One day in 1966 I was walking down Priestgate in Darlington with my father, when a man I’d never seen before stopped us. He wanted to chat with my dad about the current protest against the closure of the railway works, known as North Road Shops. My father was then the branch chairman of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and the man who spoke to us was Harry Evans, the editor of the Northern Echo.
Naturally, this minor anecdote does not feature in Evans’s marvellous memoir, ‘My Paper Chase’, but the book does recall with fondness the author’s years in the north-east and Evans is rightly proud of the campaigning journalism he launched at the newspaper.
In his review of ‘My Paper Chase’ for the New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann (another eminent journalist) writes: “Overnight success, especially for a working-class lad, was impossible in that world; instead, one had to mount a long, slow, relentless assault on the battlements of a highly structured social system. The system is gone, as is the way that people like the young Evans operated within it…”
The tone of the review suggests that this is a good thing – that young British hopefuls wishing to enter journalism today operate in a meritocratic world. Forget about it.
As Polly Toynbee points out in today’s Guardian: “The 7% of people emerging from private schools dominate disproportionately in top universities, the bar, medicine, the City, journalism and any well-paid profession.”
A Labour government has held power for 12 years, yet working class children in the United Kingdom are less likely than ever to earn a better income than their parents. Social mobility has ground to a halt and the chances of this improving under the Eton-educated leaders of the Conservative Party are non-existent.
No doubt a modern-day Harold Evans, seeking to root out injustice and expose corruption, will eschew traditional newspapers in favour of the level playing field of the internet. But with so much clamour out there, it is simply not possible to make the kind of impact Evans enjoyed. The recent much-hyped Twitter campaigns against intolerant columnists and overbearing libel lawyers were media bubbles. Real investigative journalism requires dogged persistence and proprietors with deep pockets and nerves of steel.
Evans himself remains irrepressibly optimistic about the future of journalism. The digital era, he believes, offers the opportunity of a new golden age – “if we can evolve the right financial model”.
It’s a big if.