Harold Evans: A Long Career Of Chasing Stories The British journalist talks with Steve Inskeep about his tenure as editor of the Sunday Times in London and his crusade to maintain journalism's commitment to public good. Evans has a new memoir called My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times.
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Harold Evans: A Long Career Of Chasing Stories

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Harold Evans: A Long Career Of Chasing Stories

Harold Evans: A Long Career Of Chasing Stories

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A white-haired man came by our studios the other day, sitting right in this room. He wore a dark suit, had a smile on his face. He wasn't much over five feet tall, though he is considered a giant in journalism. Harold Evans is 81. He's written a memoir of his life in British newspapers. As a teenager, he worked in a small city in England during World War II.

Mr. HAROLD EVANS (Journalist): One of my first jobs was to knock on a door and get a photograph from the parents who had lost their son in the fighting in World War II. And I'll never forget walking up and down the street. I did not want to knock on that door. I just simply didn't want to embarrass them, prey on their grief by saying your son's been killed, give me a photograph. And finally, I had to sack myself, knowing that if I went back to the office - I'd just started - I would be sacked. And I knocked on the door and they said, oh, come in, lad. Have a cup of tea. You want a photograph of Steve?

INSKEEP: Harold Evans believes the family welcomed him because he came from the local paper. It was the kind of paper that made connections with community. He thinks it's the kind of paper reporters could learn from today, whether they work for an old newspaper or a new Web site. Harold Evans went on to edit one of the leading papers in London, and he recalls that job in his book, �My Paper Chase.�

What got you started when you were editor of The Sunday Times, pushing for stories about thalidomide, which many Americans will know or recall was a drug that was prescribed to pregnant women which turned out to cause birth defects?

Mr. EVANS: I looked at some photographs of a child without arms and no legs, either. So I thought, well, how are they going to manage? So when I became editor of The Sunday Times, I thought, well, I must check how these children are doing. Well, I found that I wasn't allowed to check. Why? Because the Ministry of Health had refused to have a public inquiry. The parents were forced to sue. And in English law, if you start a legal case, nobody, nobody, nobody is allowed to look into the facts, still less campaign about it.

INSKEEP: You repeatedly published photos of children who had grown up or were growing up without arms, without legs, without both, and decided to publish even after your own lawyer, whom you write that you trust, said this is not wise. This will get you in trouble with the courts. How hard a decision was that?

Mr. EVANS: It actually wasn't very difficult to - once I decided to do it, I thought, well, if the justice system will sanction this kind of treatment after 10 years, no compensation of any decent kind for these kids, if the courts will sanction that, well, there's something wrong enough. And if I go to prison because I'm challenging it, it was such a manifest injustice, I'll live with it. I'd rather live with having tried to do something than having turned away because I was scared for my own carcass. So when I began the campaign, actually, of course, we got massive support from the readers, so I was merely, in a way, a vehicle for the popular will to express itself. Before the popular will could express itself, we had to something which only a newspaper could do.

INSKEEP: So what happened when you began publishing these stories in defiance of the law?

Mr. EVANS: Well, the government jumped on me and took me to a high court, where I lost. Then I went to the appeal court and I won. And then they took me to the House of the Lords, and we lost. And then I decided to challenge them under the European Convention of Human Rights. So I flew in bumpy(ph) aircraft to Strasbourg, where presented our arguments. And I'll never forget going to the final verdict, and these judges came in in their crimson robes, very, very dignified, and they went one by one: We find a breach of Article 12. We do not find a breach. We do find a breach. We don't find a breach. It was like - this is like a game of ping pong.

INSKEEP: So you're counting as you're going along, right?

Mr. EVANS: I'm counting as we went along, and we won 13 to 11, which meant that one vote to either side, it have been a stalemate. And, in fact�

INSKEEP: That's a pretty close football game.

Mr. EVANS: Yeah, that 13 to 11, however, imposed a duty on the British government to reform the laws so that free speech was possible for cases of manifest injustice.

INSKEEP: I'd like to ask what happened to the thalidomide victims, because we did have a situation where the distributor in Britain was offering them some money - you felt not nearly enough. Then they raised the offer as the case went on. What happened after that?

Mr. EVANS: Well, we did, in the end, get what everybody recognized or thought at the time was adequate compensation: a trust of 20 million pounds, the money to be administered for the needs of the children, as they were then. Now, when I went back to Britain for �My Paper Chase� publication in the United Kingdom, they turned up, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in London, and they told a very sad story, which was the money had helped enormously, but they're now in bodies - inhabit bodies that are 25 years older than their chronological age. So they're breaking down, basically.

I met one woman - the money, it enables her to have a caregiver for 30 hours a week. For the rest of the hours in the week, without legs and without arms, she's living alone, trying to turn the light on, trying to cook. So it seems to me that the government which prescribed this terrible drug should accept the moral and legal responsibility of dealing with the consequences. So we still have to campaign to get the - I feel like saying, hello. Haven't you heard this one before?

INSKEEP: Too bad you're not still editing a newspaper, I suppose.

Mr. EVANS: Well, some people are glad I'm not editing a newspaper anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Well, you do write in this memoir, you give it this subtitle: �My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times.� What has vanished?

Mr. EVANS: Well, the whole technology, for a start. For instance, I mean, when I was growing up, there were no telephones in our office, no telephones in most houses, for instance. I typed on an Underwood typewriter with four carbon copies. A young reporter today, or a writer today on it, they don't know they're born with a computer.

INSKEEP: What has vanished editorial, if anything?

Mr. EVANS: Now that's a more provocative question, because almost anything I say will sound like sour grapes. He would say that, wouldn't he? �Cause he hasn't got a newspaper, anymore - although I might get one one day again. I think a certain commitment to the public good has vanished in the race for circulation. I think that is accentuated when you get newspapers taken over, as you have across America, by people who either borrower extensively to buy the paper or never had any interest in what real journalism is about in the first place.

So the first thing they start doing is cutting editorial. So the kind of investigative journalism, which I think is the absolute essence, is in danger, and, in fact, in many places, has vanished. We have to have this search light to know what the hell's 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.

INSKEEP: Harold Evans is the author of a memoir: �My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times.� Thanks for coming by.

Mr. EVANS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And you can read an excerpt of that book at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)


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