Sir Harold Evans’s scrambled eggs are ruined. They lie ignored, cold and congealing, as the former Sunday Times editor — possibly Britain’s greatest living journalist, and the man who triumphed in exposing arguably one of the biggest cover-ups in British history — proves he’s still got it.
A chiding waitress is dismissed with, “I’m so sorry, I need time. But I am going to eat it”, as he demonstrates on a napkin that, yes, even aged 87, his shorthand is still top-notch. “I remember things like this,” he says, and with a neat flick inscribes the complex hieroglyphic for “thank you for coming this morning”. “I’ve still got a considerable shorthand speed and I use it quite a bit,” he adds. “My problem now is reading it back…”
It’s hardly surprising that he still has a skill that most journalists and nearly all editors have long since lost: Sir Harold must be the busiest octogenarian in the business. He’s just updated his biography of the Times to include the phone hacking scandal, is working on yet another new book (his 24th), is busy trying to get David Miliband to speak at an event he’s chairing, and has his eye on the new Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon — “I was talking to her office yesterday. I’d like to interview her; she’s a doughty, tough woman and has made a huge impression on a lot of people.”
Sir Harold, who left Fleet Street 31 years ago, also contributes regularly to national newspapers and radio and is the acting editor at large of the Reuters news agency, flitting back and forth between Britain and New York, where he now lives with his wife Tina Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker.
Somehow, in the midst of all this, he’s also had time to become the subject of a new, award-winning film, Attacking The Devil, about his ferocious, deeply moral campaign to expose the thalidomide scandal.
In the 50s, the German drug company Chemie Grünenthal began aggressively marketing a new wonder drug, thalidomide, as a cure for morning sickness in pregnant women. It was incredibly effective at stopping the symptoms and in 1958 the British company Distillers bought the licence to sell it.
However, the German scientists behind the drug had been negligent about its side effects and when the mothers who had taken it gave birth, these became horrifyingly apparent. The children were either stillborn or born severely disabled, many without arms or legs. In all, up to 20,000 children were thought to have been affected worldwide before the drug was removed from sale in 1962.
To compound the tragedy, after years of prevarication, Distillers reached a completely inadequate settlement with the families of the victims, which, due to stringent contempt of court laws, newspapers were unable to expose.
Attacking The Devil tells the story of how, under Sir Harold’s editorship, and in the face of the legal establishment, the Sunday Times pursued the drug company, shaming them into supporting the families and the children for the rest of their lives — and makes an extraordinary new assertion: that the thalidomide scandal was the last great Nazi war crime.
It’s this thalidomide campaign that journalists still hold up as the great vindication of their sometimes grubby trade. As former editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, said of Sir Harold when giving him an award for outstanding contribution to journalism in 2013: “For this business we are in, he is a kind of mythic figure. The story that we want to believe about journalism embodies a collection of characteristics: these people are brave, they stand up for people when they are most needed, they stand up against authority and bullies, they are not easily intimidated, they write about big things — the things that really matter. They hate injustice and when they see it they right wrongs. They never give up on a cause and they have a kind of moral outrage. And that’s Harry. He is the sort of journalist that in our hearts we would all like to be.”
Sir Harold was born in 1928 in Eccles, Wales, before his family moved to Manchester. His interest in journalism was piqued when he was 12, during the war. Once every two years, he and his father — a train driver — would go on holiday to Rhyl in Wales, and there they once saw a group of people slumped on the beach. His father stopped to talk to them, and they turned out to be survivors of the Battle of Dunkirk, who told them the story of desperation and incompetence from the Front. When Harold and his father got back to the boarding house they were staying in, they saw a Daily Mirror front page on the evacuation with the headline, “Bloody Marvellous”.
“I thought, ‘But my dad’s telling a different story. Who is telling the truth?’” he says in the film. Just four years later, as a 16-year-old cub reporter in Ashton-under-Lyne, he got his chance to make his first difference. “I was walking the streets trying to pick up stories: going to see the churches, going to see the trade unions,” he says. “It was during the war, so often I went to see families whose son had been killed, I knocked on the door and said: ‘Can I have a picture of your lad?’
“One of these was a man who was stricken with a chest disease, who had been sent to the Front and his condition had been made nearly fatal. He had been denied any care or compensation. It enraged me and it was the first opinion piece I wrote. I had a paragraph, and instead of getting someone else to say, ‘This is an outrage’, I said it. To me, that was a cathartic moment.”
His first moral dilemma came just a few years later during his national service in the Royal Air Force. “I really wanted to be an actor,” he says. “But I was no bloody good.”
“When stationed at Empire Central Flying School I started a paper. There were three of us, and it nearly killed me as we handset it at night and worked during the day, and I was also rehearsing for my part in the station play, Men In Shadow by Mary Hayley Bell, a story about airmen captured and hiding in the attic of a house in France. It was reviewed for the newspaper, and I got the copy and read: ‘Harold Evans could have done far better had he not pretended to be Laurence Olivier!’
“I was so crestfallen — I thought I had performed brilliantly! And I thought, this is a test of my integrity. So I just published it — my first moral dilemma.”
In 1961, Harold became editor of the Northern Echo and launched his first campaign: the introduction of pap smears for cervical cancer in the UK. While testing was common practice abroad, it had yet to begin in Britain. “If you can cure something, why not cure it and if you can prevent something, why not prevent it?” he says.
But the health minister at the time, Enoch Powell (later infamous for his “Rivers of Blood” speech), was dramatically opposed to it, standing up in the Houses of Parliament and repeatedly saying “No, sir” when asked whether he would introduce it.
“I was so enraged,” says Sir Harold. “Now I think he was mentally ill and obsessed with the way things were. So, of course, I started my campaign.” Eventually, after months of campaigning, Powell was replaced and cervical cancer screening programmes were put in place — and tens of thousands of women’s lives saved. The power of newspapers to do good was cemented in Sir Harold’s mind.
“As part of a free press you are entitled to make mistakes and you’re entitled to be rebuked for your actions,” he says. “To survive, newspapers have got to do what they should: which is to publish things people don’t want to disclose. By that, I don’t mean the invasion of private lives. I was disgusted by the phone hacking scandal in News International, and I still am. It’s the most appalling thing — not just a mistake, it’s a moral corruption.”
And it was at the Northern Echo that Harold also had his first encounter with thalidomide children. “I’d seen those children affected by thalidomide, and I put pictures of them into the paper expecting to evoke sympathy. I got people protesting because they didn’t want to see these children.
“At the same time, I had been asked to help the thalidomide children design a magazine in a local hospital where they all were, which seemed ridiculous to me. But when I talked to them, I suddenly realised the importance of treating people as people, rather than cases. It seems a simple revelation, but when I was 29 it was a blinding realisation.
“When they asked for my help producing this magazine, my initial reaction when they produced a piece of copy that was no good was to say, ‘Oh, this is marvellous’. Then I realised that this was very condescending and I needed to say, ‘This is a piece of crap’. The first time I did, they burst out laughing. It was a marvellous eye-opener to me and it prepared me for seeing that these were good people who needed standing up for. It’s so easy to not take people for what they are.
“That was the start of my campaign.”
At that time, the government had denied the thalidomide families compensation, and while Distillers had reached out-of-court settlements for a few, none went nearly far enough. And because some of the cases were still in court, newspapers at that time couldn’t report on the proceedings.
“Back then I accepted the common argument: drug accidents happen and that’s just a part of the march of science,” says Sir Harold. “But the biggest mistake you can make in science and journalism is an assumption.
“Every time you make an assumption you’re taking a huge risk. The problem is that assumptions come so naturally to us. I mean, I assume that if I continue the progress of this fork here” — finally, it looks like the scrambled eggs might be eaten — “it will reach my mouth and I will manage to eat it, but that may not happen.” Indeed, the scrambled eggs are again ignored.
“Then a doctor offered me documents, for £20,000, showing negligence and that raised a moral dilemma; the doctor wanted money and I don’t believe in cheque book journalism, so I had a thankless night wondering if I should do it or not.
“But it enraged me that no one was asking those questions. People had suffered terrible injuries, and if you’re not going to understand how and why it happened, you’re going to have a repetition and build a level of indecent complacency into the system.
“I was so seized by the fact that the children hadn’t been compensated and that this man was a chemist who knew what he was talking about. So I [felt I] could justify it and I bought them. We published a brilliant piece on the venomously wicked trickery and misrepresentation that had gone on.”
Sir Harold risked prison to publish the story and, in the face of considerable opposition, campaigned tirelessly, putting story after story in the newspaper on the injustice. Public sympathy and outrage grew. This led to a debate over compensation in the House of Commons, and the share prices of Distillers plummeted. Eventually, they agreed to pay £20 million in compensation. Both the paper and Sir Harold were vindicated.
The thalidomide story isn’t over though. Just two years ago, the British Government finally apologised to the victims. “That was very honourable of them,” says Sir Harold. “I was in New York with a young female thalidomide victim named Louise at the time and we watched it on screen. Finally, they were acknowledging these terrible injuries that they had inflicted on people, and to know that in all that time no one had been prepared to say sorry was such an offence. I felt very moved by it.”
But the story doesn’t end there. The new film makes an extraordinary assertion that no doubt the next generation of campaigning journalists will pursue: that the origin of thalidomide was the Nazi concentration camps. The film presents convincing — although still unproven — evidence that the drug may have been tested on inmates, something that would have been illegal in Germany at the time, unless it had been done on prisoners in concentration camps. There are also circumstantial reports that there may have been thalidomide children born in the camps. This is because at the time, it was thought that thalidomide could have been an antidote to nerve gases used in the war.
“I’ve kept a very close interest,” says Sir Harold. “When I get back to New York, I’m going to write about what else I have discovered. But I can’t tell you what it is yet.
“Like I said, for newspapers to survive they have got to do what they should do, which is to publish things people don’t want to disclose.”
And with that, he is whisked off to his next commitment — scrambled eggs left untouched and forgotten as the next big story beckons.