Sir Harry Evans: Palatinate’s greatest editor?

By George Simms

In February 1951, the Durham University Ice Hockey team was due to travel to the 9th World University Games, in Polana, Romania. Yet Romania, of course, was behind the Iron Curtain, and to the Durham Academic Council, sending a squad of politically susceptible students into communist country was a recipe for disaster. For the second time in three years, the University stopped the Ice Hockey team from travelling to these World Games. 

“Petition, Deputation, but – Winter Games Ban No.2” was Harry Evans’ first headline as Palatinate editor, in Issue 33. The front page was striking, offering a thorough report and analysis on the situation, as well as a letter from the President of the Socialist Society. 

Harry Evans, perhaps better known today as Sir Harold Evans, studied Politics, Psychology and Economics at University College, Durham, between 1949-1952. A titan of modern journalism, he went on to become editor of The Northern Echo, The Sunday Times and The Times.

After leaving The Times following disagreements with new owner Rupert Murdoch, Sir Harry moved to the US. He founded travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler and later served as editor-at-large to both The Week and Reuters news agency. He was President and Publisher of Random House, as well as writing numerous books. He passed away on 23rd September 2020, aged 92.

Sir Harry’s journalistic career began as a reporter for The Reporter, a paper based in Ashton-under-Lyne, in his teens. After a stint in the RAF, Harry Evans came to Durham as a mature student in 1949. He received an ex-serviceman’s grant to finance his tuition, as long as he passed his first-year exams. Once the academic pressure had slightly lifted, Harry Evans joined Palatinate as assistant editor in October 1950.

In his autobiography ‘My Paper Chase’, Evans recalls that the title of assistant editor was “an inflation of my role, which was sitting in a cold room in the Union proffering the gluepot to the editor, pasting up his columns into pages and reading proofs.”

Harry put his name forward for the Palatinate editorship when his predecessor, Derek Harrison, resigned at the end of 1950. He was given the role, only to immediately discover that Palatinate was “practically bankrupted by the cost of paper and the zinc used to reproduce photographs.”

Faced with a serious barrier before he’d even been able to oversee an edition, Sir Harry displayed the ingenuity and instinct for newspaper journalism which propelled him to one of the great editorial careers. “Believing then, as I do now, that the way to kill a newspaper is to ask more for less, I pleaded that we should be allowed to charge 33 per cent more but go up two pages to twelve,” he wrote in ‘My Paper Chase’. 

Evans increased the price from threepence to four, whilst increasing Palatinate from ten pages to twelve. The last edition before he took over as editor, Issue 32, had six names on the masthead of writing staff. Understandably, filling 12 pages with a team of just six editorial staff and reporters presented something between a hearty challenge and a nigh-on impossibility. 

As a result, Evans oversaw a drive for correspondents and contributors. One of his more successful recruitment tactics was flaunting the names of former Durham students Reginald Easthope and Silvester Bolam, then the chief sub-editor of The Times and editor of the Daily Mirror respectively, as he searched for new blood throughout the colleges.

Liberally extolling the impact that Palatinate had on Easthope and Bolam’s careers may not have been wholly ethical, given it was founded long after they had both left Durham, but it did have the desired effect. 14 editors and correspondents were named on Sir Harry’s first masthead as editor.

Alongside this, in an effort to encourage paper sales, Evans introduced a gossip column, ‘Palace Green Notes by Argus’. As far as I can tell, it was only in 2009 that Sir Harry revealed Argus’ true identity, so whilst it may not be scandalous by modern standards, the column clearly had the desired effect.

I struggled to pick my favourite of Argus’ nuggets of gossip. To a mind spoiled by a daily barrage of tabloids and reality television, the majority appear far closer to banal than scandalous. Yet, by virtue of being both wonderfully suggestive and a timelessly funny scenario, Issue 33’s ‘One Silk Stocking’ takes the cake for me: 

“A young lady who had to leave the Labour Club film show early stated as she left that she had lost a silk stocking during the performance. When the lights came on it was discovered to be in the possession of Mr Jack Williams of Hatfield, whose explanation, to say the least of it, was unsatisfactory.”

As I’m sure it did then, the mind boggles. 

Whilst Argus’ jovial feedback as the all-seeing campus eye may have inspired a much-needed boost in sales, each of the four editions Sir Harry oversaw as editor came packed with the team’s own hard-hitting, breaking stories. 

“Editorials must lead”

Sir

As Sir Harry would later admit, his first editorial, which addressed Romanian World University Games row, was somewhat feeble. “Whatever views may be taken of the attitude of the authorities on this subject,” he wrote, “all will welcome a better indication of the extent of undergraduate liberty during term time, for we cannot avoid noticing certain inconsistencies in this matter.”

Dancing the line between weak and meaningless with all the grace of a particularly unwieldy elephant on a tightrope, this editorial was not Evans’ shining hour. His masterpiece of a Palatinate editorial would come two weeks later, in Issue 34. 

Sir Harry had already learned the lesson he would later repeat in his final article for Palatinate, written 67 years after his first, to celebrate the 800th edition: “Editorials must lead.”

Evans found himself at the centre of a row with the Durham Colleges Conservative and Unionist Association (DCCUA). A letter to the Editor began, “Sir, it is our considered judgement that Palatinate is becoming a mouthpiece for the political opinions of the Editorial Board. Although you have acceded to previous pressure for reports of Conservative meetings, it is evident you use this to enhance your policy.” 

It continued in a similar vein, accusing Evans and previous editorial boards of being overtly left-wing and purposely limiting their reports and column inches on DCCUA. Sir Harry took the time to lay it up next to his own editorial. 

At the heart of this editorial was a breakdown of the last seven editions of Palatinate by column inches dedicated to political groups and associations at the University. Evans had taken a ruler to each edition and proved that the Conservatives, with 31 ½ inches, had been subject to the most column inches of any political association, by some distance. 

He also added a rebuttal to the aforementioned letter, written by the correspondent it was primarily accusing of political favouritism. As Evans pointed out at the end of his editorial, this made it “probably the largest space Palatinate has ever given to a report of a political meeting.”

It was assiduous, balanced and perfectly written, displaying all the hallmarks Sir Harry would later stamp on his journalistic career. 

As he pointed out in his 2017 piece, “The grievance had no grounds, but the exercise made me acutely aware that an editor had to be like Caesar’s wife, above suspicion. I’d spoken in Union political debates – without anyone being moved one way or another – but something had held me back from explicit allegiance to any political party. I stuck to it.”

“His energy and enthusiasm have left their imprint firmly upon the altered, the new Palatinate

May 1951

His second front page was another example of Palatinate holding the University to account, reporting on accusations of the Colleges “land grabbing” by a city councillor. Following on from the row with the DCCUA, there was a double-page spread asking, “What should the Union do?” 

In an incredibly detailed piece, precisely laid up and analytically breaking down the debate into accessible chunks, Evans and his team took the Union apart and gave insightful solutions as to how to put it back together again. 

It’s a wonderful read on the nature of debate and the unique position of the Union within Durham. Packed with interviews and intricate details, the work which a team of 14 must have put in to achieve it is extraordinary, and testament to Sir Harry’s enthusiasm, dedication and leadership. 

His third edition, Issue 35, was headlined by a dispute between the Athletic Union and the Student Representative Council (SRC). The SRC was pulling its weight to force attendees of the Colleges’ Rugby Club dinner to pay 7s 6d each, rather than the meal be subsidised by the Athletic Union.

This was clearly a move that caused campus-wide outrage and was the subject of Sir Harry’s editorial. There was also a discussion on whether alcohol should be served at SRC organised balls, and an update on the nearly-build St Mary’s College. 

There was again a long letter of complaint from DCCUA, although Evans left the pleasure of replying to the Socialist Society this time. It also included a letter from the Labour Club, accusing Palatinate of “doing a grave injustice to the people by plugging the line of these anti-democratic fascists”, by printing so many column inches on DCCUA. I can only assume that Sir Harry learned another valuable lesson here – you can’t please everyone. 

Sir Harry’s last edition as editor marked three years since the paper was founded as a four-page long magazine. He left it twelve pages long and at the heart of campus debate and life, in a strong financial and editorial position. He even commandeered the Union Writing Room to give Palatinate an office.

He was assiduous, ingenious and possessed an editorial mind arguably without parallel

The pieces which Sir Harry painstakingly laid up for his final edition were more ‘you had to be there’ than timeless news, relaying the day-to-day goings-on of the Union and the Yacht Club, yet a line in his final editorial – written when he was aged just 23 – highlights his understanding of journalism and the role of the editor:

“The news which arrives from correspondents has to be considered not just by itself but with the shape of the whole paper in mind. As Edward Shanks once delightfully put it, ‘the news is thrown at the sub-editor in huge, miscellaneous masses which, but for his labours, would kill the reader stone dead with mental indigestion.”

In March 1951, Harry Evans resigned as Palatinate editor to focus on his studies after a term at the helm, handing over to his assistant, Paul Edwards. 

His hard work as editor was honoured with a profile in the next edition. Its opening and closing lines display what can only be described as gushing praise by ‘50s standards of emotional openness:

“His energy and enthusiasm have left their imprint firmly upon the altered, the new Palatinate… We can do no less than to thank Harry most sincerely for his work. We enjoyed it”. 

Enjoyed it, we did. Throughout one of the great journalistic careers, Sir saved and changed lives, fought injustice wherever he saw it and transformed the face of newspaper journalism for all who now walk in his gargantuan shadow. 

He was assiduous, ingenious and possessed an editorial mind arguably without parallel. If any member of the current Palatinate team goes on to a journalistic career of half the brilliance of Sir Harry’s, we will count ourselves very lucky. 

Image: David Shankbone (Creative Commons)

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