Sir Harold Evans obituary: Newspaper icon who spent two decades in Highgate – and recruited staff at a Belsize Park tennis club
PUBLISHED: 15:57 24 September 2020 | UPDATED: 18:33 24 September 2020
Sir Harold Evans “had real moral sense” according to a pioneering reporter who worked with him for a decade and remained friends with him for the rest of his life.
The newspaper editor and publisher, who lived in Highgate for the best part of two decades, has died of heart failure.
Marjorie Wallace, who lives in Highgate herself, worked with Sir Harold on exposing the thalidomide scandal.
She told the Ham&High about the editor’s qualities, and how on occasion he even recruited journalists – including her – at the Globe Tennis Club off Haverstock Hill.
Editor of the Sunday Times between 1967 and 1981, Sir Harold, or Harry, lived in the Holly Lodge Estate with his then-wife Enid, and their children attended Brookfield Primary.
During this time he lived in north London with Enid – who was a teacher at Parliament Hill School and prominent local activist who help to safeguard Highgate Library.
Under Sir Harold’s editorship, investigative journalism flourished at the Sunday Times, with the paper’s work exposing the thalidomide scandal becoming an example to the industry.
Marjorie, the founder and chief executive of mental health charity SANE, said: “It was a chance meeting. At the time I was an unmarried mother on contract at the BBC. It was at the Globe Tennis Club. Suddenly this figure came rushing over and said: ‘You’re the person I want to come over and to start working for us.’
“I think he had heard of my reputation as a sympathetic interviewer.”
Marjorie said that day Sir Harold helped her find a childminder so she could start work the next Monday – and she then became deeply involved in his “moral campaign” reporting of the thalidomide scandal.
“In the end, through the moral campaign, and Harry’s energy and refusal to listen to the lawyers, [we] saw the Distillers pay compensation.”
Distillers was the company which distributed thalidomide, which when prescribed to expectant mothers saw children born in some cases without arms or legs or with brain damage.
Marjorie worked for the Sunday Times for the next decade.
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“He was more than just an exceptional editor – he had a real moral sense. He would fight for a story to the end, but he would not do it at the expense of other people,” she said.
“He never forgot the names of the people we wrote about.”
Even at 90, she said, he was passionate about the causes the Sunday Times had fought for.
Marjorie added: “He was still excited, still interested to talk about how the thalidomiders were doing. He was, no doubt, a legend, but never a remote one.”
Manchester-born Sir Harold began his career at a weekly newspaper in Ashton-under-Lyne aged 16, and worked at the Northern Echo, and the Manchester Evening News before taking over the Sunday Times.
He left that role a year after Rupert Murdoch’s 1981 takeover – and shortly after moved to America with Tina Brown, his new wife who would become editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker.
He went on to run the publisher Random House, while also writing numerous books.
He described journalism as his “basic passion” and was a firm advocate for accurate, truthful reporting, with his journalism and books frequently taught to would-be journalists.
His description of journalism is often cited: “Journalism is not easy. It’s the first rough draft.
“I don’t think you need to wait around until you have the definitive thing. You record what’s there; don’t delude yourself that this is the ultimate historical view.”
Former Sunday Times Insight editor Bruce Page, who worked at the paper with Sir Harold during the 1960s and 1970s when he lived in Highgate, described him as “unique”.
The 83-year-old said: “This to be sure is a season of sorrows in all sorts of ways, but it is illuminated by memories of Harry Evans, the very great – indeed unique – editor of the Sunday Times of London. So long as our hopes for the human future persist to exemplify what journalism can do in support of free societies, we have no excuse for letting them turn into bitter dust.”
Despite his second marriage, Sir Harry and Enid remained on good terms for thirty years – he contributed to her own obituary in these pages in 2013.
He died after suffering congestive heart failure, Tina reported, while figures to have paid tribute include prime minister Boris Johnson, who called him a “giant of investigative journalism”.
He is survived by wife Tina, and children from both marriages – Isabel, Georgie, Ruth, Michael and Kate Evans.
To share memories of Sir Harold’s time in north London, contact Sam.Volpe@Archant.co.uk
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