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My Paper Chase
Book Review by Simon Basketter, December 2009
Harold Evans, Little, Brown, £25
In his new memoir Harold Evans recounts his journey from working class background to editor of both the Times and the Sunday Times and beyond.
As the title, My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times, suggests, he describes a time past, when bad articles landed on an actual spike.
The early part of the book about his childhood is unremarkable and overlong, but the blow by blow accounts of the journalists' trade and his battles as editor are enthralling.
At 16 years old Evans went to apply for a job at the Ashton-Under-Lyne Reporter and got his first look at the printing process. He writes, "The floor was filled with long lines of iron monsters, each 7 feet high, 5 feet wide, decked out with an incomprehensible array of moving parts... A man crouched in communion at the foot of each contraption... It was hot news. Lead, antimony and tin bubbled in each Linotype's melting pot, kept at 300 degrees centigrade by a gasoline burner."
Evans took up a crusading style of journalism. He is committed to the journalistic truism, "Afflict the comfortable and give comfort to the afflicted."
As he puts it, "I was a beneficiary of the late-breaking waves of political, cultural and social changes that gathered force in the mid-1960s."
Evans's "Insight" investigative team broke the Kim Philby spy scandal, pursued settlements for thalidomide victims and pushed Northern Ireland coverage into the public eye. All is recounted in entertaining detail.
"A newspaper is an argument on the way to a deadline," Evans writes of his muck-racking, side-taking editorial style. "If there isn't any argument, there's not much of a newspaper."
But it is not all that straightforward. There was more investigative journalism a few decades ago, but there was plenty of copy backing every ruling class idea and prejudice. Evans himself describes how the desire for "balance", and fear of the law, led to him spiking a report on Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland. His defence of not publishing is logical, well argued and wrong.
For all the eulogising of hot metal printing Evans saw the printers' unions as the most implacable enemy of "progress".
He thinks that "every British newspaperman is in [Murdoch's] debt". He fails to see the connection between the attacks on the unions and the decline of the journalism he so approves of.
He fell out with Murdoch himself over editorial interference, but it's a case of a dog not biting the hand that beats it.
"I never conceived this memoir as a valedictory to a vanishing world," Evans writes, but in reality, it is. It is a shame he doesn't realise why it is vanishing.
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