificent seven, three tied for fifth place: Arthur Christiansen, long-serving
editor of the Daily Express (1932-56); Hugh Cudlipp, who edited the
Sunday Pictorial and later was editor-in-chief of that paper and the Daily
Mirror; and Larry Lamb, first editor of the modern Sun (Thomas Barnes, The
Times, 1817-41, was only a vote behind and draws level if the vote in the piece
below is taken into account). Another Sun editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, shared
third place with David English, editor of the Daily Mail, 1971-92.
Considerably ahead of these came C P Scott, who edited the then Manchester
Guardian from 1872 until 1929 and was also proprietor from 1905. But the
clear winner, by a margin similar to Scott's over those in third place, was Harold
Evans, the only person to have edited both The Sunday Times and The Times.
We asked Evans, in America, to comment on the results. – BILL HAGERTY
My first thought was to check out the obituary page of The Times for reassurance. My second, investigative zeal overcoming pride, is that there is a conspiracy here and we must get to the bottom of it. The truth about editorship, of course, is that it is hard to agree on a single standard of excellence, especially in the polychromatic British press. Is it more important to change the world or the front page? Does it matter if you know where Rwanda is but believe Helvetica is an island off the coast of Iceland? How close should an editor get to government? How relevant is return on capital? If you lend one ear to the staff and the other to readership, where do you find the third ear for ownership? Anecdotage has most effective editors running the gamut from certifiable lunacy to homicidal mania. Does mental cruelty disqualify?
There are many different ways to conceive the job. An editor may find fulfilment and perform a service as the prudent custodian of a tradition, like the canny Sir Gordon Newton, who made no waves but quietly enhanced the reputation of the Financial Times. Or the satisfaction, and the acclaim, may come for the editor as a radical who recasts a title to his own tastes, as David English did with such flair at the Daily Mail, or the once-upon-a-time proof reader J L Garvin, who took over the moribund Observer in 1908 and created a new type of Sunday newspaper, more catholic in its journalism, culturally and politically alive.
We reflect the origins of our national newspapers by the habit of categorising editors as writing editors (C P Scott, A P Wadsworth, Colin Coote, Bill Deedes, William Haley, William Rees-Mogg, Peregrine Worsthorne), or impresarios of news, sport and entertainment in the Northcliffe tradition (Stewart Steven, Lee Howard, Hugh Cudlipp, Bob Edwards, Stafford Somerfield, Mike Molloy, Arthur Christiansen, Richard Stott, Paul Dacre).
I don't mean to suggest that all the “writing” editors write their leaders and go off to the club; or that the “news” editors are just showmen. Haley was all over The Times every day. He sharpened the news and finally he put news on the front page, arousing as much rage as I did 15 years later when I kicked classified advertising off the back. At The Guardian, Peter Preston's questing spirit invested his whole paper. The Mirror's editor-in-chief and editorial director, Hugh Cudlipp, was the Merlin of tabloid display, but he was a pungent writer, too. He was also, in my judgment, exceptional in his vision of an editor as a public educator. The man who could run a perfect tabloid headline on Khrushchev's offensiveness on a visit to London:
DON'T BE SO BLOODY RUDE!
(PS. Who do you think you are? Stalin?)
was in earnest with a section called Mirrorscope, a game attempt to provide serious analysis in the rough and tumble of the tabloids.
The artillery of the press as manifested in the royal “we” of the editorial column is, much of the time, no more than routine grapeshot over empty trenches. Revelation is more potent than exhortation. Only a few editors have been able to make a mark with sheer moral authority and literary cogency. One thinks of Haley and his Times leader, “It IS a moral issue”, during the Macmillan government's Keeler-Profumo crisis; and again, “Why the pound is weak”, written furiously on the backs of envelopes on his way to Printing House Square. There were no new facts here, just a cyclone blowing through. It helped Haley that he succeeded in cultivating an Olympian detachment from mortals; he was the only man in London, it was said, with two glass eyes. The Manchester Guardian's A P Wadsworth was ensconced in his northern eyrie when he lobbed his grenades into the 1945 election, abandoning Winston Churchill and switching the Liberal newspaper to Labour.
C P Scott may have struck as much terror in the hearts of the ungodly as Haley, but he came late to leader writing. Haley's successor, Rees Mogg, retailed wit rather than wrath. His brilliant concoctions never failed to amuse and startle, and sometimes, too, they were convincing. He came memorably to the rescue of Mick Jagger, sentenced to jail for having four amphetamine tablets, with an editorial flouting the sub judice rules. Headlined “Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?”, it was a single impudent dart that punctured the rhinoceros hide of British jurisprudence – and helped to get the Jagger sentence quashed. It was as bold in its day as Paul Dacre's stunning Daily Mail front page re-accusing those acquitted of the Stephen Lawrence racial murder. Editors have been at their most effective, I think, when opinion takes a ride on such risk-charged reporting – and they don't give up at the first call from Sue, Grabbit and Run: Peter Stothard's courage at The Times in the Ashcroft Affair, exposing and then questioning the Tory Party's dependence on a treasurer with foreign diplomatic interests; The Guardian's Alan Rusbridger's comprehensive grasp, in fact, opinion and presentation, when nailing down the scandal of cash for questions (a fight to which The Sunday Times sent reinforcements with parallel reporting).
For sheer guts, it is hard to top the Observer's David Astor and Alastair Hetherington, new to the Guardian chair in 1956. In the furore of their unpopular dissent over the Suez crisis, they pressed on with an incendiary investigation as well as denunciation, trying to document what was vehemently denied but is now a well-established fact that Britain colluded with Israel. But the episode raises the question: is it great editorship or reckless indulgence to hazard the viability if not the very life of your newspaper? The Guardian circulation dropped from around 200,000 to about 120,000. The Observer lost 30,000 readers in a week and much advertising revenue. In his gentle manner, David Astor, on more than one occasion in the 70s, when we were competitors, reminded me that it was Suez that had allowed The Sunday Times to get ahead. He was right that the editorials of The Sunday Times in the crisis were instantly forgettable, but the emerging preeminence of The Sunday Times had more to do with Denis Hamilton's very large vision of what a Sunday newspaper should be.
Liberal lionheartAstor and Hetherington are both considered to be in the dissenting tradition of C P Scott and The Guardian in the Boer War, but Scott had a much more political concept of editorship that many today would find disturbing. For 15 years while editing the paper he sat as a Liberal MP. He and Lloyd George were as thick as thieves. Where should journalism end and politics begin? Is it all right for an editor to work for a cause secretly as well as in the public columns of his newspaper? C P Scott is commonly portrayed as the simple, straightforward lionheart of Liberalism, but he was much more complex than that. His integrity is unquestionable, but he rejoiced in using personal clout as an intermediary, working backstage both for the establishment of a Jewish state and a precarious settlement in Ireland. Yet a line was surely crossed when, for political reasons, C P kept news out of the paper, and also refrained from comment.
Scott was one of two editors on my mind when I had the privilege of editing a national newspaper. I came to London from the sticks, from Scott's Manchester (from the same stable, as assistant editor of the profitable Manchester Evening News) and Darlington (editor of The Northern Echo). The other was Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times from 1912-19 and 1923-41. Dawson, like Scott, was in and out of Downing Street, and royal chambers, too, in the abdication crisis. Heady stuff. But how far could an editor consort, if not conspire, with politicians without gradually changing his spots, even imperceptibly compromising his objectivity? Was Haley right in his frigid insistence on anonymity or did the isolationist lose valuable insights to the insiders? Hetherington's memoir suggests his Guardian benefited from his intimacy with the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson without compromising the newspaper. On the other hand, Dawson's eagerness to support Stanley Baldwin's appeasement policies in the 1930s betrayed his institution. Night after night he suppressed news that might anger the Nazis. A story by a reporter who discovered the nature of the concentration camp at Dachau in 1934 never saw the light of day.
As a national editor, it became axiomatic for me, to the point of obsession, that in any campaign it was critical to report the other side – if there were one! I had very little experience at this level. At The Northern Echo, I had been convinced by our investigation of the necrophilia serial killings at Rillington Place, Notting Hill, that the illiterate Timothy Evans had been wrongfully convicted and hanged for murders committed by the policeman John Christie, who lived in the same house. The campaign took me to meetings in London as the secretary of a Timothy Evans Committee I formed with a Darlington industrialist, Herbert Wolfe (and Ludovic Kennedy, Ian Gilmour, Lady Gaitskell, John Grigg). News did come out of this activity. Sitting in a cold room at Westminster, Home Secretary Chuter Ede, who had signed the death warrant, told me he regretted he had done that. Still, I came to feel I had probably gone too far in absenting myself in order to lobby MPs and hold public meetings with politicians, a suspicion that became a conviction the day I found myself locked in the murder house at Rillington Place trying to hold a see-it-for-yourself press conference there against the wishes of a vociferous Jamaican tenant. Bernard Levin was right in a note he sent me: “It would have served you right if Christie had come down the chimney and necrophilised the lot of you.”
For all of the above, my feeling on becoming a national editor, terror apart, was that I should personally keep a distance from government, which was not difficult since neither Tory nor Labour prime ministers proffered an embrace. Independence was facilitated by having reporters who were not merely plumbers dealing in Whitehall leaks – what for so long passed as reporting. The velocity of The Sunday Times was the product, first and foremost, of reporters zealous for real news and not gossip or kite-flying. They were of iconoclastic temperament, mostly new to Fleet Street; the paper did not have a full-time reporting staff until 1960. I inherited a number of very talented people, and found more.
Getting the right chemistry without blowing up the lab is perhaps the single biggest worry for an editor. As newcomers refreshed the original staff, the group was not merely clever, but developed an esprit de corps that was an amalgam of idealism and integrity affecting the whole conduct of the paper, including the editor. In this, the loyalty of my deputy and successor Frank Giles was of critical importance. I think this spirit, not of hostility to government or business, but of independence, was indispensable to success. It certainly was nourishing to me in various encounters with authority, even when those who knew what was afoot were very few. The cat and mouse of publishing the Crossman Diaries is a case in point. For several months the Cabinet Office used every artifice to try to take the meat out of the diaries and we moved under cover of darkness to keep it in.
The reporting on thalidomide, Ireland, Robert Maxwell, genocide in East Pakistan, the Vesteys, the cover-up of Philby, the avoidable DC-10 air disaster, wars in the Middle East, Vietnam and Nigeria, was probably the most thorough we achieved – Insight's reporting of Belfast's Bloody Sunday reverberates still – but I concede there were occasions when we were tempted beyond reporting and editorialising into the shallow end of the political pool. I doubt whether the thalidomide campaign would have succeeded without the willingness to form an alliance with the Labour MP Jack Ashley, who succeeded in getting the House of Commons Speaker to agree to our lawyer James Evans's proposition that a moral campaign was different from a legal campaign and therefore permissible. Both with Ireland and thalidomide, facts – and fairness – were more important than advocacy. A feature article on the editorial page in 1967 made a trenchant case for urgent reform in Ulster – “John Bull's political slum”. Another exposed the injustice of thalidomide compensation – “What price a pound of flesh?” – but I learned it was no good printing the truth only once. The moment a newspaperman tires of his campaign is the moment the public is just beginning to notice it.
There are many permutations in the crucial relationship of editor with ownership and management. I have never argued for the divine right of editors; there is evidence that on very rare occasions, I have been prepared to contemplate the possibility of error. The circumstances with my little local difficulty in 1981 were that The Times was supposed to be a public trust, like The Guardian and Economist, not like The Daily Telegraph or Daily Express, and this was the only condition on which I gave up my position as editor and chairman of The Sunday Times. They seem to have got along very well without me.
In the ordinary run of newspapering, the best results in my view come
from a marriage of an editor and an ownership/management where both
agree on the core identity of the newspaper and its resources, and then leave
the editor free to do his best, mistakes and all. David English and Vere
Harmsworth at the creation of the modern Daily Mail, and Larry Lamb and
Rupert Murdoch at The Sun, are examples where the distinction seems
arcane; they were joined at the hip. Max Hastings's book about his years
with Conrad Black at The Daily Telegraph is valuable and enjoyable for its
picture of an editor leaping with some success across the crevices of
different conceptions of identity. Donald Trelford at The Observer after
Astor was a gold medallist in running two slalom courses laid out by a
succession of new owners, Tiny Rowlands of Lonrho, and Atlantic
Richfield. On the other hand, at the Daily Express in its best days,
Beaverbrook abused the presentational genius in Arthur Christiansen;
every Express editor was diminished in lending his gifts to the Beaver's
wicked vendettas and pernicious campaigns.
Protecting the staffThe recognition of an editor's complete editorial authority is not a question of ego. It is the best constitutional mechanism for maintaining professional standards and for protecting the staff who observe them. Arguably, one of the greatest of the many achievements of Denis Hamilton was the understanding he achieved with Roy Thomson on how to conduct the profession of journalism in the business of the press. We had to be very careful to keep long-haired journalists out of sight of Roy, and never ever to attack the Queen, but otherwise we were free to do the best we could. Our editorial criticism of the Government's oil deals in the North Sea was never once raised, although the Thomson Organisation was a likely beneficiary.
At The Sunday Times, before Hamilton and Thomson, it was a sackable offence to provoke a solicitor's letter. From 1967 we were in the Law Courts so many times I felt they owed me an honorary wig. We fought injunction after injunction, through trial after trial. We set a precedent by challenging suppression all the way from the House of Lords to the European Court, where our triumph imposed on government a reforming Act of Parliament. All this was not because we had suddenly decided to defy the law, but because real reporting ran into extensions of corporate and executive power that had gone undetected, hence unchallenged, and the courts, uninhibited by a Bill of Rights, had given property rights priority over personal rights. These battles were expensive in time and money, but management never for a moment flinched.
Roy Thomson was a flagrantly frugal man. Once when we were on a trip to Florida in a bizarre attempt to buy the memoirs of Howard Hughes, Roy took me to task at the coffee shop for purchasing copies of The New York Times and The Miami Herald. Why did I need two newspapers? It was half in jest, half in terrifying earnest. It happily confirmed to him his epigrammatic judgment that the social mission of every great newspaper was to prove “a home for a large number of salaried eccentrics”. But the man who questioned my investment of 50 cents was content to plough millions into Times Newspapers. He was right to want us to watch our pennies, but he was ready to invest in men and machinery when Hamilton told him what he had to do to maintain the quality and potential of the newspapers. Roy believed passionately that if he held to his vision, not only would he create newspapers in which he could take pride, but he would be rewarded – in this life, he would say, rather than the next. The corrupt unions effectively destroyed Roy's Times, but when Rupert Murdoch bought the company after Roy's death and sorted out the unions with satisfyingly cunning and ruthless tactics, Roy's investment paid off in marvellous multiples and has continued to do so to this day.
Am I allowed a retrospective vote in this game? Of all my predecessors, I would be hard put to choose between Thomas Barnes of The Times and W T Stead, the 19th century editor-campaigner of The Northern Echo. When I took over The Times, Alan Coren reminded me how fortunate it was that John Walter II had not followed his father's footsteps into the coal business and Newgate Prison. Walter II inherited the Daily Universal Register in 1803 and came up with a better way of running a newspaper than taking bribes. His Big Think was to appoint an editor with authority, partly so he could spend more time with his second wife, but partly out of inclination which grew into a rock of conviction. The free and independent daily newspaper in Britain has its origins in Walter's first owner-editor partnership with Barnes, and the 36-year partnership which succeeded them, the third John Walter and his editor, John Thadeus Delane.
Barnes's editorship was the more important. He was the first to conceive and organise a newspaper not as a means by which government could influence people, but as one by which people could influence government. When we refer to public opinion today, we are referring to a concept bequeathed to us by that great man. He sought to create a healthy public opinion by supplying it with news uncorrupted by agents of court, party, ministry and embassy. Those virtues endure, and I am relieved that there are some editors today as committed as Barnes was to other aspects of a newspaperman's life. He was a determined Bohemian who lived with a mistress, loved wine, and town pastimes; I particularly commend his willingness to accept a bet that he could swim from the Apothecaries Garden in Chelsea to Westminster Bridge, on the way to work as it were.
Stead did not make the preliminary list, but he was both a crusader and one of the most creative talents ever to take up journalism. From Darlington, as a young man he roused the whole of Europe against Turkish atrocities in Bulgaria – the Holocaust of the 19th century, worse than Bosnia in the 20th. In London later, as editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, he exposed the trade in prostitution in minors in England and went to jail on a malicious technicality. Every night when I sat in Stead's chair in the 1960s, I looked across at a copy of his letter accepting the editorship which someone had framed and hung on the wall: “What a marvellous opportunity,” he had written in a copperplate hand, “for attacking the devil!” The same man had the virtuosity of a tabloid editor. He invented the big-time newspaper interview and subheadings in the long runs of type. He also contrived to be on the Titanic, reading the Bible, when the ship went down. An editor with that sense of where news might be found deserves a special place in any pantheon.