For a whole generation of British journalists (my generation), Harold Evans was our mentor. He wrote the textbooks on reporting and editing that we all read at journalism college. In a sense, he invented the modern “professional” journalist; before him, journalism was largely seen as a trade. He is still widely revered.
His life since editing the Sunday Times tells you much about what went wrong with journalism. He and his wife Tina Brown departed for the US to make their fortunes, both financial and professional. Journalism for them became a way to gain access to the powerful; and in return the powerful gave them credibility and inside stories. Rather than holding the establishment to account, Evans chose to join it: today, he is Sir Harold Evans and Tina Brown is Lady Evans.
(America’s own version of this syndrome was Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, who ended up – oh, irony of ironies – becoming a live-in at the White House.)
An oped by Evans in today’s Guardian sums up what is wrong with even the best corporate journalism. The article makes all the right noises about monitoring power, but does it with a world-weary reticence that steals its message of all power. And at the same time Evans lobs in gratuitous attacks on Edward Snowden – the man behind the NSA leaks who risked everything, including his life, to bring us the news that we are all being spied on – dismissing him as “unappealing” and “narcissistic” without offering a shred of evidence for these accusations.
The reality is that the narcissism on display is Evans’ own – and that of the journalist corps he produced and that is now in charge of the media that shapes our worldview.
The cautionary maxim of Daily Beast writer Clive Irving’s “Stasi principle” remains valid: “A state’s appetite for collecting intelligence expands in direct relationship to its technical ability to do so.”
I think we can improve on that maxim: “A state’s appetite for collecting intelligence expands in direct relationship to the failure of its media to hold it tenaciously to account.” And the emphasis is on “tenaciously”.