I worked for the great Sunday Times editor for 11 years, during which he supported his team through ground-breaking investigations with an unshakeable belief in telling the truthby Peter Kellner / September 28, 2020 / Leave a comment
I joined the Sunday Times in 1969 and stayed until 1980. I worked for Harry Evans for 11 of his 14 years as the paper’s editor. Last week’s obituaries rightly described him as one of the great editors, arguably the greatest, of the 20th century. Here are some of my memories of those times.
Let’s start with an element more often found in novels: a specific similarity between two bitter antagonists. A particular brand of Australian journalism influenced the careers of both Rupert Murdoch and Harry Evans. With Murdoch, the story is well-known: his father, Keith, exposed the scandalous causes of the failure of the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War. (Alongside British and other empire troops, 8,700 Australians lost their lives.)
With Harry, the story is less well-known. When I arrived at the paper, a group of around half a dozen Australian journalists shaped its fresh, investigative style. They were committed, tenacious and iconoclastic. Arriving in London in the late 1950s and 60s, they collided with the rigid class culture of its broadsheet papers—a characteristic Harry also wanted to break. He inherited some Australians, recruited others and gave them their head. He knew what he wanted and spotted who could do it. Their approach was eagerly adopted by younger, British, recruits.
Two of the Australians, Bruce Page and Phillip Knightley, were prominent in the most famous of Harry’s campaigns: Thalidomide. Last week’s obituaries highlighted Harry’s achievements but didn’t fully convey his guile and persistence in pursuing the story throughout his editorship.
Two things stood in the way of telling the full story. The first was that Distillers, which sold the drug in Britain, was spinning out legal battles with the Thalidomide families. This meant that newspapers had to avoid reports that would put them in contempt of court. The second was that settlements were reached out of court without parents having the chance to present the evidence in open court, where it could have been reported. Distillers’ shocking behaviour was in this respect hidden from public view.
Despite the mounting costs, Harry did not just insist on carrying on. He looked for innovative ways to get the story out. Two of the unsung heroes of the Thalidomide saga were John…