Sir Harold Evans death: Thalidomide campaigners pay tribute to journalist

Thalidomide campaigners have paid tribute to investigative journalist Sir Harold Evans, who has died aged 92.

The British-American journalist, who led an investigation into the drug, died of heart failure in New York, his wife Tina Brown said.

David Mason, whose daughter Louise Medus-Mansell was a Thalidomide victim, said Sir Harold played a “pivotal” role in securing compensation for survivors.

Sir Harold oversaw many campaigns as editor of the Sunday Times.

His 70-year career also saw him work as a magazine founder, book publisher, author and, at the time of his death, Reuters’ editor-at-large.

Sir Harold’s Thalidomide campaign was launched in 1972 and eventually forced the UK manufacturer, Distillers Company – at the time the Sunday Times’s biggest advertiser – to increase the compensation received by victims.

Thalidomide, which first appeared in the UK in 1958, was prescribed to expectant mothers to control the symptoms of morning sickness.

However, hundreds of these mothers in Britain, and many thousands across the world, gave birth to children with missing limbs, deformed hearts, blindness and other problems.

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David Mason’s daughter, Mrs Medus-Mansell, was born without arms and legs after her mother was prescribed Thalidomide during pregnancy.

Mr Mason told the BBC his first meeting with Sir Harold was “pivotal” to his campaign to secure further compensation for his daughter and other survivors.

“I’d been fighting this campaign for many years before meeting Harry, but the idea of the press campaign, and bringing public awareness to my campaign, was absolutely vital,” he said.

“There’s no doubt that without Harry’s expertise, involvement and leadership with that, I would not have won the Thalidomide campaign.

“Week on week he was bashing Distillers, and brought about tremendous national coverage, and tremendous sympathy for the victims of Thalidomide, which helped me enormously.”

He added that Sir Harold was a “wonderful campaigning journalist, and a thoroughly nice man, very popular with everybody. He really was invaluable and I’ll miss him greatly.”

Mrs Medus-Mansell, who also campaigned for the rights of Thalidomide victims, died aged 56 in 2018 after years of poor health.

Glen Harrison, a Thalidomide survivor and deputy chairman of the campaign group Thalidomide UK, also paid tribute following Sir Harold’s death. He described him as “an outstanding human being for our cause”.

In addition to helping to secure extra compensation for victims, Sir Harold fought a legal injunction to stop the Sunday Times from revealing the drug’s developers had not gone through the proper testing procedures.

Speaking about his campaigning in a 2010 interview with the Independent, Sir Harold said: “I tried to do – all I hoped to do – was to shed a little light. And if that light grew weeds, we’d have to try and pull them up.”

What is Thalidomide?

  • Thalidomide was developed by German pharmaceutical company Grunenthal
  • It was launched on 1 October 1957
  • First marketed as a sedative, it was then given to pregnant women to combat morning sickness
  • As many as 10,000 babies of these women were born worldwide with deformities

After 14 years as editor of the Sunday Times, Sir Harold went on to become the founding editor of Conde Nast Traveller magazine and later president of the publishing giant, Random House.

One of Britain and America’s best-known journalists, Sir Harold also wrote several books about the press and in 2003 was given a knighthood for his services to journalism.

A year earlier, a poll by the Press Gazette and the British Journalism Review named him the greatest newspaper editor of all time.

Author and editor Tina Brown said on Twitter that her husband was “the most magical of men” and had been “my soulmate for 39 years”.

Sir Harold forged his reputation as editor of the Northern Echo in the 1960s, where his campaigns resulted in a national screening programme for cervical cancer and a posthumous pardon for Timothy Evans, wrongly hanged for murder in 1950.

Despite his many notable campaigns, Sir Harold said newspaper campaigns should be selective, and he deplored what he saw as the invasion of privacy by the British tabloid press.

After editing the Sunday Times Sir Harold edited the Times, but left in 1981 following a public falling-out with the paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, over editorial independence.

Writing about their relationship, Sir Harold described his decision not to “campaign against” Mr Murdoch’s takeover of the papers as “the worst in my professional career”.

He added: “My principal difficulty with Murdoch was my refusal to turn the paper into an organ of Thatcherism. That is what the Times became.”

Harry Evans personified not only the noblest possibilities of journalism, but of social mobility in the 20th Century too.

Born into what he called “the respectable working-class”, his route to national and international acclaim via the streets of Manchester and Darlington – the latter as editor of the Northern Echo – is sadly a route few take today.

He embodied the most romantic ideal of an editor: a humble hack taking on mighty forces through the dogged pursuit of truth.

Though he later fell out with Rupert Murdoch, and never forgave him, in his 14 years at the helm of the Sunday Times he redefined journalism itself.

He was a master craftsman, in a trade where practical wisdom was precious and vital; and he combined a flair for layout, projection and design with a remarkable nose for a story, particularly those with human suffering at their heart.

But above all he was brave. During his reign, it seemed no super-rich bully or powerful government could intimidate him.

In our era of information overload, diminished trust in journalism, and fewer people willing to pay for news, the nostalgia for what he represented is impossible to resist.

As he put it himself in the title of his wonderful memoir from 2009, he reached the top in Vanished Times.

He had the resources, and the time, to hold power to account – and he did uniquely well. Mixed with his charm and sheer decency, this put journalism itself in a debt to him that will never be fully serviced.

Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: “Sir Harold Evans was a giant among journalists who strove to put the ordinary man and woman at the heart of his reporting.”

After leaving the Times, Sir Harold and his second wife, Tina Brown, moved to New York.

She edited Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, while he became founding editor of Conde Nast magazine.

In 2011, at the age of 82, Sir Harold was appointed editor-at-large at Reuters, the organisation’s editor-in-chief describing him as “one of the greatest minds in journalism”.

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