Suditi Jindal, an Indian student at MA in Creative Writing, Durham University, explores the link of legendary journalist Sir Harold Evans with Durham University. Suditi following the footsteps of Mancunian Harry for Asian Lite News
What new can I write about the legendary figure of journalism, Sir Harold Evans, who has been immortalised in many columns of newsprint across the globe? I was able to wriggle out of the quandary, by paying heed to the brief given by my editor. He wanted me to explore the Durham connection with the stalwart. As I did my research on Evans, I found out that he had attended the same college as I have, University College, during his stint in Durham University.
In his book ‘My Paper Chase’, Evans talks about being enamoured by the Castle and the Cathedral. He throws around the names of places familiar to me, ‘The Great Hall’, ‘Palace Greens’, ‘Norman Gallery’, ‘Fellows’ Garden’, and the like, in his narrative recounting his days spent at Durham. However, the similarity and the familiarity do not end there. Evans also talks about the distinct emotions invoked by the place and its people.
The long hours spent in sharing notes about life with fellows under the steady gaze of statuesque buildings, had enriched his experience and knowledge, as mine. Mr Evans has conceded that Durham University enabled him to interact with peers from different backgrounds. The varied perspectives on the same subjects peculiar to each learner, shaped an informed opinion in him. This desire for a well-informed and balanced view on events fueled Evans during his journalistic campaigns. He has displayed unrelenting quest for knowledge on an issue from all quarters, and not being satisfied with the official account of occurrences.
Mr Evans has recounted his bewilderment with the gap in reportage and reality when he was as young as twelve. On his family vacation to Rhyl, he was introduced to the flawed reporting in the newspapers of the day of the enthusiasm in the British troops returning from First World War. The newspapers mispresented the retreat and evacuations of British troops as a victory and misled the readers. The memories of the incident coupled with his informal talks with his friends at Durham, shaped Evans approach to cover a news from all angles while working for the numerous, big and small, newspapers and sensitive issues like thalidomide children and pardon of Timothy Evans. In a documentary, ‘Attacking the Devil’ which has Evans talking to a group of keen attendees at a seminar in the Senate Suite at Durham Castle, he elucidates modifying his journalistic approach in the thalidomide children case. As the case was protected by a gag-order by being still under consideration in the court, Evans decided to launch a moral campaign in The Sunday Times. His team recounts the campaign being multi-pronged with focus on the legal battle of the victims, the investigations into the drug and its side-effects, and the emotional angle of the families affected by the drug.
The influence of Durham on Mr Evans’ personality finds another expression. Being a native of the North of England, Evans grew up in the working-class society of Manchester. Both his parents were sensitive and responsible citizens. This sense of responsibility as ‘a good neighbour’ was reinforced in Evans as he studied in the small and close-knit community of Durham University. The University is strongly connected even today, and nurtures ideals of inclusivity and sharing which it had passed on to Evans. Evans has projected this extreme sense of responsibility while wielding the power to mould public opinion through his journalism. His unrelenting campaigns on social issues stand as a proof of it. In the documentary ‘Attacking the Devil’, an afflicted parent in the thalidomide tragedy has concurred that Evans’ compassion, generosity and sensitivity were the crucial elements of the crusade.
In addition to the human thread, technical finesse in Evans’ journalistic fabric was also honed at Durham University. Evans was the editor of ‘Palantinate’, the official Durham student newspaper. He honed his skills of holding a motivated team together while working for Palantinate. Evans recounts in ‘My Paper Chase’ being apprised of the dwindled finances and circulation of the paper as soon as he became the editor. Instead of succumbing to pressure from the financers to trim down the pages of the paper thereby reducing the price of the journal, Evans suggested increasing the pages and the price. He was not prepared to ‘offer more for less’.
Mr Evans even rejected the proposal to seek a subsidy in order to keep his reportage independent. Evans held on to his principle of free press throughout his journalistic outings. He has been one of the front-runners in advocating the freedom of the press. Evans’ career at The Sunday Times speaks volumes about his goal to liberate the press in one of the most repressive democracies of those times, in the west. While working at Palantinate, Evans also developed the skills to discern the news that would interest his readers. He learned the art to be persuasive with his peers and recruit the capable ones to supply fodder for his newspaper. Evans has displayed reliance on these skills of team-building throughout his print campaigns. His famous multi-pronged approach to create awareness on issues has borne exemplary success because of his team of journalists, working with unfailing vigour and enthusiasm.
The bond between Durham University and Sir Harold Evans has grown stronger over the years. Evans’ love for the town of Durham with its picturesque scenery, has left deep foot-prints in many an endeavour of his life. While working as the editor of a newspaper in Darlington in the early days of his career, Evans organised a sound and light show at Durham Cathedral, to celebrate its imposing majesty. Michelle Hippell an author who met Mr Evans while writing a book shares an interesting anecdote about Mr Evans’ fascination with the cathedral. Hippell recounts that after he presented Evans with a hand-drawn picture of the cathedral and a stone from it, the latter was drawn to spend an extra hour having ‘a proper chat’ with him. Evans has returned to Durham University time and again: parts of the award-winning documentary on thalidomide victims were filmed here and as recently as October 2016, Evans talked to students and staff of the University about his days at Durham and also his journey in the world of journalism.
The picturesque town of Durham and the Cathedral have been referred to as ‘the most inspiring single scene of my life’ by Sir Harold Evans. This in itself is proof enough of the bond between the journalist and the first step of his outstanding journey.