Legendary British newspaperman Harold Evans is the only person ever to serve as editor at both the Sunday Times and The Times of London. At those and other papers he practiced a brand of investigative journalism that uncovered injustice and exposed secrets. And ever the optimist, Evans still believes in the power of newspapers. The following is an excerpt of his new memoir "My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times."
The most exciting sound in the world for me as a boy was the slow whoosh- whoosh of the big steam engine leaving Manchester Exchange station for Rhyl in North Wales. Every year as summer neared I counted the days to when the whole family — six of us then — would escape the bleakness of northern winters, taking the train for a week at the seaside, buckets and spades in hand.
I was nearly twelve the summer I saw the bodies of the soldiers scattered about the sands.
The soldiers were so still, their clothing so torn, their facesso pale, they looked as if they had died where they fell. And yet they had escaped death, unlike thousands of their comrades left on the battlegrounds of northern France; thousands more were on their way to years in German internment camps. The men I saw were the lucky ones, a few hundred of the 198,229 of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) who just days before in May–June 1940 had fought their way to Dunkirk. Twenty- four hours before we saw them, they had been on that other beach, being hammered from the air by Stuka dive- bombers, strafed by the machine guns of Messerschmitts, rescue ships ablaze offshore, and every hour the German panzers closing the ring. They were a forlorn group, unshaven, some in remnants of uniforms, some in makeshift outfits of pajamas and sweaters, not a hat between them, lying apart from the rows of deck chairs and the Punch- and- Judy show and the pier and the ice- cream stands. Most of the men who were evacuated had been sent to bases and hospitals in the south of England, but several thousand had been put on trains to seaside resorts in North Wales, where there were army camps and spare beds in the boardinghouses. The bulk of the men sprawled on the Rhyl beach were members of the Royal Corps of Signals attached to artillery regiments; some sixty- four officers and twenty- five hundred other ranks had been sent to the Second Signal Training Center at Prestatyn, which shared six miles of sand with Rhyl.
When we set out for the family holiday, we had no idea that survivors of Dunkirk had just arrived in Rhyl. Nobody in Mrs. McCann’s redbrick boardinghouse on the front said anything about the arrivals; they didn’t know, and wartime censorship didn’t encourage people to talk anyway. Our first day on the beach I bullied my younger brothers — ten, four, and going on two — into helping me build a huge wall of sand to keep out the advancing Irish Sea, while Mum sat in a deck chair knitting and Dad read the newspaper. My father, a steam train driver, had worn himself out taking munitions trains through the blackness of wartime Britain, but he could never sit in a deck chair for long. He would inhale the salt air for ten minutes, then declare we should swim, kick a soccer ball, or join an impromptu beach cricket match. The next bright morning, when I hoped to build a bigger, better sand wall, Dad was restive again. He suggested we should all go for a brisk walk along the sands to work up an appetite for Mrs. McCann’s lunch. My mother and brothers preferred to idle by the paddling pool, so with ill grace I fell in beside him. Not only could he not sit still for long, he was compulsively gregarious. Everyone else on the beach was getting on with their seaside relief from factory shifts and holding a family together in the stress of war. To my frustration, when we had gone beyond the pier, Dad saw these sprawling clumps of men, isolated from the holiday crowds, and he walked along to find out who they were. I can see him now squatting among them, offering a cigarette here and there. At thirty- nine, he must have been several years older than most of them, but you would never have known it,so weary and haggard were they. I was always embarrassed by Dad’s readiness to strike up conversations with strangers, but Dad moved among the groups of soldiers most of the morning, and I tagged along.
We had been encouraged to celebrate Dunkirk as some kind of victory. A Daily Mirror front page I’d seen pinned up in our boardinghouse had the headline “Bloody Marvellous!” How was it, then, Dad found nothing marvelous, only dejection, as he moved among the men?
Only two years later, when my ambitions to be a newspaper reporter flowered, did I understand that Dad was doing what a good reporter would do: asking questions, listening. It never occurred to me to take a note and write it up in my diary, but to this day I remember the sadness of the soldiers who had seen such havoc on that other beach and who knew, too, that they owed their lives to the countless acts of heroism of the rear guard who fought to the last man to keep the escape corridor open.
“They said they had nothing to fight with,” Dad told everyone back in the dining room that lunchtime. The men were not triumphant, he explained, as they were said to be — they were bewildered, bitter that the Maginot Line had proved useless because the Germans had bypassed it by coming through Belgium, bitter with the French Army, bitter with the Royal Air Force (RAF) they felt had left them so exposed to the German Luftwaffe as they lined up on the beach and scrambled for the shallow- draft boats that would take them to the bigger ships. (The histories suggest that the French and the RAF both performed better than it seemed at the time, but misperceptions are the common currency of war.) The newspapers we’d seen had given the impression that the survivors couldn’t wait to get back into battle to avenge their defeat. Maybe thousands were, but not those prostrate on the Rhyl beach or the dispirited men who, according to the historian Richard Collier in his 1961 history of Dunkirk, flung their rifles away after landing at Dover.
Dad’s account of the mood of the men compared well with the national archives records I checked years later. “We didn’t deserve the cheers,” said Albert Powell, a truck driver, of their reception after they landed in Ramsgate before entraining for Rhyl. Bert Meakin, a gunner with the Fifty- first Medium Regiment, was critical of the weapons they’d been given to hold back the Germans: “First world war 6- inch howitzers on iron wheels, pretty useless really!” His group fought south of the Somme, then were told it was every man for himself; they abandoned the howitzers in the woods. He arrived in Rhyl with a seven- day leave warrant but without a penny. Powell, a Royal Signals truck driver attached to Third Corps Medium Artillery, got to La Panne on foot. “On the beaches,” he recalled, “we huddled together in the sand dunes for protection from the constant bombing and machine gunning from the air. The bombing was ineffectual, just blowing up loads of sand, but the machine gunning was another matter.” Once Powell reached a boat, it was swamped by a dive- bomber’s near miss, and he was flung into the sea. He swam fifty yards, “arrived at the ship completely knackered and found myself hauled aboard.”
Looking back on my boyhood snapshot memory of the difference between what I read and what I saw, I often wondered whether Dad and I were overly impressed with a firsthand experience and hadn’t seen the woods for the trees. Dad talked, after all, to a tiny fraction of the evacuated soldiers (and surely, newspaper reporters would have talked to hundreds). So it was interesting to learn later that Winston Churchill got so worried at the presentation of the retreat as a triumph, he felt it necessary to remind everyone that “wars are not won by evacuations.” Even more illuminating on the role of the press was Phillip Knightley’s authoritative account of war reporting in his book The First Casualty, first published in 1975. Of Dunkirk he wrote, “Above all, the stories stressed the high morale of the evacuated troops, itching to get back to France and into the fight again. It was not until the late 1950’s and early 1960’ s — nearly twenty years after the event — that a fuller, truer picture of Dunkirk began to emerge.” Alexander Werth, the Manchester Guardian correspondent, confessed that after the fall of France he felt guilty at the “soft soap” he had been giving his readers.
The discordance between the waterfront and the front pages was bewildering, the first vague stirring of doubt about my untutored trust in newspapers. As a kid in short pants, I had hardly followed the events of the 1930s with the avidity with which I later read the histories, but I remember how troubled my father was on September 3, 1939, when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany. It was so contrary to what we had been insistently told by the Daily Express, the newspaper my parents took at home. The paper had reassured its millions of readers that there would be no war with this front- page slogan: “The Daily Express declares that Britain will not be involved in a European War this year, next year either.” Everyone believed it. And why not? The Express was a brilliant broadsheet with a circulation of three million and a huge secondary readership. Most British homes were reached by one of the bigger newspapers: in 1939 some thirteen million read the Express newspapers, the Daily Mirror, the News of the World, or People, an audience that by 1948 reached twenty- two million. Newspapers played a crucial role in shaping public perceptions. As the social historian Richard Hoggart noted in his study of the working class at this time, people often used to say as evidence of disputed truth, “Oh, but it was in the papers.”
But what if you couldn’t trust a newspaper to tell the truth and nothing but the truth? Which institution was more trustworthy, the state or the press? Later in adulthood, it was easier to understand how predictive headlines could turn out to be wrong than to reconcile what we experienced in Rhyl with the emphasis in what we read as fact. How did newspapers come to conclusions? Were they acting at the request of government? Was there a deliberate and widespread gloss on Dunkirk? Would that have been justified as a means of sustaining the nation’s morale at a crucial time? Should newspapers take account of such imperatives or just report things as they saw them? How did a newspaper decide these things?
Such questions still resonate with me after a lifetime in newspapers. There have been many times when I have found that what was presented as truth did not square with what I discovered as a reporter or, later as an editor, learned from good shoe- leather reporters. It was not so much that deliberate lies were told, though they sometimes were, and not always to conceal a villainy. “In wartime,” Churchill remarked, “truth is so precious that she should be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” We all understand in an age of terrorism that refraining from exposing a lie may be necessary for the protection of innocents. But “national interest” is an elastic concept that if stretched can snap with a sting. When, in the early 1970s, the Sunday Times began reporting the anger building among the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, a group of Conservative members of Parliament (MPs) invoked the national interest to demand that we stop. They came to tell me, as the paper’s editor, that it was “treasonable” to continue. Actually, the real offense was failing to give Northern Ireland full attention in the early 1960s, when the violence was incubated.
A more common issue than outright lying is that people of good faith resent facts that run contrary to their beliefs and assumptions. The nineteenth- century American humorist Josh Billings said it best: “It ain’t ignorance that causes all the trouble in this world. It’s the things people know that ain’t so.” No institution has a monopoly of vice in these matters — not governments, trade unions, company heads, lawyers, academia, or the press. In what came to be known as the thalidomide affair in Britain, children were born with deformities — a shortened arm, or no arm at all, or no leg, or completely limbless — because the mothers had taken a prenatal drug prescribed by the National Health Service. They were left to endure their ordeal without help or compensation, a shocking situation that persisted for a decade because the government and the lawyers representing the families assumed that the children had been the victims of an unforeseeable disaster. The lawyers sincerely believed they were making the best of a bad case, but the argument for adequate compensation, properly investigated by the Sunday Times, was overwhelming. Revealing it brought furious lawsuits, led by the government of the day, with the attorney general accusing me and the newspaper of contempt of court,punishable by a jail sentence.
Independent reporting has a history of provoking denunciation. Take the legend that “unpatriotic” reporters lost Vietnam. It doesn’t stand up to serious examination. Print and TV journalists supportively reported the war in the context of cold war ideology: they wanted the United States to win. What maddened them were the little deceptions of the U.S. government, the hubris of its generals, the corrupt incompetence of the South Vietnamese establishment, and the way the political military bureaucracy deceived itself into telling Washington what it wanted to hear. The corrective correspondents did a real service, and too many of them were killed doing it. Similarly, early in the Iraq War, the George W. Bush administration charged that the reporters on the ground were being lazy, foolish, cowardly, and unpatriotic for reporting that the country was on a vicious downward spiral. It was. The administration deceived itself, and no good came of that. Indeed, a more accurate charge against the press on Iraq would be that it hadn’t been patriotic enough before the war began. Faced with a secretive administration bent on war come what may and a popular clamor for post- 9/11 revenge, the press forsook its true function. The real national interest required the most searching examination of the reasons for sending thousands of people to their deaths, and it did not get it.
The epiphany on Rhyl beach shook my faith in the printed word, but it did not make me averse to newspapers. On the contrary, as I entered my teens, I grew ever more eager to involve myself in their mysteries. Newspapers were clearly more important and more fascinating than I had imagined, reporting more than a matter of stenography. But how was I to become a reporter and learn the newspaper trade? I was a working- class boy who had already been branded a failure, having failed to qualify for grammar school (the English equivalent, roughly, of American high school). Was I reaching too far? Was I really fit for the work? What were the pitfalls, the ethical dilemmas, and the traps I could barely imagine? How could I equip myself to decode the complex, ever- changing, thrillingly dynamic mosaic of live news and bring it to the public with the raw integrity of truth?
So began my paper chase.
This program aired on December 4, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.