Sir Harold Evans


Sir Harold Evans


Norman Parkinson/Iconic Images via REUTERS


He set the world's gold standard for journalism in the public interest, exposing deadly corporate secrets and the spy scandal of the century. His peers reveal his formula: tenacity, cunning, attention to the little details, and a boundless heart. A giant on Fleet Street and beyond, Harold Evans was 92.


Sir Harold Evans, a British-American editor whose 70-year career as a hard-driving investigative journalist, magazine founder, book publisher and author made him one of the most influential media figures of his generation, died on Wednesday at the age of 92.

His wife, Tina Brown, said Evans died of congestive heart failure in New York.

A former editor of Britain’s Sunday Times and, at his death, Reuters editor-at-large, Evans put a unique stamp on investigative journalism. Championing causes either overlooked or denied, he and his team uncovered human rights abuses and political scandals, and advocated for clean air policies.

One of his most famous investigations exposed the plight of hundreds of British thalidomide children who had never received any compensation for their birth defects. Evans organized a campaign to take on the companies responsible for manufacturing the drug, an effort that eventually won compensation for the families after more than a decade.

“All I tried to do – all I hoped to do – was to shed a little light,” Evans said in an interview with the Independent in 2014. “And if that light grew weeds, we’d have to try and pull them up.”

After 14 years at the Sunday Times, Evans became editor of the Times of London shortly after media mogul Rupert Murdoch purchased the paper in 1981. Evans left a year later in a dispute with Murdoch over editorial independence.

A few years later, Evans moved to the United States with Brown, the journalist and editor to whom he was married for nearly 40 years. He continued his career as an author, publisher and university lecturer. He penned several books, including The American Century (1998) and its sequel They Made America (2004), as well as an ode to good writing called Do I Make Myself Clear? (2017).

He became the subject of books and documentaries, including Attacking The Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime (2014), about the thalidomide campaign.

Evans founded Conde Nast Traveler magazine and served as president and publisher of Random House from 1990 to 1997. Under his leadership, Random House scored various publishing successes, including the best-selling Primary Colors, a satire about Bill Clinton by Anonymous, later revealed to be journalist Joe Klein, and Colin Powell’s My American Journey.

‘Respectable working class’

Born to a family from what he called “the respectable working class,” Evans received one of the highest honors of the British monarchy when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2004 for his services to British journalism. Two years earlier, a poll by Britain’s Press Gazette and the British Journalism Review named him the greatest newspaper editor of all time.

Evans joined Reuters in 2011. In his role as editor-at-large, Evans moderated conversations with global newsmakers in business and politics who included Tony Blair, Mark Cuban, Al Gore, John Kerry, Henry Kissinger, Jim Mattis and Satya Nadella.

“Harry Evans was an inspiration, not only as a great journalist but as a great man. He had an insatiable intellect, extraordinary tenacity, high principle, and a generous heart,” Stephen J. Adler, Reuters editor-in-chief, said.

Evans also had a sense of humor. “Editor-at-large means you’re free to create as much havoc as they will tolerate,” Evans was quoted as saying by the Financial Times.

“He was a human dynamo and set in motion such a stream of powerful stories and campaigns that his rivals (I was one) could only struggle to keep up.”

Donald Trelford, former editor of the Observer

“He was the inventor of team journalism. In the editorial chair, he was a human dynamo and set in motion such a stream of powerful stories and campaigns that his rivals (I was one) could only struggle to keep up,” Donald Trelford, the former editor of the Observer, wrote in a review of Evans’ memoir published in 2009 called, My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times.

Harold Matthew Evans was born in Greater Manchester, England, on June 28, 1928, the son of a train driver.

He entered journalism in what was then the traditional way, taking his first reporting job at a weekly newspaper at age 16. He went on to study at Durham University.

After serving in the military and earning a master’s degree, Evans became an assistant editor at the Manchester Evening News.

In 1961 he was named editor of the Northern Echo and first developed his reputation as a relentless journalist with campaigns against air pollution and for a national program to detect cervical cancer, an initiative that still saves thousands of lives each year.

Evans became editor of national weekly the Sunday Times in 1967, and made it an exemplar of investigative journalism, with reports from its Insight team.

The Philby story was one of the many Sunday Times scoops that made Evans’ name.

Kim Philby spy case

In addition to helping win compensation for Britons who suffered birth defects from thalidomide, a drug taken for pregnancy sickness, the Sunday Times published in 1967 an expose of high-ranking British intelligence officer Kim Philby’s decades as a Soviet spy, despite objections from the British government that the report would endanger national security.

When Murdoch bought the Sunday Times and Times of London in 1981 from the Thomson Corp, he installed Evans as editor of the Times but the relationship quickly turned sour – and stayed that way. Evans said the British government allowed Murdoch to buy the Times newspapers on the strength of pledges he made to uphold editorial independence.

“He broke them all within a year,” Evans said in a 2013 Reuters interview.

He said his own writings about then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were the source of the rift with Murdoch.

“When she started to dismantle the British economy, the most cogent critic of that policy ... was the Sunday Times,” he told the Independent. “I wrote 70 percent of that criticism myself. When I became editor of the Times, I continued to criticize monetarism.”

Within a year, Evans was ousted from the Times in what he called “the saddest moment of my life.” Murdoch said he made the move to avert a staff rebellion and insisted he had never tried to dictate newspaper policy.

That same year, Evans married Brown in New York. The two had met in 1973 when she had been a writer for the Sunday Times.

In 1984, Evans and Brown moved to the United States, where he taught at Duke University in North Carolina and later held various positions with U.S. News & World Report, the Atlantic Monthly and New York Daily News among others.

In London, Brown had edited The Tatler magazine. In America, she became editor of Vanity Fair magazine and later the New Yorker, before co-founding the Daily Beast news website in 2008. Evans became a U.S. citizen in 1993 and Brown followed suit in 2005.

In addition to his wife, Evans leaves his children Isabel, Georgie, Ruth, Michael and Kate Evans, grandchildren Anna and Emily Vanderpool, and brother Peter Evans. His first wife, Enid, from whom he was divorced in 1978, died in 2013.

Adler said: “I am so grateful Harry became my mentor and friend, and all of us at Reuters are blessed to have worked with him and learned from him these past 10 years. His example will continue to guide us.”

Writing and reporting by Bill Trott; Editing by Diane Craft and Howard Goller

He was the icon that inspired a generation of young Britons to pick up a pen in anger – inspired by his example that the relentless and carefully crafted exposure of facts could be used to fight injustice.

Harold Evans liked to quote his famous 19th Century predecessor at the Northern Echo regional paper, William Stead, who on appointment declared: “What a glorious opportunity of attacking the devil, isn’t it?”

Just as young American students idolized Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and their storied role in toppling President Richard Nixon, in Britain, Harry Evans stood high in a pantheon of home-grown heroes of the late 20th Century who made us think that investigative reporting and journalistic campaigns could not only make the world better, but also be tremendous fun.

For Evans was not just the champion of using journalism to set wrongs right. He was also a quintessential British editor who, for all his high-minded causes, understood that journalism was foremost not an intellectual pursuit but a craft – one that demanded muscular and clear language, captivating pictures, arresting headlines, perfect layout of the newspaper page (remember those?) and, above all else, in a phrase coined by his foreign correspondent Nicholas Tomalin, a strong dose of “ratlike cunning.”

What also made Evans special was his realisation that he needed to master – and confront – Britain’s restrictive press laws.

As a cub reporter in Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s Britain, I knew of Evans as the crusading editor of the Sunday Times who made famous its Insight Team, the paper’s investigative unit, established by his predecessor as a feature squad. Insight under Evans exposed Russia’s most infamous spy in Britain, Kim Philby. It challenged the official account of the 1972 Bloody Sunday killings in Northern Ireland. And it fought for years and won justice against a corporation, Distillers, on behalf of the children disabled by the company’s drug, thalidomide.

Evans did not invent campaigning newspaper journalism – the practice of running a series of shocking news reports not only to expose the facts but also to push for change. Tabloids got there sooner. But honing his experience on the Northern Echo and continuing on the Sunday Times, where he took charge in 1967, Evans added unheard-of persistence. Backed by benevolent owners, what also made Evans special was his realisation that, boxed in by the most restrictive press laws in democratic Europe, he needed to master and confront those laws to pull off his campaigns.

As Evans said in Attacking The Devil, a documentary about his life and thalidomide, a reporter could not move his arm in those years without touching the walls of libel laws, contempt of court laws and the Official Secrets Acts.

“That was the situation – how could anyone stand for that?” he asked.

Britain’s laws on contempt of court barred coverage of ongoing civil lawsuits, including the one brought by thalidomide families against Distillers, the manufacturer. Determined to reveal the company’s role in the scandal, Evans took his case to the European Court of Human Rights. He won, forcing legal reform and enabling the UK press to cover matters in court that are in the public interest.

This willingness to go to all lengths set the tone for an incredibly creative newsroom. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian newspaper from 1995 to 2015, said Evans’ reporters “felt very well supported and protected by him, and therefore would do anything for him.”

I first came across Evans when, as a trainee on the regional Eastern Daily Press, I was drilled in the classroom with his textbook on how to write plain newspaper English (without unnecessary commas). As David Leigh, retired editor of the Guardian’s investigative team, put it: “He was the meticulous craftsman. It wasn’t just about the story but in putting together the page.”

Later, I got to know Evans indirectly through his friends. That came after I got the call in 2001 from John Witherow, his longest-serving successor at the Sunday Times, to take over as editor of the still-running Insight Team. One of the first acts of my new team was to head down to the microfilm reader in the newspaper’s library and print out poster-size copies of some of Evans’ great scoops – to put them up on the wall to inspire us.

In Insight, Evans had established a formidable forensic machine. The object of each investigation, veterans told me, was to “find the guilty person or the guilty part.” Insight did the latter in its investigation of DC-10 aircraft crashes, which were linked to a cargo door lock. The formula: relentless effort and team work, bold source cultivation, over-research of every detail, and then constant condensing of essential facts and a timeline into a “state of knowledge” memo.

Among Evans’ top reporters was the late Phillip Knightley: He uncovered the truth that former British diplomat Philby, who’d defected to Moscow, had been a mole while serving as head of anti-Soviet operations for British secret intelligence – a stunning revelation that MI6 had been penetrated by the Russians. From Knightley, I learned of Evans’ optimism that, given the right approach, almost any person, in almost any position, could be persuaded to tell the secrets that needed telling.

“Of all the things he did in his career, I think thalidomide meant the most to him. He never let go” of the children.

Elaine Potter, investigative reporter

I learned too from Knightley that Evans was a journalist of his time and place. To nail the thalidomide story, Evans used a tactic common then on Fleet Street, reaching for the cheque book to pay a source £8,000 for key documents. The decision was recounted by Evans in his memoir My Paper Chase:

“I debated the ethics of paying him .... Every last doubt fell before my intense curiosity about what the documents revealed on the origins of the disaster. Was I to put my precious journalistic conscience before gaining access to crucial information that might never see the light of day if, as seemed likely, an out-of-court settlement was reached? No.”

For Evans it wasn’t enough to print a story on the front page of his paper, one of the most respected broadsheets in the western world. He also wanted to make sure that every decision maker read it. That wasn’t so easy before social media and email. In the case of thalidomide, that meant, as his assistant recalled, writing personal letters enclosing an article to every one of Britain’s 600-plus members of parliament.

According to Elaine Potter, one of the main reporters on the story, one key to Evans was his big heart – an empathy that made him approachable in the newsroom, alert to injustice in society, and passionately interested in the stories of those affected. “Of all the things he did in his career, I think thalidomide meant the most to him. He never let go of the thalidomide story or the thalidomiders” – the children – “who had only to ask and he would make himself available.”

Though an advocate of the public interest, Evans was not a political figure; certainly, at least, not partisan. But Britain’s media and political landscape, like America’s, changed around him.

In 1981, the Sunday Times was purchased by Rupert Murdoch from the Thomson family, who had supported Evans and who now control the company that owns Reuters. Evans was moved by Murdoch to run the Times, the sister daily, but left within a year after a dispute over editorial control.

After that, there grew among some in Britain the suspicion that some of the Sunday Times’ investigations came to be driven by Murdoch’s own conservative agenda. Evans would later write that Murdoch went on to “manipulate” both papers for political ends; Murdoch denied this. In any event, we who followed in Harry’s footsteps at the two papers are proud of the investigations we did.

Still, a sense of partisanship has bedevilled British journalism ever since. According to Rusbridger, the era before the Evans-Murdoch clash was “a sort of high-water mark of disinterested campaigning.”

Harry Evans used to say that some of the greatest stories often passed unnoticed, like trees growing in the forest. Evans set a golden standard for investigative journalism – and he has been inspiring reporters for over 50 years. But more than his techniques, what shone through for me were his impulses, his sensibility. It was his humanity and fierce sense of injustice that drove his career – helping him to spot those trees.

Editor’s note: Stephen Grey, investigative reporter for Reuters in London, was Insight editor at the Sunday Times from 2001 to 2003.

I held my breath and said a small prayer to the physics gods as a shiny red orb sailed across the stage, landing (mercifully) in the hands of Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive. The spectacle was classic Sir Harry.

As a producer for Sir Harold Evans’ Newsmaker interview series at Reuters, I regularly found myself dispatched last minute to wrangle a high-profile speaker or fetch a prop, carefully laid plans be damned.

One such occasion, in September 2017, involved tracking down that red Kookaburra cricket ball so that Harry could “test the reflexes” of Mr. Nadella before diving into a book talk. It wasn’t a gimmick so much as an icebreaker, a way to loosen up a tightly scripted interview subject, surprise the audience, score a viral photo, and let everyone know that Harry had actually read the book.

Sir Harry was the kind of man who had always read the book, and often quizzed you on it.

A legendary British newspaperman who had survived the Manchester air raids in World War Two and lived to compare them to our hunkered-down, pandemic present, Sir Harry never let expectations get in the way of his vision. His optimism was unrelenting – an impish, mission-driven determination that gave the most mundane of tasks the sparkle of purpose for all who worked for him.

He recognized the enduring power of a moment captured or created with care. He understood that all it takes is the snap of a shutter or a glance at a front page to move nations. A once-in-a-century editor, he instinctively saw the parallels between his work and that of photographers: producing moments – layouts, investigations, bestsellers – that entertained, gutted or beguiled us and, most importantly, helped us make sense of an overwhelming and chaotic world.

I spent many hours with him flipping through his prized glossy photography books at the Reuters offices in Manhattan’s Times Square and occasionally over tea at Sutton Place, where he lived. We pored over the work of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who coined the term “images à la sauvette,” which means “hastily taken images” or “images on the sly,” but is usually translated as “the decisive moment.” Harry would mine a trove of old slides from historic events as varied as the Vietnam War and the Hindenburg disaster, recalling dates, locations, photographers. He would point out the composition, lighting, context and luck – the magical swirl of ingredients that made these moments that changed the course of history.

In 2016, I worked with Sir Harry on a forum in partnership with the International Center for Photography to explore the most pressing issues in photojournalism. Along with the grizzled war photographers assembled from scattered conflict zones, academics specializing in “deepfakes” and editors from prestigious publications, Sir Harry was adamant about the need for a specific appearance by two virtual unknowns: Reuters freelance photographer Jonathan Bachman and Iesha Evans (no relation to Harry), a Pennsylvania nurse.

He understood that all it takes is the snap of a shutter or a glance at a front page to move nations

Mr. Bachman had captured Ms. Evans in a now-iconic image in July 2016, standing calmly in a flowing green dress as Baton Rouge police in full riot gear arrested her during protests over police shootings of Black men. It was not enough to talk about the photo or have Mr. Bachman join the program to discuss how he got the shot. Ms. Evans’ voice was key to getting the full accounting of her confrontation with law enforcement – how it came to be and what it could teach us about covering this story.

Harry was orchestrating a Russian nesting doll of decisive moments: by bringing Mr. Bachman and Ms. Evans together to discuss the photo and what it meant to their lives, we were creating the opportunity for another newsworthy moment and a deeper understanding of what had happened that summer. That’s how it felt to work for him – like you were inside history as it happened in real time.

We would joke about the cricket ball in the years following, his blue eyes alive with mischief as we recalled Mr. Nadella’s boyish delight and his corporate posse’s confused faces.

People have rightly celebrated Sir Harry’s keen journalistic sensibility and dogged pursuit of justice and truth. But what made him special was the full and open heart he brought to these endeavors – to the cause of a free and independent press, children affected by thalidomide, the countless authors and colleagues he championed and his beloved family, but also to the unseen people that kept this great man’s life humming. In one of his last notes to me on the subject of a new professional adventure he wrote: “If there is anything I can do to help, you have only to call when my ear trumpet is working.”

Editing by Rosalba O’Brien

Editor’s note: Katherine Finnerty is a senior producer at The Washington Post. She worked with Evans at Reuters News from 2016 to 2018. The opinions expressed here are her own.

After earning renown as a groundbreaking newspaper editor in Britain, Evans had a second career in America as a book editor, publisher and author.

1928: Born June 28 in Greater Manchester, England. Takes his first job as a journalist at the age of 16, for a weekly paper in Ashton-under-Lyne.

1961: Named editor of regional daily The Northern Echo. The paper’s campaign on cervical cancer leads to a national UK program for detection of the disease.

1967: Named editor of The Sunday Times. His Insight Team of investigative journalists exposes the plight of British children who suffered birth defects from thalidomide, leading to compensation for the families and a landmark legal reform lowering barriers to reporting on lawsuits. Other scoops include the revelation that UK diplomat Kim Philby, a defector to Moscow, had been a Russian mole while serving as  chief of anti-Soviet operations for British intelligence.

1972: Publishes Editing and Design: A Five-Volume Manual of English, Typography and Layout – one of his many books on the nuts and bolts of newspapering that become standards in Britain.

1981: Becomes editor of Sunday Times sister title The Times after a takeover by media baron Rupert Murdoch. Resigns a year later, citing differences with Murdoch over editorial independence. Later chronicles their clash in Good Times, Bad Times.

1982: Publishes Pictures on a Page: Photo-journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing.

1984: Moves to America, teaches at Duke University.

1990: Named president and publisher of Random House trade group. Over time, publishes books by authors including Henry Kissinger, Maya Angelou, Colin Powell. Later goes on to senior roles at US News and World Report, the New York Daily News, The Atlantic Monthly.

1993: Becomes a U.S. citizen.

1998: Publishes first of his two bestsellers on U.S. history, The American Century.

2002: A poll by Britain’s Press Gazette and the British Journalism Review names him the greatest newspaper editor of all time.

2004: Knighted for services to journalism.

2009: Publishes his memoir, My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times.

2011: Joins Reuters as editor-at-large.

2018: Publishes Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters.