Harold Evans makes himself clear
Monday 8 May 2017
Sir Harold Evans (photo), editor-at-large, joined Reuters at an age when most journalists have long retired.
He already had behind him a distinguished lifetime in news, both in his native Britain and the United States. He was the greatest newspaper editor of all time, an accolade bestowed in a 2002 poll conducted by Press Gazette and the British Journalism Review. Two years later, he was knighted for services to journalism.
Now nearly 89, his latest book, Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters, is published on 16 May by Little, Brown.
As a guide to crisp, accurate expression, it’s full of sound advice, according to a review in the Financial Times that Evans himself described as "zesty".
“It is full of enthusiasm for words and the struggling idea that they actually matter. And it is full of sound advice for anyone who wants to make themselves clearer, whether they write novels, articles or memos to the regional sales director. It even applies to unwritten words,” Matthew Engel wrote in the FT.
“He is a sworn enemy of the pointless passive, the lonely modifier, and abstract examples rather than concrete - which means one had better explain what he means by a lonely modifier. His example is a sentence in the New York Times where presidential ‘advisers’ and the crucial fact that they were taken ‘by surprise’ were separated by 36 words of the same sentence, all irrelevant parenthetical detail…
“Above all, Evans understands - as his Sunday Times did - that there is no single correct approach to writing: it depends what one is trying to convey. Is it a single fact (‘The King Is Dead’) on which everything else is commentary? A series of complex facts? Or is one aiming for a response: action, anger, laughter, tears, pleasure, whatever? However, Evans does seem unsure himself what job he is trying to do here. Is this a pleasurable read or a textbook? It veers between the two. Either way, it would have been a damn sight more useful if the publishers had bothered with an index.”
Evans edited The Sunday Times when it was owned by Roy Thomson, grandfather of Thomson Reuters chairman David Thomson, prior to its sale (and that of stablemate The Times) to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in 1981.
Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen Adler tweeted: “I’m loving Harry Evans’s new book on writing. Sir Harry definitely makes himself clear.”
Evans joined Reuters in 2011. Adler said at the time the appointment formed part of Reuters’ efforts to build its reputation with consumers through its website and mobile applications.
Evans saw it slightly differently. “Editor-at-large means you’re free to create as much havoc as they will tolerate,” he said.
In recent weeks he has expounded on Donald Trump’s first weeks in office as US president which he sees as a grievous threat, not only to the free press, but to democracy itself. “It’s worse than 1984. It’s actually awful,” he told one interviewer.
As the grandfather of modern investigative journalism, Evans considers the most important quality in any reporter is an awareness of his or her own ignorance.
“You don’t know a fucking thing, and go and ask a lot of questions and find out. You can’t be an investigative reporter unless you begin with a recognition of ignorance instead of a recognition of arrogance. I feel this very strongly,” he told The Irish Times recently. “The reason we need reporters is that there’s a more likely chance of a good reporter finding the truth than a commission of inquiry.”
He is critical of Facebook monopolising distribution platforms and impoverishing traditional newsrooms by depriving the press of its traditional source of revenue from advertising.
“There used to be a lot of left-wing exultation that we don’t have gatekeepers any more. Well fuck you, look what you’ve got now: you’ve got fake news. So the traditional press, with editors and scrutiny - check that fact and if you get a name wrong you’re in trouble - that’s something important and valuable.”
Evans urges serious news organisations to pursue only the highest standards, on the basis that, if they are going to fail, it is better to fail at a high level. “I think it’s a race against time,” he said.
“It’s a blind man going along trying to feel his way, because he’s got fake news, he’s got [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg and he’s got Rupert Murdoch. And before he stumbles, maybe we can get some kind of vision back in terms of credibility, authority and reliability in the press. Otherwise, we’re fucked.”
As for retirement, Evans says “Retire? It’s a perplexing question. I’ve never even thought about it.” ■