Sir Harold Evans yesterday flatly contradicted Rupert Murdoch’s account of his acrimonious exit from the paper as editor in 1981.
And he urged Lord Justice Leveson to see Margaret Thatcher’s controversial decision to allow Murdoch’s take over the Times and Sunday Times titles in 1981 as the genesis of the hacking scandal and of complaints NI has used its media clout in the UK to wield political influence.
In evidence to Leveson last month Murdoch insisted he had never sought to influence the editorial of the Times and that he sacked Evans because he was told he was facing ‘an insurrection in the staff’against him.
He said: ‘The only time I remember ever talking to Mr Evans about policy was when he came to me, shut the door behind him and said: ‘Look, tell me what you want to say and it needn’t leave this room, but I will do it.
‘I said to him: ‘Harry that is not my job.’ All I would say – and this is the nearest thing I ever came to an instruction – was: ‘Please be consistent.”
Evans gave a very different account of events when he gave evidence to Leveson yesterday.
And he urged Lord Leveson to see Murdoch’s take-over of The Times titles 30 years ago as the ‘seminal event’which had led to the need for his inquiry.
Evans said: ‘All flowed from the excessive concentration of power in a single media corporation.
‘The excessive concentration of power which the Royal Commission on the press in 1947 under McGregor said was a real threat to British democracy, that was what was initiated in the seminal acts of 1981 and the value of the guarantees given there [by Murdoch over editorial independence] was zero.”
He added: ‘â€¦never since those pledges to Parliament were broken, never once has Parliament intervened. There’s an inertia there and a collusion which is right in front of your faces today.
‘It seems to me that there’s this tremendously clear thread connection between what happened then, the consequences for excessive power, and the nature, the nature of the ownership of that power.”
The skies got darker – the thundercloud burst
Murdoch appointed then Sunday Times editor Evans editor of The Times following his purchase of the paper in 1981.
Evans said: ‘In the first six months, Mr Murdoch was just the kind of owner one would like: involved, not bullying. He came into a few things – for instance, when he suggested I attack the Royal Family in the first budget because they had got the civil list increased, I didn’t mind him suggesting that.
‘When I investigated the facts, I found it was completely wrong, he’d misread it. That evening I went to the Sun newspaper and told the editor – the editor said, ‘I’m doing a blast on the Royal Family’, I said, ‘Just a minute, those figures you’ve been given are not right because you’re misreading the calendar years’, and I told Mr Murdoch too.
‘But the Sun continued with the false story and I didn’t do it in the Times and he never said a word about that.
‘So later on, of course, any kind of conduct of mine like that received a blast, but for the first six months he was extremely good: vigorous, encouraging me to change the staff..”
Evans said he believes his paper’s criticism of the Thatcher Government – the same Government which had controversially approved Murdoch’s purchase of The Times titles – which caused his relationship with Murdoch to deteriorate.
Evans said: ‘1981 it was a very bad time in Britain. Mrs Thatcher was grossly unpopular. She was trying very hard to do what she thought was right, but the policy of her strict monetarism, like the austerity in Europe today, was not working, and that led to a great deal of anxiety on Mr Murdoch’s part and in fact on everybody’s part.
‘At the same time, he was feeling money pressures, which we didn’t know about at the time. So after September, October, it got more and more difficult. The skies got darker and darker until the thundercloud burst.”
He said that the ‘gradual distancing’between him and Murdoch came because ‘I would not support the policies of the government come what may”.
Hitting back at Murdoch’s suggestion that Evans came into his office and said “tell me what to say”, Evans said: ‘That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard in a hundred years because he was continually talking to me.
‘I had the effrontery to call the Nobel prizewinner in economics, Mr James Tobin, and say, ‘Write an article looking at the British economic condition’. At the same time I called up the government’s economic advisor Professor Haynes and said, ‘After Mr Tobin, will you please reply to this?’
‘That night I was taking Mr Rupert Murdoch to my home to meet my wife and have dinner. By the time we reached the dinner, it was almost fisticuffs.
”Why did you publish that stuff, Tobin?’. I said, ‘He’s a Nobel prize winner, it’s an interesting view on economics’. ‘Intellectual bullshit’. I said ‘Just a minute, what do you know,’ I said, ‘about economics? You said inflation would be down’. No, no, no, no get off’ – this went on.”
“I’m tired of the defamation of me”
Describing the atmosphere on The Times in late 1981, Evans said: ‘Mr Murdoch was continually sending for my staff without telling me and telling them what the paper should beâ€¦”
He said: ‘The most dramatic example again of interference with the content of the paper, I had a reporter in Poland who was doing fantastic work when the coup took place.
‘He was sending little messages out in people’s shoes. So we gradually strung together a marvellous narrative of Poland, what had happened in the insurrection with Lech Walesa, a wonderful thing, and said to Mr Murdoch on the way out, ‘We should put this on the radio, it’s a fantastic two pages’.
‘Next morning, the next morning he sent for me. He had The Times, marvellous narrative by Roger Boyes, two pages, and he turned to the Sun newspaper, which had this much [gestures to indicate very little] on Poland: ‘That’s all you need on Poland.’
‘So he’s sending for my staff behind my back, he said to Frank Johnson the columnist, Frank Johnson, going on about these kind of things, and Frank Johnson said, ‘I’d rather not be talking to you when the editor’s not there’, and Frank Johnson told me Mr Murdoch said, ‘That’s why I am talking to you, because the editor’s not here.'”
Evans said that Murdoch broke every one of the five guarantees he gave to Parliament before buying The Times titles, safeguarding the title’s independence.
He added: ‘And the final straw for me, and the final straw, by the way, for the journalists who were getting – morale was getting lower and lower and lower, I’d just asked them for 25 redundancies, which was what management said. Without meeting me or telling me, they went and asked for 40 redundancies. Can you imagine the effect on the morale?”
Evans said later that were whereas he thought The Times should be open to different opinions, Murdoch thought it should not.
‘For instance, I – with the articles I published – I published one by Mr Ray Buckton, a trade union leader, and he said, ‘He should never be published because the man was a communist’, which was ridiculous.
‘Opening the Times to different opinion, not my opinion, was actually an issue. The issue of diversity.”
Concluding his evidence, Evans said: ‘I’m glad of the opportunity to correct some records. I’m tired of the defamation of me, particularly Mr Murdoch’s statement that I lowered the circulation of the Times when I increased it from 276,000 to over 300,000, which is a falsehood that he’s retained, and I think that when the Times newspaper itself refused to publish a correction on that score, we were looking at a newspaper which had lost its sense of moral responsibility.”