snapshot in time of (perhaps) a dying profession,
This review is from: Good Times, Bad Times (Paperback)
This book covers the remarkable career of an editor from about 1960 to 1983. He edited the Sunday Times and then, when Murdoch bought it out, he took over the Times itself as well. He began as a courageous challenger on neglected issues: there are wonderful stories of his pioneering efforts on Thalidomide children, the uncovering of the extent of Philby's espionnage, and many other adventures. Evans and his team braved threats from the government, law suits, and extremists. That is the first 3rd of the book. Evans also gives a wonderful explanation of the political ecology of a great newspaper: an independent staff working for a proprietor who believes in the journalistic mission of informing and serving society. It is a compelling plea, one that I believe in. He also gives a clear idea of the economics of the Times and hence, all British newspapers. Most significantly, the unions were out of control and damaging the company with strikes and ruinous disobedience. He also gives a wonderful history of the Times and the role it played in British society, with an analysis of the institutional factors that enabled it to have the impact that it did. It is absolutely fascinating and essential, a testament to idealism of a sort.
The rest of the book is about his professional relationship, and then desperate, cutthroat conflict with Rupert Murdoch, who is the most powerful media mogul of this time. After a long and enervating struggle with the unions, the original ("good") proprietor decided to sell quickly. Murdoch, who is nothing if not a business man of genius, was ready: he had the cash and a relentless drive to own the prestige of the Times, one of the world's oldest and greatest newspapers.
According to Evans, Murdoch was the exact opposite of the former owner. Instead of creating a space of independence so that journalists could pursue their mission with the proper degree of freedom and confidence, he sought to control things with the egotism and lack of empathy of a dictator. Murdoch set out to break everyone at the Times, to make it an organ to serve Thatcher, who apparently gave the approval of the purchase in direct contravention of the anti-monopoly laws regulating the media, i.e. a special dispensation as a result of a corrupt deal between her and Murdoch. To do so, he offered promises of independence to the staff, which he ignored when he saw fit to do so. In a fascinating explanation of how the institutional safeguards failed, Evans was forced out after one year under Murdoch. (He was later voted the greatest editor of the century by his peers.)
The relentless pressure that built on Evans is hard for me to imagine: personal harassment, repeated humiliations, accusations of professional misconduct without substance, lack of clear criteria for success beyond bending to Murdoch's erratic directives, and a conflict of principal so basic that he worried it would compromise his integrity if he stayed. For a year, Evans resisted in accordance with his personal and professional ideals. Unfortunately, by replacing Evans with a sop who belonged to him, Murdoch essentially decimated an institution and turned it into an organ of propaganda that would fit his whims. If Evans is telling the truth, which I believe he is, it is a story of corruption and control that is frightening to contemplate. Evans is a passionate advocate for a different kind of journalism that seeks the truth and what is good for society rather than in service to the agenda of the proprietor.
The current backdrop to the story, upon which Evans comments in a new introduction in the edition that I bought (not this one, but a British reissue), is the hacking and bribery scandals that may be Murdoch's downfall, the end of his career at the age of 81. This book offers essential background into how this situation developed, from a vantage point of the way Murdoch operates.
Evans writes with a subtle elegance. There are many references and ironies that I could not fully comprehend - I am an American who does not know British culture all that well, but have some inkling from my wife, who is English and a voracious consumer of British journalism. This book is truly a masterpiece. As such, I warmly recommend it. Unfortunately, my edition is marred with typos and sloppy editorial errors - it reads as if it were scanned from the original edition without proofreading.