Sir Harold Evans, newspaper editor

Born: June 28, 1928;

Died: September 23, 2020.

SIR Harold Evans, who has died aged 92, was one of the most influential journalists, writers and newspaper editors of his generation – indeed, many considered him the greatest editor of the 20th century.

As an editor first at the Northern Echo, then The Sunday Times and The Times, he acted on his instinct that newspapers shouldn’t just report the facts but fight to change them too, most famously campaigning, and helping to win compensation, for the child victims of thalidomide.

He was an exemplar and pioneer in other areas, too. His books on newspaper editing and design were considered bibles for Fleet Street.

He also – despite his instinctive love of the old mechanical ways of producing papers – anticipated the changes that were coming to journalism and fought the trade unions to introduce computers and new techniques at The Sunday Times – a fight that led to the closure of the paper for a year and, ultimately, to Rupert Murdoch’s decision to thwart the unions by shifting production of his newspapers to Wapping in the mid-1980s.

Despite the industrial unrest, Sir Harold’s time at the helm of The Sunday Times was probably the happiest, and certainly the most celebrated, period of his career. He was editor of the paper for 14 years, from 1967 until 1981, at a time when it gained a reputation as the best newspaper in the world.

Some of that was due to the famous campaigns, but there were also some extraordinary scoops including the story of Kim Philby’s role as a Soviet spy and the publication of the controversial diaries of the former Labour minister Richard Crossman. The paper’s Insight team also produced some fine investigative journalism.

Harold Evans’s love of journalism and newspapers had started early. He remembered, as a boy growing up in a two-up, two-down terraced house in Eccles, in Greater Manchester, loving the Daily Express, particularly the Rupert the Bear strip. He also loved the films Citizen Kane, about the newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane, and Ace in the Hole, the 1951 movie starring Kirk Douglas as a reporter so greedy for a scoop that he keeps a man trapped in a mine so the story can keep going. The films stayed in young Harold’s mind and helped formed his ambition to become a journalist.

His parents had no experience of journalism – his father was a train driver and his mother ran a shop from the front room of their house – but they supported their son’s ambitions and saved up £70 so he could attend Pitman’s shorthand and touch typing classes at a local business college.

He applied for his first job in 1944 when he was 16, writing to newspapers in Manchester before looking at more obscure titles in Lancashire; he eventually received an offer from Ashton-under-Lyne Weekly Reporter in Derbyshire.

He always remembered his first glimpse of the inner workings of a newspaper and wrote about it in his memoirs, My Paper Chase: “the room was filled with long lines of iron monsters, each seven feet high, five feet wide, decked out with an incomprehensible array of moving parts – gears, pulleys, camshafts, levers and bars.

“A man crouched in communion at the foot of each contraption. This was my first sight of the Linotype machine, at whose 90-character keyboard a deft operator could automatically render words into metal slugs at the rate of five columns a minute. There was an exciting smell to which I would become addicted. Digital typesetting at a computer has consigned the Linotype to the museum, but the speeding electron has none of the aromatic urgency of hot metal marinated with printer’s ink.”

He was offered a three-month trial at the Derbyshire paper at a pound a week, and, cycling 14 miles every day to get to work, settled into the life of junior local reporting, writing about whist-drives, cake competitions and the like, although he soon got better assignments including theatre reviews. The early signs that he would go on to a successful career were not always there: he was shy, for instance, and dreaded the job of “door-knocking” (approaching the relatives of someone who has recently died for a story and a picture), but he steeled himself and got on with it, driven partly by the idea of what the editor would say if he failed.

After completing his national service in the RAF (during which he ran a newspaper for his colleagues), he entered Durham University. He steeped himself in student journalism and graduated with honours in politics and economics; he subsequently earned a Master of Arts degree for a thesis on foreign policy.

After university, his career in journalism took off again. He landed a trial at the Manchester Evening News as a sub-editor, editing copy and writing headlines and working at great speed, before being promoted to leader writer and then later feature writer. After winning a fellowship to travel and study in the US in the 1950s, he returned to the paper as assistant editor.

His first editorship – at just 32 years old – was at the regional daily The Northern Echo, where he discovered his taste for campaigning journalism. One of his campaigns resulted in a national programme for the detection of cervical cancer. And it seemed to work too; under his watch, the circulation of the paper rose by 14 per cent.

Four years later, he was headhunted by The Sunday Times and spent 14 years as editor. It was he who created the paper’s first in-house investigative team, Insight, made up of four reporters and a researcher. One of the subjects they tackled was the Bloody Sunday deaths, but their most high-profile success was the scandal around thalidomide, the drug designed to combat morning sickness that led to children being born without limbs. It was the campaigning journalism of The Sunday Times under Evans that was instrumental in the victims winning compensation.

Sir Harold simply would not give up and went on publishing stories long after even his own staff thought he was flogging a dead horse. The editor was adamant though. Sometimes, he said, it is not enough to print the truth once.

The industrial unrest at The Sunday Times was a less happy time for Sir Harold. The editor proposed a phased introduction of new computers but the print unions were having none of it and the dispute eventually led to the complete shutdown of The Sunday Times for a year in 1978. When it restarted in 1979, Sir Harold says the unions reneged on the deal they had reached and believes that it was the last straw for the owner of the papers, Lord Thomson, who put them up for sale. The man who bought them was Rupert Murdoch.

Murdoch persuaded Sir Harold to move to The Times but it was not a happy time for him. For a start, the paper was critical of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – a position Murdoch did not care for, to say the least. Some of the staff at The Times were also unhappy about Sir Harold and believed he was responsible for a drop in editorial standards. After a year, he was fired.

Talking in 2010 about his departure from the paper, he said the reason for his departure, ultimately, was his stance on Mrs Thatcher: “When she started to dismantle the British economy, the most cogent critic of that policy ... was The Sunday Times. I wrote 70 per cent of that criticism myself. When I became editor of The Times, I continued to criticise monetarism. But I could still see some of the good things about her.”

In 1984, he moved to the United States, where he taught at Duke University, and later expanded his reputation as a publisher. He became the founding editor of Conde Nast Traveller, and then president of the publisher Random House in the 1990s. He also wrote many books including his My Paper Chase in 2009 and followed the late Alistair Cooke in delivering commentaries from America for the BBC.

Sir Harold, who was knighted in 2004, was married twice – first, to Enid Parker, with whom he had three children, and then to the magazine editor, Tina Brown, with whom he had two children. He became an American citizen in 1993. He is and is survived by Brown and his sons and daughters.