In 1981, Harold Evans was the editor of one of Britain’s most prestigious publications, the Sunday Times, which had thrived under his watch. When Australian publishing baron Rupert Murdoch bought the daily Times of London, he persuaded Evans to become its editor with guarantees of editorial independence. But after a year of broken promises and conflict over the paper’s direction, Evans departed amid an international media firestorm. Evans’s story is a gripping, behind-the-scenes look at Murdoch’s ascension to global media magnate. It is Murdoch laid bare, an intimate account of a man using the power of his media empire for his own ends. Riveting, provocative, and insightful, Good Times, Bad Times is as relevant today as when it was first written.
With details on the scandalous deal between Murdoch and Margaret Thatcher, this updated ebook edition includes an extensive new preface by Evans, the New York Times–bestselling author of Do I Make Myself Clear?, discussing the Rupert Murdoch phone-hacking scandal.
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Good Times, Bad Times
By Harold Evans
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Harold Evans Associates
All rights reserved.
The Sunday Times and the Crossman Diaries
Roy Thomson never came to The Sunday Times on a Saturday. We always talked on the telephone. It was doubly unusual to have both Roy and his son Kenneth in my office as I did on the evening of Saturday, 25 January 1975. They said there was nothing special on their minds. I told them they had chosen quite a night. The presses were running, but at any moment I expected a court order to stop them – and at the behest of the Government. The Attorney-General's office was threatening action. Our lawyer was standing by. A Downing Street dispatch rider had just picked up two copies of the first edition at the request of the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who was at Chequers.
The cause of official consternation was four pages I was publishing in The Sunday Times in defiance of the Cabinet Secretary and at risk of criminal prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. They contained what I announced as the first of a series of long extracts from the diaries of Richard Crossman, the former Labour Minister, whose dying instruction to his wife and literary executors was to fight the official pressure he knew would be brought to suppress them. I had taken the decision to publish in great secrecy, fearing an injunction to stop us. Only six other people at The Sunday Times knew our intentions: Denis Hamilton, the editor-in-chief; two Sunday Times lawyers; my deputy editor, Frank Giles; the head printer; and Ron Hall, who planned the pages. Working alone at night, the head printer himself set the 10,000-word extract. Galley proofs were not distributed. When printing started, I held back the copies normally sent down to Whitehall early on Saturday evenings.
Ken Thomson looked concerned. His father blinked behind his pebble glasses:
'You happy in your own mind, Harold?'
'I am', I replied, as if I were already in the dock.
'It's the full story of Cabinet meetings, but there's no breach of national security. It's in the public interest. People should know how they're governed ...' I assured him that the lawyers had advised on strategy.
'A good read, eh?' said the owner.
I saw Lord Thomson happily to the front entrance of the building with his combustible Sunday Times in his hand, and impulsively told the commissionaire to bolt the big double doors. I had the fleeting notion that we might thereby delay receipt of an injunction against the paper and gain time to distribute more copies. Any court order could actually be telephoned through by the duty judge; all the same, I left the doors locked as a symbol of our embattlement.
In the fourteen years I was editor of The Sunday Times, from 1967 to 1981, I came to know well the routes from my office in Gray's Inn Road to the law courts in the Strand. My hours in court were rarely necessary because of something The Sunday Times had published. We had to defend very few libel cases. I went before the judges because Government or corporations or individuals tried to find reasons in law for preventing The Sunday Times printing what it knew to be true. 'News', as Lord Northcliffe said, 'is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising.' Few people would disagree with the first sentiment. At The Sunday Times we did not seek trouble with the law; it happened because the journalism Roy Thomson made possible ran into conflict with arbitrary power. It was not abstract or remote power, but the power that is capable of building an airliner knowing it will fall out of the skies, or of cheating small savers, or concealing plans to rob communities of their railways, or selling a deforming drug and refusing to compensate reasonably for the shattered lives, or even of bringing the weight of the state against the publication of a politician's diaries.
We won all of these battles in the end, though the news was sometimes a little late getting through to our readers - anything from one week to eight years. The portent of resistance arrived at The Sunday Times very early in my editorship. It was a man in a bowler hat. He sought me out in the composing room one Saturday with an order from Mr Justice Sebag Shaw that I must not publish information from a document we had secured from Athens. It was a copy of a report by a London public relations firm, Maurice Fraser and Associates, to their clients, the Greek military junta. The part which interested us was Fraser's claim secretly to have enlisted a British MP to work on behalf of the Greek Government 'behind the scenes in order to influence other British MPs'. I sat through two trials before the order was lifted by the Appeal Court. The cast itself - Fraser v. Evans - was hardly memorable, but it introduced me to the law of confidence which was to be deployed against us on graver matters, including Crossman and Thalidomide, and which remains one of the unique restrictions on the freedom of the press in Britain.
I came to be alert to the danger of the last-minute injunction, sought out of court and without chance of pleading our case. Edward Heath objected in 1977 to a report we were about to make on his connection with the financial company Slater Walker, and he sought a court order at 7 p.m. on a Saturday to stop the presses and have the report removed. His solicitor refused to say where the judge lived in the hope that we would not be able to contest the injunction. We managed to locate the judge, but a Keystone Kops scene thereby ensued with The Sunday Times cars full of lawyers trying to reach the judge's home before Sir Peter Rawlinson, representing Heath, could arrive in his car. Then the judge found he could not hear the application, because it so happened he had a connection with the Royal Yachting Association, which also had a connection with Slater Walker. Then the judge's dog bit Bruce Page of The Sunday Times. And the chase was on to the second duty judge's home, who offered us sherry and refused the injunction.
In 1972, two Scotland Yard detectives came to my office to caution me formally for a prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. We had published a confidential copy of a civil service report to the Minister of Transport advocating the closure of one third of the country's railway system. In the end no charges were brought. It was part of the necessary warfare with a secretive Executive which used, among many other weapons, those of injunction, Parliamentary privilege and contempt. We were sustained by our readers; whatever the story, the sense of embattlement was real when we were not. Our criticisms of Enoch Powell's 'rivers of blood' speech brought thousands of protests. Our massive coverage of Ulster caused political and public offence, and produced political pressures. John Barry and the Insight team in Ulster wrote 50,000 words (and a best-selling book). Other newspapers suggested our reports on torture of internees had been fabricated (the Compton Report corroborated our evidence) and a delegation of Conservative MPs called on me to denounce our coverage as unpatriotic. Roy Thomson was assailed by politicians and others when we attempted difficult and contentious journalism like this. He always had an answer. It was printed on a card he carried in his pocket for twenty-five years. He called it his 'creed':
I can state with the utmost emphasis that no person or group can buy or influence editorial support from any newspaper in the Thomson group. Each paper may perceive this interest in its own way, and will do this without advice, counsel or guidance from the central office of the Thomson Organisation.
I do not believe that a newspaper can be run properly unless its editorial columns are run freely and independently by a highly skilled and dedicated professional journalist. This is and will continue to be my policy.
When anyone protested to Roy Thomson about his newspapers, he would produce his creed or calling-card from his pocket and silence the critic by adding, 'You wouldn't expect me to go back on my word, would ya?' He never did. As he came to own more and more newspapers, he grew more emphatic about editorial independence: 'I still refused to believe that I knew as well as the editors what was best, editorially', he wrote in his 1975 autobiography. 'Apart from being the way that produced the best and most honest newspapers, it was the only sensible way for a man to run as many newspapers as I owned.'
When I first got to know him in 1966, he was seventy-two. The barber's son from Timmins, Ontario, owned scores of small papers in North America when he bought the Scotsman in 1953, but he made the bulk of his fortune after he was sixty. He would arrive at 8.45 a.m. at The Sunday Times offices in Gray's Inn Road, a black Homburg tilted on the back of his head. He wore shiny double-breasted suits with wide-bottomed trousers; he begrudged spending money on clothes: when he was created Baron Thomson of Fleet in 1964, he celebrated by queuing at Burberry for a cashmere coat reduced from £75 to £40. He loved being a lord, and had his coat of arms engraved on the double glass doors at The Sunday Times. He was a creative proprietor: the first colour magazine in British journalism was 'Thomson's Folly' at The Sunday Times and he expanded the paper to 64-page and 72-page issues. Among many enterprises, he began a group of local evening newspapers when everyone said the industry was dying. (They did well at first.) He liked the introduction that Times Newspapers gave him to the great and powerful. Anybody could say anything to him and he felt he could say anything to anyone. He could get away with murder, stopping a lunch of eminent political figures with a risqué joke: 'Say, have you heard this one?' In personal meetings he tried hard to sell banking to Chou En-lai and capitalism to Khrushchev (with whom he got along famously). Balance sheets and budgets were his favourite reading, next to 'who-dunnits', of which he had 3,000. The numbers he was most interested in with me were circulation figures. There was a ritual telephone call every Saturday night. 'How's the run going, Harold?' Then: 'What's the figures?' He liked the challenge that The Sunday Times might one day surpass the circulation of both The Observer and The Sunday Telegraph combined. He grumbled when price rises set us back, but it was good-natured. There was no pressure to seek circulation by any means. He disapproved of sex and violence in newspapers. He had a similar antagonism to trendy hairstyles. Lewis Chester had an Afro hairstyle when he was working on Hoax, our book about the fake Howard Hughes autobiography. To appease Roy, I asked for Chester to be specially shorn for his photograph on the dust-jacket.
In June 1976 we realized his ambition for The Sunday Times. On June the 20th the paper had a sale of 6,000 copies above the combined sale of The Observer and Sunday Telegraph. I could not tell him on the telephone. He was in hospital and I wrote to him there. He died shortly afterwards. His son – called Mr Thomson in Canada and Lord Thomson in Britain – took over and continued his father's tradition. It was five years before Rupert Murdoch succeeded to the company that Roy Thomson founded. On his death I wrote in a leader for The Sunday Times:
Lord Thomson was not a journalist, but he was the best friend journalism ever had. Not many of his editorial colleagues shared his views on numerous issues of the day, such as capital punishment or the role of trade unions. This is one of his contributions to journalism: his willingness, early in his career, not to treat a newspaper he owned as a weapon of personal power or propaganda. But his contributions to journalism were deeper than that. Simply stated, he made good journalism possible and he knew what it was. He chose to detach himself from the editorial conduct of his newspapers and that is often seen as his principal virtue, because there have been too many owners, here and in North America, who have been erratic meddlers with no scruples about the loftier pretensions of journalism. Roy Thomson's distinction is that he created a new kind of ownership. He never once imposed his opinions on The Sunday Times nor, remarkably, ever once sought a single editorial favour for himself, his friends or any of his companies. He was the antithesis of the bully or the manipulator. He was a free trader in ideas and enthusiasms. He was the most uncorrupt and incorruptible of men. But, above all, there was his homely regard for truth, the source of journalism's moral energy and the precept we love and remember him by.
He also believed that the 'social mission' of every great newspaper is to provide 'a home for a large number of salaried eccentrics'. That is not a description anyone would apply to his friend and colleague Charles Denis 'C. D.' Hamilton, my predecessor and editor of The Sunday Times for six years, and my chairman and editor-in-chief of Times Newspapers for fourteen years. Far from eccentric, 'C. D.' appears to be the acme of convention. He has moved all his adult life in exalted circles, the confidant of Field Marshal Montgomery, the friend of Harold Macmillan and of Louis Mountbatten. His dress and style are reminiscent of the younger Anthony Eden, and his manner is altogether restrained and diplomatic. Conversation he seems to regard as a courtesy, something not to be ruffled by argument or opinion. That is the first of many contradictions in him. His aura discourages what he most relishes: the provocations of talent and youth. He recruited and promoted at The Sunday Times an eccentrically varied group of young people and gave them creative freedom. When I arrived in 1966, Godfrey Smith, Michael Rand, Nicholas Tomalin, Peter Wilsher, Ron Hall, Bruce Page, Mark Boxer, Hugo Young, John Barry, Lewis Chester, Charles Raw, Cal McCrystal, Stephen Aris, Hunter Davies, David Leitch and Stephen Fay were already there. Their common denominator was that they were all certain to cock a snook at one convention or another.
The indispensable, elegant Hamilton, as Cyril Connolly described him, comes from a humble background. His father was an engineer in a steelworks and they lived in a terraced house in Middlesbrough, where he went to high school and started work at sixteen as a reporter on theEvening Gazette. His university, he was proud of saying, was the British Army. 'Left right, left, right', he would command me sometimes, encouraging the double-quick marching step of the Durham Light Infantry he had led at Dunkirk. He led the DLI back to Normandy in 1945 and through the charred hedges of the Bessin as the commander of the 11th battalion. He won a DSO for bravery. He was a Colonel at twenty-five and an acting Brigadier. The story goes that he raided other units for the best men. I believe it. He did the same thing in journalism. He was only twenty-eight when Lord Kemsley made him editorial director of the Kemsley group with a seat on the board. Kemsley was editor-in-chief of The Sunday Times and his editor was H. V. (Harry) Hodson, a Fellow of All Souls, whom Hamilton succeeded in the second year of Thomson's acquisition. 'He's a fellow that doesn't display himself', Thomson said of Hamilton, 'but I reckon he's the best man for the job.'
Excerpted from Good Times, Bad Times by Harold Evans. Copyright © 1983 Harold Evans Associates. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One: The Sunday Times and the Crossman Diaries,
Chapter Two: DC-10 Disaster,
Chapter Three: Philby,
Chapter Four: Thalidomide,
Chapter Five: Sale of the Century,
Chapter Six: The Guarantees,
Chapter Seven: Biffen's Missing Millions,
Chapter Eight: The Tenth Proprietor,
Chapter Nine: Questions of Trust,
Chapter Ten: Times Past and Times Present,
Chapter Eleven: First Editions,
Chapter Twelve: The Black Friars,
Chapter Thirteen: Changing The Times,
Chapter Fourteen: Politics and Money,
Chapter Fifteen: Plots,
Chapter Sixteen: The Vanishing Titles,
Chapter Seventeen: The Ides of March,
Principal Sunday Times Books,
What People are Saying About This
“Evans remains one of the great figures of modern journalism.” —The Economist
“Entertaining and important…. The book has caused a stir.” —The New York Times
“Extraordinarily well written. A vivid portrait of what it is like to be the editor of a great daily newspaper.”—Chicago Tribune
“If there is one living editor who has carried the fight against the forces of darkness with [the] most vigour, persistence and brilliance, that man is unquestionably Harold Evans.” —The Independent
“Brilliantly written, sustaining a sweeping power of narrative and packed with pungently witty character sketches that will remind Hazlitt. . . . Compulsory reading for all who wish to estimate the strength of foundations of British democracy.” —The Times Literary Supplement
“Much has been written about Rupert Murdoch by journalists peering in from the outside . . . Good Times, Bad Times is by a journalist who was engaged with Murdoch in a struggle to the death.” —The New Republic
“Fascinating . . . both an uncommonly entertaining tale and an important account of the tribulations of the press in an age of international media barons.” —Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
“It’s a compelling book, a wonderful ‘read’. It is often very funny. It is also about journalism and good stories and editing. . . . One can think of a long list of prime ministers who have done less for publishing liberties in this country than Harold Evans did.” —London Review of Books
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