Open Conversation

Sir Harold Evans: ‘The decline of the printed newspaper is a great loss for English’

Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is an Open contributor
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Former editor of The Sunday Times and author of, most recently, Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters

SIR HAROLD EVANS is pushing 88. He walks with a slight stutter of the feet—prudently slowly, I’d say—and doesn’t hear as well as he did when I first met him 20 years ago. In fact, conversation with him consists of a certain amount of shouting, but one is inclined, after a few minutes, to ascribe the din to his infectious enthusiasm. His blue eyes still sparkle as brightly as a boy’s, and his appetite for news and debate is really quite ravenous. He is editor at large at Reuters, which translates, in real life, to his being a sort of presiding deity at a news organisation that he strives very hard to make less staid. (Full disclosure: my stepdaughter works with him. She is part of a team that brings ‘newsmakers’ and other people of consequence to colloquiums at Reuters at which Sir Harry plays the role of sage and worldly host.)

Although Evans last edited a newspaper in 1982—the year in which he left The Times (of London) after differences with its owner, Rupert Murdoch—it is impossible to think of him as anything other than a newspaperman. He is widely regarded as having been the finest British newspaper editor of the 20th century. This sounds hyperbolical, but it really is true, and not merely because so much of the competition has consisted of liars and scoundrels. There hasn’t ever been a better paper in Britain than The Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981, when Evans was at the helm.

In the years since our first meeting in 1997, Evans and I have been friends. I have never had the chance to work for him, but his wife, Tina Brown—a giant of journalism in her own right—was my boss when I edited Newsweek International (in 2011 and 2012). So, I concede that when I went to visit him at his home in Manhattan earlier this month, it was in a spirit of fondness and admiration. We had ham sandwiches for lunch, and a pot of English tea so strong that it made me sit bolt upright; and we spent an hour and a half chatting about his life and the state of journalism, and also about his latest book, called Do I make Myself Clear?—subtitled Why Writing Well Matters.

This is a book that manages to be impish and instructive at the same time. Matthew Engel, reviewing it for the Financial Times, described it as ‘very American,’ by which he meant—I suspect—that it set out to improve its readers. There is certainly an edifying quality to the book, as Engel suggests, but it is prescriptive without being preachy. It is not a donnish book, but is, instead, an attempt to wrestle written English away from the clutches of pedants and language-maulers—especially those in the government, the law, the insurance business and the academy—who have fogged up the language and made it impenetrable. If I had to sum up the aim of this book in a sentence, I’d say that Evans goes to righteous war on behalf of linguistic clarity. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

So, Harry, you’re not a grammar purist?

No. Not at all. Absolutely not. I remember sitting in my own English classes at school 70 years ago and being frightened, thinking, ‘Is this grammatically correct?’ Of course, as a native speaker, I started with a language super-structure I didn’t realise I had. So, I’m not a grammar purist. But obviously, I like the tenses to agree and things like that, because the meaning is not going to be clear if you mix them up.

You’d like people to be aware of grammar’s existence but not imprisoned by it.

Yes, not bullied by it. I could see how you could fall in love with the architecture of grammar, so I’m not hostile to it. I’m just wary of grammarians because I have a certain natural immunity to the didactic stuff. But I’m not going to say, ‘If I was better than X’ instead of ‘If I were better than X.’ The ‘were’ emphasises that I’m not better. I’m not against that or other elementary things like ‘it’s’, where the apostrophe indicates that there’s an ‘I’ missing. If that is grammar, I’m all for it. I’m for all these sorts of things.

For me, the important questions are, what’s most conducive to clarity? A deep concern with grammar? Or knowing the vocabulary, or the sentence structure that would help to make meaning clear? My approach emphasises clarity in language, without being straitjacketed by grammar in a way that harms expressiveness. I loved Bernard Levin, the great Times columnist. He got the balance right.

What a wonderful writer he was…

I saw him last year. He has Alzheimer’s. It’s a hideously diabolical injustice. I went up to him and resumed the normal conversations that we once had because I spoke to him endlessly about his pieces. And he looked at me and I knew he didn’t recognise me. Now there’s a guy who was a master. He may have been on a high-wire with his 160-word sentences, where all I got as an editor was one full stop. But he was in command of the syntax, and he could put meaning ahead of technical grammar.

I’d love to talk about newspapers. Your own contact with the English language has come primarily through newspapers. Have papers been a force for good in English?

Oh yes, absolutely. I think the decline of the printed newspaper is a great loss for English. Because in the first place, the most primitive requirement— going back many years—is to reconcile what you want to say in the space in which it has to be said. So, wordcount is a great constraint in newspaper English. That technically imposed restraint on the space, and the need to be concise was very important. It remains so to some extent, but is not as central as it was because you can go all over the place on the Web.

Mrs Gandhi sent in the Indian Army [to East Pakistan], as you know. And then when I had lunch with her a year or so later, she said, ‘Your article in The Sunday Times made me do that. That’s why I sent in the Army, because I’d read the story of the massacre’

Secondly, I think that the other imperative of news was making it clear and understandable. You’re not writing to your grandmother or your lover. You’re writing for a mass audience, you hope. Therefore, you want words that are in common use. So, as you write, you ask, is that in everybody’s vocabulary? Newspapers have always had to have a common language. And obviously, we don’t have a common language for many scientific and technical things. But the influence of newspapers meant that we had to explain them. What is a chip? Or what is a gene?

Also, in terms of the things I’ve written about in my book, newspapers demand active voices and sentences, most of all in headline-writing. I think all of those factors—the inquiring mind, the need for expression, a common vocabulary and understanding— were hugely influential on the English language. Northcliffe, who began publishing The Daily Mail at the end of the 19th century, wanted it to be readable by a 12 year old, and certainly by people who might have left school at 15. So, people of my generation were ideal. My working-class father, who was an extraordinary intelligent guy, always took The Daily Express.

Was that the first newspaper you read, The Daily Express?

Yes, The Sunday Empire News and The Daily Express. Those were the ones which came into our household in Manchester in the 1930s, and The Daily Mirror kind of followed as my father was interested in some sport or other.

England was deeply class- conscious when you were a boy. It’s not that way anymore.

Not at all. But when I took over as editor of The Times [in 1981], there were probably, ten, twenty, thirty people there who thought that nobody from Durham University—where I was educated—could possibly edit The Times. It had to be Oxbridge. In fact, one of the funny things is that Hugh Trevor Roper… Lord Dacre… who was on the board of directors, argued against my appointment as editor of The Times. He said Charlie Douglas-Home was more academic. Well, Charlie wasn’t academic at all. In fact, in terms of education, mine is much deeper than his. [Douglas-Home, an old Etonian, served as Evans’ deputy and succeeded him as editor.]

When I left The Times in 1982, the first thing I bought was a Philips computer. And I wrote my book Good Times, Bad Times on that computer. I think I was the first one to use that system. I was certainly the first one to lose 5,000 words by hitting the wrong key. I remember going in the garden after I’d just written a huge chunk on the history of the paper, and I pressed a key and it all vanished. I had to rewrite the whole thing.

Nehru asked me what I could do to help the Indian press be more understandable. The Indian newspapers were writing as though the British still ran the country. Their language was all wrong for independent India, and they used phrases like ‘fissiparous tendencies’

Can we talk about India? I believe you met Nehru when you were a young man.

It was, I think, around 1949 or 1950. I was standing in the garden at Nehru’s house. He was there and I was there. He was such a charming man. I was with the Manchester Evening News and was in India with a group of Western newspaper journalists and technicians, visiting a number of Indian publishing houses to help them with editing, story ideas, headlines, layouts, how to save newsprint, and almost everything else. Nehru asked me what I could do to help the Indian press be more understandable. The Indian newspapers at the time were writing as though the British still ran the country. Their language was all wrong for independent India, and they used phrases like ‘fissiparous tendencies.’

‘We’ve got to get them to have language that relates to the people,’ Nehru said to us. I was about 30, and was a leader writer at my paper. I spent the afternoons in Manchester subbing and the mornings writing editorials. On that visit to India, I worked with Amitabha Chowdhury, who was a Bengali investigative journalist, as well as with Chanchal Sarkar, who became quite a serious figure in Indian journalism. There was also Serajuddin Hossain, a reporter from East Pakistan, who wanted to introduce investigative journalism to Dacca, as it then was. They all became important figures in the International Press Institute. Hossain was later killed by militia supporting the Pakistani Army [in December 1971].

Speaking of East Pakistan—or Bangladesh—I’d love to talk about Anthony Mascarenhas. He broke the story of the horrors there in your newspaper.

Oh, sure. He was Pakistani, not Indian. But Goan. That’s an inspiring story, if ever there was one. A brave, literate man.

Frank Giles, the deputy editor of The Sunday Times, came into my office and said, ‘Would you meet Anthony Mascarenhas, a Pakistani stringer for us?’ Giles said he had a story about what was happening in East Pakistan. Giles said, ‘It’s almost unbelievable, he’s talking about the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people.’ So, I saw him, and I thought immediately, this man tells the truth. I said to him, ‘Make arrangements for your family to get out of Pakistan, in the light of what you’re telling me is happening, and is likely to happen there.’

We financed Mascarenhas going back. He duly sent us a cable saying that ‘the apples were on the way,’ which meant that his wife had escaped. His wife walked over the mountains.

When Mascarenhas’s story arrived about what was going on in East Pakistan, it was absolutely mind-blowing. We made it a double-page spread with the word ‘Genocide’ across the top [on June 12, 1971]. But The New York Times wouldn’t touch it. They wouldn’t even go near the story. Much to my rage. I wrote to them and said this is a major, major happening, and you’ve got to come in on this story. But they didn’t. It was very, very dozy on many stories.

For the British tabloids, in reporting, facts don’t matter. And I think you can find instances of that in America, but by and large, there’s nothing quite so gross as a Murdoch tabloid, or as The Daily Mail, in terms of any aversion to accuracy and fairness

Mrs Gandhi sent in the Indian Army, as you know. And then when I had lunch with her a year or so later, she said, ‘Your article in The Sunday Times made me do that. That’s why I sent in the Army, because I’d read the story of the massacre.’ I thought maybe she’s being disingenuous, that she wanted an excuse to intervene. Or maybe it was a genuine incitement for her to do what she’d already wanted to do. I don’t know. But she certainly made it clear that The Sunday Times story was crucial.

Anthony Mascarenhas has died since then. He was a wonderful man. When I sent him, I said I cannot give you a job on The Sunday Times, I’m just making it clear now. This is a story. I want the story. I don’t want you as a staff member. Of course, you know the other story he got… He got the story of the theft of the atomic bomb by Dr Khan.

AQ Khan, yes…

A bloody monster who helped to make the world a more dangerous place. Is he alive still, that monster?

Yes.

Ugh. When you think of the mischief he’s caused…the bomb, in Pakistan, which is probably the most dangerous bloody country in the world. But enough of that.

Let’s return to your book. Who’s your intended readership?

Well, journalists. Civil servants. Everybody who deals with insurance policies and things like that. It’s very wide. And it’s meant for writers. I have a section, ‘Ten Shortcuts to Making Yourself Clear,’ that should help. You should ration adjectives, raze adverbs, cut fat, be positive in your voice, and so forth.

What about academics? My view, having spent time in the academic world, is that more damage has been done to the English language by academics than by almost anyone else.

That’s what I think, too. When I was at the University of Chicago as a post-graduate student, I was writing stuff and they’d publish it, but make it much more complex and less understandable. They feared the directness of my language.

I still have my papers from Chicago, in political philosophy. Alongside my essay on how the gas bill went through the British Parliament, my professor marked ’J, J, J,’ for journalese, journalese, journalese. ‘Some of it was quite attractive,’ he said, ‘but anyway, I’ve marked the whole thing, J, J, J.’ And I had actually explained what the bill was about!

Some profound differences existed between British and American journalism at the time when you were a newspaper editor. Would you say that those differences still persist?

Yes, definitely. For the British tabloids, in reporting, facts don’t matter. And I think you can find instances of that in America, but by and large, there’s nothing quite so gross as a Murdoch tabloid, or as The Daily Mail, in terms of any aversion to accuracy and fairness. Even when I was growing up on tabloids, and when I was asked to edit The Daily Mirror at one stage, the atmosphere was completely different. It wasn’t so venomous. I blame Murdoch for most of that. He lowered the scale. And then Paul Dacre of the Mail, in my view, also enhanced the corruption. Is it even possible to enhance corruption?

How do you explain the triumph of the tabloid tendency in Britain?

I think Murdoch is the main instigator. His influence should not be underestimated because it’s there. It’s manifest in the papers, in what they choose to regard as important, and the attitude which came through in the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and hacking by the tabloids.

Murdoch’s influence also manifests itself in the personality sense, and if you want to get on in those papers or in that organisation— one of the largest media organisations in the world—there are certain things you have to beware of. Such as the predilections and prejudices of the employer, and the capacity for vindictiveness. The whole bloody thing churns on the will of the proprietor.

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