❚ HOW EXCITING THAT HARRY EVANS can still recount his rows with Rupert Murdoch in 1982 were as if they were “the day before yesterday”. The legendary former editor of The Sunday Times yesterday regaled the Leveson inquiry into British press standards via a video link from New York where he lives. He described one row almost ending in “fisticuffs”.
Murdoch had transferred Evans from The Sunday Times to its daily stablemate, The Times, once he had purchased the UK’s two most important newspapers in 1981. Evans told the inquiry there followed a year of constant editorial interference from Murdoch. Under the headline “Harold Evans tells Leveson of conflict and ‘vindictive’ atmosphere at Times”, today’s Guardian was impressed, 30 years later, that the ex-editor seemed to be “replaying the events as if they had occurred the day before yesterday”.
An insight into why the memories remain so fresh is delivered in an irresistible report elsewhere, at The Daily Beast website, doubly spiced because its editor-in-chief is Sir Harold’s wife, Tina Brown. Amid a blizzard of other Murdoch coverage, we see this headline:
“ Evans described how he and Murdoch “almost came to fisticuffs” when Murdoch disagreed with a story published in The Times by an anti-monetarist writer. Evans resigned after only a year, over what he has long described as disagreements with Murdoch’s editorial interference. “I was disgusted, dismayed, and demoralized,” he said today… The vitriol between the two men has festered ever since Evans’s departure from The Times. ”
Sir Harold might as well have been reading Chapter 15 from the rip-roaring book Good Times Bad Times that he wrote the moment after resigning in 1982 and exiling himself to America soon after. The fireworks turn to warfare in the chapter headed “Plots” when Murdoch is giving Evans a dressing-down at The Times:
“ Murdoch: “Whad d’ya stand for? Nothing! The Times has no convictions.”
Evans writes: I accepted the provocation. I was glad to have it out in the open. I outlined five policy lines…
Then [Murdoch] added acidly: “Of course, I’m not supposed to speak to you like this. I’m supposed to ask the national directors” … [Murdoch] was not looking for debate. He was looking for weapons. ”
Today’s digerati will seldom experience the adrenaline rush produced by such instinctive cut and thrust.† It was survival of the fittest on a daily basis which was the lifeblood of old Fleet Street — or Print as we used to call it.
THE THREE BEST BOOKS FOR UNDERSTANDING
HOW BRITISH JOURNALISM WORKS
➢ Good Times Bad Times
by Harold Evans
The best account ever of the pitiless manners and mores of British newspaper executives and those they serve. The 525-page paperback is a thriller that starts with the Foreword: “Early in 1982, 10 months after he had taken over The Times and The Sunday Times, Rupert Murdoch went to see the prime minister Mrs Thatcher. They shared a problem: it was me.” The book is unputdownable. As my former editor Charles Wintour wrote in his review: “Enthralling… the narrative pace is tremendous… an immediacy and an excitement worthy of le Carré.”
THE HOLLOW LAUGH
➢ Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
A satire so lithely comic that it prompts tears of mirth on almost every page. Though published in 1938, every one of its sublime characters is alive and well and working on national newspapers today. More, the all-too-plausible gaffe on which the entire plot tilts — a dinner-party namedrop sends wrong reporter off to cover a war — is true to the serendipitous decision-making that lands journalists in the least suitable of jobs. The novel’s inspiration was the dynastic rivalry between the best-selling newspapers of their day, the Daily Mail (owned by Lord Northcliffe then his nephew Lord Rothermere) and the Daily Express (Lord Beaverbrook), all fictionalised in the megalomaniac universe of Lord Copper of The Beast and Lord Zinc of The Brute. Most famous line: When Lord Copper was right, [the foreign editor] said: “Definitely, Lord Copper”; when he was wrong: “Up to a point.”
TOOTH AND CLAW
➢ Slip-up: How Fleet Street Found Ronnie Biggs and Scotland Yard Lost Him, by Anthony Delano
Verdict of playwright and columnist Keith Waterhouse: “Perhaps the best analysis of Fleet Street at work ever written.” Every word is true (allegedly) in this preposterous page-turner, starring Fleet Street’s finest, Scotland Yard’s finest, and the Great Train Robber. The sheer guile, grit and ratlike cunning displayed by newsroom hacks from the 14 rival national newspapers is breath-taking as they try to second-guess each other during the manhunt for Ronnie Biggs, the most infamous of the villains who had pulled off what was then the greatest robbery of all time. During his 30-year sentence he escaped from jail. Years later, in 1974, the Daily Express discovered the fugitive in Brazil.
This was the scoop of the century and the 4million-selling Express endeavoured to keep the scoop secret from everybody except Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Slipper, head of the legendary Flying Squad. He was invited to join the hacks in Rio to deliver his best line: “Hello Ronnie. Long time no see.” Then a bombshell exploded. The secrecy of the mission meant nobody had applied for Biggs’s extradition. Fact was: Brazil had no extradition treaty with Britain. Slipper’s humiliation was crowned by the picture stealthily snatched by Mike Brennan of the Daily Mail showing him flying back home asleep beside the empty seat that should have held Biggs. Still, the exclusive Express story had already scooped the world. And Delano’s book became a £1m BBC TV drama in 1988.
➢ The story behind the story of Slip-Up — In a 2008 update, Anthony Delano spilled more beans, as did Keith Waterhouse who scripted the TV version titled The Great Paper Chase.
† historical footnote on the cut v the thrust
➢ Napoleonic Flame War by Richard Marsden — During the late 18th and early 19th century the definition of a proper sword varied from nation to nation. Initially, nations sought to choose the “best” sword for their light and heavy cavalry units so that on the battlefield they would be more effective. Tests and studies were done, data collected and proposals put forth. Somewhere along the line, however, the matter of the cutting sword or thrusting sword became more than one of facts and figures — it became one of national pride.