Harold Evans, a British-born journalist who campaigned on behalf of thalidomide victims, battled press censorship and helped expose corruption and cronyism as the top editor of the Sunday Times of London, then remade himself as a book, magazine and newspaper editor in the United States, died Sept. 23 at his home in Manhattan. He was 92.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his wife, journalist Tina Brown.
Evans was a charismatic emblem of an earlier era in journalism, when national newspapers were a glamorous and highly profitable enterprise brought to life by the clacking of manual typewriters and thunder of enormous Linotype machines.
Raised in the industrial north of England, he attended neither Cambridge nor Oxford and lacked the upper-class pedigree of many of his peers in management. He built a hard-charging reputation, overseeing high-profile investigative work and journalistic campaigns on issues varying from the price of groceries to inadequate cervical cancer tests. At his career pinnacle in England, he edited the venerable Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981.
“All I tried to do — all I hoped to do — was to shed a little light,” he told the Independent newspaper in 2010. “And if that light grew weeds, we’d have to try and pull them up.”
Evans helped modernize one of Britain’s most influential but staid papers, sharpening its design and filling its broadsheet pages with stories that reflected the sweeping changes of the late 1960s, when London was swinging and a Liverpool band called the Beatles was dominating the pop charts. He also helped turn the paper’s collaborative reporting team, Insight, into a powerhouse of investigative journalism.
Under his watch, the Sunday Times revealed new details about British intelligence officer Kim Philby’s work as a Soviet spy; published the diaries of the late Labour minister Richard Crossman, offering insight into the inner workings of government while risking prosecution under the Official Secrets Act; and fought for compensation for the victims of thalidomide, a morning-sickness drug that killed thousands of babies in the womb and caused severe birth defects before being taken off the market in 1961.
“He was banging up against the establishment all the time, wherever he went,” said former Sunday Times reporter Peter Pringle, a veteran foreign correspondent.
With his second wife, Brown, Evans also became a force in American media, settling in New York following clashes with Rupert Murdoch, who bought the Sunday Times and its sister paper, the Times, in 1981. Evans was named the editor of the daily Times but was ousted a year later, for what he described as battles over editorial control and a series of scathing editorials he had written about Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a Murdoch ally and Conservative Party leader.
While Brown edited Vanity Fair and later the New Yorker, remaking two of the country’s most storied magazines, Evans worked for their parent company, Advance. He served as the founding editor of Condé Nast Traveler, launching the magazine in 1987 with a focus on literary journalism and hard news reporting, and led the trade division of Random House for seven years, publishing books by Norman Mailer, William Styron and a young senator named Barack Obama, whose memoir “Dreams From My Father” he acquired for $40,000.
Evans also edited books by Henry Kissinger and emerged as a best-selling author in his own right, notably with “The American Century” (1998), which charted the country’s development since 1889, and “They Made America” (2004), which examined the creation of the bra and steam engine and was adapted into a four-part PBS special.
Wiry and diminutive, Evans seemed to have boundless energy; the Daily Telegraph once likened him to “a coiled spring forever unwinding.” He worked variously at the Atlantic Monthly Press, New York Daily News, Atlantic magazine, U.S. News & World Report and the news agency Reuters, where he was editor-at-large in recent years.
In a phone interview, former Insight reporter and editor John Barry recalled that Evans often let off steam on high-speed motorbike rides and invited Sunday Times editors to join him for laps at his favorite pool on Pall Mall.
“We always thought he was the perfect editor,” said Barry, who later joined Newsweek as a national security correspondent. “But one of the things that allowed him to be perfect was lots of money and a very understanding proprietor,” Canadian-born publisher Roy Thomson.
By all accounts, Thomson gave Evans a free hand in publishing sensitive stories, including the series on thalidomide. The drug had been distributed in Britain by the liquor company Distillers, one of the Sunday Times’s biggest advertisers, which was sued by families whose children were born with missing limbs or other severe birth defects.
The case was closed to public scrutiny, shielded by strict contempt-of-court laws that restricted news stories about ongoing cases, and ended with a settlement in 1968. Several years later, Sunday Times journalists including Bruce Page, Phillip Knightley and Marjorie Wallace began digging into the thalidomide story. Their reporting indicated that the settlement was woefully inadequate, and that Distillers had not properly tested the drug.
A 1972 report in the Sunday Times, “Our Thalidomide Children: A Cause for National Shame,” led the attorney general to issue an injunction, spurring a legal battle that Evans and the paper’s executives took all the way to the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Thalidomide victims received new compensation, through a trust worth about $40 million, and in 1977, the human rights court ruled that the British government had infringed on freedom of the press. The episode was considered Evans’s greatest triumph, a dual victory for both thalidomide survivors and freedom of the press.
“News is whatever someone wants to suppress,” he later told the Toronto Globe and Mail. “Everything else is advertising.”
Harold Matthew Evans was born in Manchester on June 28, 1928. His father drove a steam train, and his mother turned their parlor into a corner store, selling cigarettes, bread, milk and canned food.
Harry, as Evans was known, started his journalism career at 16, writing letters to newspapers in or around Manchester before finding a job at a weekly paper in Ashton-under-Lyne. After serving in the Royal Air Force, he took a similar approach to college, writing to every university in England before enrolling at the University of Durham.
He studied politics and economics, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1952 and a master’s degree in 1962 for a thesis on foreign policy. His education also continued overseas, when he spent a year traveling across the United States on a Harkness Fellowship, deepening his interest in a place where “it was permissible to dream,” as he put it.
Evans later led the Northern Echo in Darlington, where he advocated on behalf of Timothy Evans, a Welshman who had been wrongly executed for murdering his wife and daughter. Coverage of the case helped spur a posthumous pardon from the queen and the abolition of the death penalty in Britain.
Evans joined the Sunday Times in 1966, working as a top aide to editor Denis Hamilton, the paper’s future chief executive, before succeeding him in the newsroom. In 1978, he and the Times’s executives fought with printers unions over computer technology and staff cutbacks, leading the paper to suspend publication for nearly a year.
The dispute helped pave the way for Murdoch’s acquisition of the paper in 1981, with promises of editorial independence that led Evans to support the deal and accept an offer to edit the Times.
“My ambition got the better of my judgment,” he wrote in a memoir, “Good Times, Bad Times” (1983). While Evans said he admired Murdoch’s “gratifying defeat of the Luddite unions,” he came to view the media magnate as anti-democratic, and was fired a few weeks after being voted Britain’s “editor of the year.” Murdoch denied editorial involvement, and said he fired the editor after being told a staff rebellion was brewing.
By then, Evans had acquired a reputation for journalistic excellence as well as self-seriousness. He was targeted by British tabloids and satirical magazines such as Private Eye, which he threatened to sue after it nicknamed him Dame Harry Evans.
His first marriage, to schoolteacher Enid Parker, ended in divorce after Evans met Brown, who was then an aspiring journalist in her last year at Oxford. They married in 1981, in a ceremony at Grey Gardens, the Long Island estate owned by Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn.
In addition to Brown, who launched Talk magazine and the Daily Beast, survivors include three children from his first marriage, Ruth, Katherine and Michael; two children from his second, George and Izzy; a brother; and two grandchildren.
While Brown’s career took off in the United States, Evans had a lower profile before taking charge of Random House in 1990. He went on to acquire best-selling titles such as “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt and “Primary Colors,” a semifictional account of the 1992 presidential campaign, anonymously written by columnist Joe Klein.
Evans also drew criticism for lavish book deals, and in 1997 left to become editorial director for publications owned by Mortimer Zuckerman, including U.S. News & World Report. He later wrote a memoir of his newspapering days, “My Paper Chase” (2009), and published a humorous style guide, “Do I Make Myself Clear?” (2017).
Evans was knighted in 2004 for services to journalism, and said he shared the view of journalist W.T. Stead, one of his predecessors at the Northern Echo, who declared that a newspaper reporter was “a very good way of attacking the devil.”
“I’m an old Boy Scout at heart,” he told the Independent in 2010, in the wake of a global financial crisis and massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “I also believe — but cannot prove — that if the press had been more alert, we might have foreseen and avoided some of these catastrophes.”