There's probably no one in the cut-and-thrust world of competitive journalism that doesn't admire and envy the enterprise (and bankroll) of the London Sunday Times when it launched its Insight Team way back in 1963.
The brainchild of innovative and courageous editor, Harold Evans (knighted in 2004), the Insight Team covered the world and/or spent whatever time (and money) it took to develop a story that would affect the country: getting compensation for victims of Thalidomide; unveiling details of Kim Philby as a Soviet spy; hitherto unpublished abuses in Northern Ireland. And so on.
Interesting in all these stories is how various elements of the British government and establishment fought to curtail their publication. Evans delves into these stories in his autobiography, My Paper Chase, published in 2009, though more relevant now than it was three years ago.
Even more disturbing than the stories themselves is the "tradition" and "laws" of Britain that are used to prevent newspapers from publishing what government elements don't want published. Truth, as a justification, often seems irrelevant.
The Official Secrets Act can be used shamelessly. Also the infamous "D" notice issued to newspapers to prevent a controversial story being published on security grounds, or because it may embarrass government. Again, truth becomes irrelevant.
Evans is from a working class Welsh background -- his father was a railway engineer. Defying his background, Evans graduated from Durham University and from age 16 worked in various northern newspapers until eventually hitting the jackpot as editor of the Sunday Times in 1967, when it was owned by Roy Thomson.
Canadian journalists of the time used to revile Thomson because he was a skinflint and paid starvation wages to reporters on his Canadian papers. I never worked for Thomson, but have always considered him an ideal publisher because he never interfered editorially. If the paper made money, he left the editor alone.
Evans' assessment of Lord Thomson is unusual: "he was psychologically incapable of lying or dissembling . . . His attachment to editorial independence had deep roots, practical rather than philosophical." Sounds like a reporter's ideal of a proprietor.
When Lord Thomson sold the Sunday Times to Rupert Murdoch in 1981, Evans was made editor, (with assurances there'd be no substantive changes), then was fired by Murdoch a year later for being too independent.
Although his book was published before the News of the World phone-hacking scandal that has the Murdoch empire quaking today, Evans was under no illusions: "Nothing in my experience compared to the atmosphere of intrigue, fear, and spite inflicted on the paper by Murdoch's lieutenants."
Yet Evans credits Murdoch for outmaneuvering the malignant unions that were strangling Fleet Street newspapers, and thus saving the industry. Also, by taking over the Wall Street Journal, Evans thinks Murdoch has improved the somewhat stodgy, play-it-safe newspaper that needed pepping up.
On a personal level, I found Evans' account of the Sunday Times' exhaustive investigation into Kim Philby particularly engaging.
When Donald MacLean and Guy Burgess fled from the British Foreign Office to Moscow in 1951, Philby was investigated, cleared, and went to Beirut as a correspondent for the Observer. But he still worked for MI6. When he defected to Moscow in 1963, questions were asked, but he was depicted, officially, as a minor cog.
The Insight Team, unleashed by editor Evans, discovered he was far more than that -- was head of MI6's counter-espionage, was in line to someday head MI6, and was personally responsible for the kidnap-murder of a defecting Soviet agent in Istanbul (Volkov), the massacre of some 300 Albanians, and deeply involved in the case of Igor Gouzenko in Canada.
The British Establishment tried to prevent truth coming out about Philby, arguing "national security" -- ridiculous, because the Soviets already knew what he did.
Reading Evans' account, it struck me as a pity the Insight Team never talked to Gouzenko. In those days, RCMP security poor-mouthed him to inquiring reporters as a drunk and unreliable. Untrue. I had befriended Gouzenko (who died in 1982) and he was none of those things -- but he was very suspicious about RCMP loyalties.
Around 1950, Gouzenko had written a memo to the RCMP outlining cipher clerk gossip in Moscow that the KGB had penetrated British intelligence and security , especially "MI of 5" as he called it.
When he defected from the Soviet embassy in Ottawa in 1945 with documents that revealed a massive spy ring, the British sent an agent to interview Gouzenko -- but wouldn't let Gouzenko see and correct errors in the transcript because he didn't have security clearance. Ridiculous. His own interview!
In 1972, in the early days of the Toronto Sun, Gouzenko came to me and said British intelligence wanted to interview him again, and asked if I would accompany him. He feared assassination.
The Brits wanted part of a journalistic witness, so Gouzenko assured me he had no intention of committing suicide. He said if he were to fall from a window in the Royal York hotel, it would mean he was pushed. He was that paranoid about Soviet penetration.
Later, Gouzenko was apoplectic. He was showed his original interview and said it was utter nonsense. Whoever had interviewed him, he said, had to be a Soviet spy.
It turned out the man who'd interviewed him back then was Roger Hollis, sent to
Ottawa by Kim Philby. Hollis eventually rose in rank to head MI5. When espionage allegations were made against him, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher absolved him. Another security scandal would be too damaging.
Anthony Blunt, surveyor of the Queen's art collection, admitted to being a Soviet spy, and he too was never charged. Had the Sunday Times Insight Team known about Gouzenko, their series would have been even more sensational -- and a lot faster.
Why was the British government so zealous to curtail truth? Probably because if the full truth of Philby's treachery and Soviet penetration came out, it would mean the life-work of a lot of honourable people on behalf of the country's security would have been compromised and meant absolutely nothing.
Better to muzzle the press than embarrass the government.
Evans now lives in the U.S. and is married to Tina Brown, the guiding influence of Vanity Fair magazine and the Daily Beast blog. The book is a more relevant now than when it was published.