Harold Evans on Murdoch, sub-editors, copy editors

Anyone who loves newspapers and magazines will enjoy reading My Paper Chase, the memoirs of Harold Evans, whose wife, Tina Brown, edits The Daily Beast.

The son of a railwayman, he became the most famous British newspaper editor of his time. He edited the Sunday Times for more than a decade before being appointed editor of The Times by Rupert Murdoch, who bought the two papers in 1981.

He writes about his early career, his glory days, and how quickly Murdoch turned against him.

He recalls the moment when Murdoch asked for his resignation when he returned to work after his father’s funeral on March 9, 1982:

Murdoch summoned me to his office. He leaned forward in his chair, took off his glasses, and stared at me. “I want your resignation today,” he said. I was astonished at how calm I was… I noticed how red the rim of his left eye was, the thickness of the black hair on the back of his hands. “You cannot have my resignation,” I said. ” I refuse.” I asked what criticisms he had of the paper. “Oh, you’ve done a good job with the paper, sure…” And then he veered… No need for me to worry, I’d get lots of jobs…

As I left… I asked him whom he had in mind for my exit. It was then I learned that he’d suborned my deputy, Charles Douglas-Home. “Can’t bring in another candidate at this stage,” Murdoch said. “He’ll be all right for the time being.”

Back in my office, I confronted Douglas-Home… He replied,“I would do anything to edit The Times. Wouldn’t you?”…

I continued editing and writing.

Murdoch had gone to New York, but his henchmen told the press I’d resigned, when I had not… After a week, besieged outside my house by TV cameramen and reporters, and only when my lawyers were satisfied with the terms, I resigned on ITN’s News at Ten, citing “the differences between me and Mr Murdoch”.

It was March 15. Only later did I recognize the significance of the date. One of the Shakespeare passages my father knew well and liked to declaim was “Beware the ides of March”.

Evans moved to America in 1984, where he held top jobs in various publications and the publisher, Random House.

In his autobiography’s last chapter, tellingly titled My Newfoundland, he writes:

Tina and I now have dual citizenship…

I flew into America on the wings of hope, and it has not let me down.

He writes about how he fell in love with Tina Brown, 25 years his junior, while still married to his first wife, Enid Parker. About how he flew to Spain to see Tina and her parents — and then found he had forgotten to write down their home address.

It all sounds very romantic until one remembers he was cheating on his first wife, a former schoolteacher, whom he had married in his 20s while still a humble sub-editor, or copy editor, with the Manchester Evening News.

That was in the early 1950s, which are vividly recalled here.

Much of the pleasure of the book comes from his descriptions of the newspapers of that era — the offices, the people who worked there, the Linotype machines and hot metal plates used to bring out papers.

Evans loves everything about newspapers. He writes about the first front-page lead story he edited — a three-train crash at Harrow-Wealdstone station, in Greater London, in which 122 people were killed in October 1952.

What sub-editors or copy editors do

He vividly describes the work he had to do as a sub-editor — or what Americans call a copy editor:

Everyone knows what reporters do — collect information and write it up in a “story”, whereupon it becomes “copy”. But nothing reporters write gets into a newspaper without passing through the hands of the subs, the hidden impresarios of news. Subs take pride in translating the complex into the comprehensible, in making sense of conflicting information from divergent sources, in making sure the story fits the space allotted to it, and in writing read-this-or-die headlines. In the first stage of the process, text goes to a sub designated to assess the worth of every story from everywhere — from staff reporters, freelance reporters, above all the news agencies, notably the Associated Press in the United States and the Press Association in Britain…

In British parlance the sub who filters the copy is called the “copy taster”, for he must have a palate sensitive enough to differentiate instantly between the fresh and the stale. He will skim maybe 100,000 words in an hour to make a preliminary selection of the best stories. In those days, he impaled the discards on a basic tool of his trade, a sharp metal spike. Nowadays the term “spiked” means that a story has gone into electronic trash.

The copy taster passes his selected stories to the chief subeditor, a Chinese tailor of page design. He fashions page layouts to express a range of priorities and distributes the copy to his gang of subeditors with instructions as to the story length and headline size and style…

The good sub is an artist in economy. The news feed that unedited would make a full column of space is often enough rendered in half that space without losing a single relevant fact or sacrificing good writing… To be described as a “tight sub” in Britain is a high compliment…

All this editing and checking has to be done with an eye on the clock. Kipling biographer and essayist Edward Shanks put it well: “Sub-editors, when I meet them, seem to have only two eyes just like other people; where they keep the other two I cannot say, but I know they must have them.” These unlikely supermen may not be very good writers; they may have been undistinguished reporters. The skills are just different. When I arrived at the Manchester Evening News, they were still talking about a young man before me who’d flopped as a reporter. He was too shy to go out into the city and ask questions of people he had never met before. I knew the feeling. He pleaded that instead of being fired, he should be given a chance in the subs room, and from there his rise had been meteoric: copy taster; chief subeditor; editor in chief; joint managing director of the whole company; wartime editor in chief of the BBC; director general; and, finally, Sir William Haley, the much feared editor of The Times, who thundered about moral issues and replaced the classic first of classified advertising with front-page news.

Evans worked as a sub-editor as well as a reporter before becoming editor of the Northern Echo, from where he went on be managing editor — and then editor — of the Sunday Times. He recalls the perks of the job:

I’d started this national editorship in January 1967, feeling very much like an impostor as I was driven by a chauffeur to Grays Inn Road and the grand office where (Denis) Hamilton in the spring of 1965 had first broached my joining him. I’d barely got used to being managing editor. Now I’d taken his place at the helm, and he’d moved across a bridge to the Times offices (as editor in chief and chief executive).

The newspapers are no longer on Grays Inn Road. Murdoch moved them out following the industrial disputes that forced their previous owners, the Thomson family, to sell them to him. The Thomsons now own Thomson Reuters, a much bigger media organization.

Evans sadly recalls the disputes that forced the Times and the Sunday Times to shut down for a year from the end of November 1978. (See the Sunday Times history.)

Murdoch did the right thing by coming down on the unions and relocating the newspapers, he says.

This is a book news junkies will love.


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