When the Chartered Institute of Journalists awarded Sir Harold Evans its Gold Medal it was recognising how five iconic books he had written had helped elevate the status of journalism from the rather shady trade of Grub Street to an admirable profession.
Newsman’s English, Handling Newspaper Text, News Headlines, Pictures on a Page and Newspaper Design still constitute the structure of a syllabus for a degree in practical journalism; something a working-class lad who’d entered the newspaper industry as a teenager and went onto graduate at Durham University would have been proud of.
Godfrey Hodgson in the Guardian’s obituary said: ‘Between 1972 and 1977, while in the thick of the editorial battle he found the time to produce one of the few classic books about journalism, five volumes of Editing and Design, of which at least two, Newsman’s English, on writing for newspapers, and Pictures on a Page, on the choice and use of photographs, are works of rare insight and quality.’
Hodgson emphasised the significance of Evans’s first editorship- that of the Northern Echo in Darlington, ‘a job hallowed for him by the fact that one of his predecessors was the great W.T. Stead who went on to be the crusading editor of the Edwardian Pall Mall Gazette. Evans kept a picture of Stead in his office.’
At least Evans avoided W.T. Stead’s experience going to jail when pushing the boundaries of media freedom in legal jousts.
The award-winning BBC editor and producer Giles Oakley wrote a follow-up letter to the Guardian to point out that ‘The five books on journalistic Editing and Design by Harold provided inspiration for a four-part series on BBC One entitled Evans on Newspapers, produced by Bernard Adams in 1980, assisted by Marion Allinson and me as directors.’
Oakley remembered ‘we were desperately trying to get a script out of him, only for it to arrive via courier, an envelope full of seemingly random scraps of paper with hastily hand-written text in pencil, with plenty of crossings out, side notes and arrows. Of course, when deciphered it all made perfect sense.’
This anecdote reveals the irony in how an editor who became a legend for his instructional authority carried out his work in an atmosphere of organised chaos.
He had a notoriously short attention span and could not sit still for any length of time. In the middle of a conversation he had a habit of leaving to attend to another demand or task, always running between departmental heads and abandoning his office to a lengthening queue of people waiting to see him.
Unorthodox and infuriating, but endearingly eccentric. He inspired loyalty with everyone he worked with.
The BBC’s obituary explained that he had left school at 16 and wrote applications to every newspaper in the Manchester area, finally securing a job at the Ashton-under-Lyne Reporter.
It was one of those British weekly newspapers which to use Evans’s own words ‘bothered with the little things in people’s lives, the whist drives and flower shows.’
The BBC reported that Evans’s celebrated editorship of the Sunday Times, marked by the herculean and humanitarian campaign for the victims of the drug Thalidomide, ended with Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition.
After moving to edit the daily Times he fell out with the Australian magnate and many years later at the 2011 Leveson Inquiry would describe him as ‘evil incarnate.’
Michael Leapman in the Independent said Sir Harry Evans was the ‘one of the greatest newspaper editors of all time.’
Leapman pointed to the significance of being spotted as a journalist of great promise in 1956 with the award of a Harkness Fellowship which allowed him to spend two years in the United States at Stanford and Chicago universities, studying journalism and foreign affairs.
At that time British universities had never developed journalism as a serious subject. There had been a two-year diploma run at King’s College, University of London, but this ended with the outbreak of the Second World War.
The experience in America would bring a reflective and more scholarly understanding of the public interest purpose of journalism as a serious and ethical profession. He believed a free press could be an important force for improving society.
His first book on the practice of journalism was written as early as 1961- The Active Newsroom. Leapman described the 1972 to 1977 five-part series on editing and design – including volumes on headlines, pictures and language – as containing many precepts which have remained valid in ‘the subsequent age of computerised typesetting and page make-up.’
Pictures On A Page: Photo-journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing, the fourth in the series, is probably the most well-known along with Newsman’s English: A Guide To Writing, Lively, Lucid, and Effective Prose. The latter was later revised by Crawford Gillan in 2000, and re-edited into Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers.
On the writing side Evans followed in the tradition set up by George Orwell in his famous essay ‘Politics of the English Language.’ They were both aiming for honesty, clarity and simplicity.
Newsman’s English in 1972 sought to achieve style and impact in news writing by answering the questions: What constitutes good copy; How can you avoid wasteful words and clichés, How do you rewrite a bad sentence; How do you shorten verbose source material; How much knowledge should be assumed from the reader; How do you structure a news story for maximum effect; What is the best way to write intros and to cope with the subsequent chronology; How can quotes and opinions be fed into the story without boring the reader; and How can news style be varied to add to a paper’s image?
Answer all these questions correctly, and you would always be destined, with assistance from Sir Harry Evans, for a successful career in news journalism writing.
Pictures On A Page showed how photojournalism can give meaning, colour and even drama to the apparently mundane. Evans was an expert at showing how cropping can rescue or ruin a photograph.
He analysed and advanced the concept of the decisive moment of still photography in documentary and news, and also enthused about how drawing and illustration could take up where photography left off.
He was also eloquent and thought-provoking on the ethics of photographs of violence and sex, and how vulnerable we will always be to the manipulation of emotions through visual propaganda, and the contingency of news photographs presenting events that never happened or can so easily turn heroes into villains.
The irony and extraordinary ambiguity of covering news events was illustrated so poignantly on the back cover of his book with the extraordinary analysis ‘Why is the girl in the centre smiling?’
Her fiancé is being given life-saving treatment on a beach, but she smiled when seeing the press photographer and thinking that she might appear in the newspapers.
The Chartered Institute of Journalists has always been enormously proud of its recognition of Sir Harold Evans with the award of one of its coveted gold medals.
In the history of British journalism he will be appreciated with the same reverence as one of the founding members of Institute W.T. Stead- one of his predecessor editors at the Northern Echo.
In addition to avoiding Stead’s fate of being sent to jail for his crusading and campaigning journalism, he also got to America in one piece to continue his career in publishing and book writing; unlike W.T. Stead who drowned in the Titanic disaster of 1912.