Sir Harold Evans On The Failures Of Journalism

Matt Wells spoke to Sir Harold Evans in New York:

As Editor of the Sunday Times, you helped make it distinctive by giving it a strong investigative arm. Do you see that kind of strength in reporting and in news outlets these days? And what thoughts have you about whether the shift towards online journalism creates a pressure against that or limits that in any way?

There has been a reduction in the amount of long-form investigative journalism and that’s a great pity because some stories actually need space to investigate and put the qualifications in, and so I regret that to some extent – to a large extent, in fact. It can be done online, I mean the Daily Beast [edited by Sir Harold’s wife, Tina Brown] does some, but generally speaking the longer forms of journalism are more suitable to print than to the web.
Generally, when we are on the web we are in a hurry. I think they are complementary; you need both.
Written by Matthew Wells – Journalist.

It’s a real challenge to do what we should do. For instance, before the financial meltdown, there was very little reporting of what was going on. Gretchen Morgenson, in the New York Times, was absolutely brilliant about the rating agencies and the way they were behaving, or about Freddie and Fannie [the mortgage financing giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae] and the housing crisis, but there wasn’t the continuous, concerted attention to say: wake up.
The same thing with 9/11. Senator Hart and Senator Warren Rodman went round the world at the behest of President Clinton and came back and reported that America was in great disfavour, particularly in the Muslim countries, and they warned. Hart actually had a sentence in his report asking: do we have any means of rescuing people from a high building in case of fire. That report was launched at a Senate office conference in 2000. The attention it got in the Senate and in the press was absolutely minimal. And Hart went along to see Condoleezza Rice [President Bush’s National Security Adviser and later US Secretary of State 2005-09] because of the newspapers – the New York Times didn’t do it at all. This was a major investigation and it was saying: wake up America.
Well, you might have said [whispered] ‘wake up America’ because the press take up on that was terrible. This is what I mean, what I worry about in journalism. I like to think that if I had been editing and I had been told about it that I would have made a big fuss about it. Who knows – I might have missed it too. That kind of omission really bothers me because it is clearly the job of a newspaper to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence and convey it to the public. And we didn’t do that. Either with the financial meltdown or with
Before 9/11, Gary Hart went to see Condi Rice and she was concerned. She was very aware of the importance of the report. She said you’ve got to do something about it but don’t worry Dick Cheney is studying it and he’s going to report in October. Of course, the 9/11 attacks came before October – who was to know that.
But those are the kind of things that a really good newspaper, or really good website or agency, should be on continual alert for. What are we missing, what’s going on now, that we 
should be alerting people to?
That’s interesting because we have talked about there being less
room in the newspapers and media for that sort of longer, investigative journalism. On the other hand, as you note with the Daily Beast, we have this proliferation of websites and blogs and there is commenting, digging, investigating, and the web has essentially created an open forum for that. I wonder, even as we see less long-form journalism, do we have essentially another golden age of journalism ahead of us because of the opportunities created by the web?

I think we do have a golden opportunity because it is much easier to do research with all the browsing sites, particularly Google. So you can get a lot done which would have taken a long time before, but you have to be particularly careful about some of those ‘researches’ because it is not particularly accurate so you still have the checking to do. But it is marvellous in the sense that today, even though I don’t want to go on too much about Twitter and Facebook, but because of websites like The Beast and the Huffington Post and so on you’ve got a much more immediate sense of what is concerning people.
The first instance which struck me was when the ethnic cleansing was going on in Pristina in the Balkans and there were no reporters there. But somebody was in a house in Pristina and saw the military going around killing people and put it onto an electronic message, and that was the first sign from Pristina of the citizen reporter.

Since then we know of citizen reporting through Twitter, from Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, and so on, but we still need to be careful about this. In Iran, first of all they know where you live because you have done your email or whatever it may be and, secondly (in Iran this is particularly true), the authorities can flood the sites with bogus messages. So the need for 
scrupulous, intelligent journalism, not just in discovery but also in checking, is paramount.
Sir Harold Evans was the Editor of the Sunday Times and the Times. A graduate of Durham University, he has written a number of best-selling histories. He followed the late Alistair Cooke in commentaries on the US for the BBC. He holds the British Press Awards’ Gold Award for Lifetime Achievement of Journalists. In 2001, British journalists voted him the all-time greatest British newspaper editor. He was knighted in 2004.

This is an edited version of a chapter in the forthcoming book Investigative Journalism: Dead or Alive?, edited by John Mair and Richard Lance Keeble and published by Abramis. It is used with the kind permission of the editors.


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