In Conversation with journalist, author and thalidomide campaigner, Harold Evans

Led a major campaign in the 1970s. David Shankbone/Flickr, CC BY

THALIDOMIDE SERIES: Sir Harold Evans, editor of Britain’s Sunday Times during the 1960s and 70s, led a major campaign to support of the victims of thalidomide. Here he talks to Richard Sambrook, professor of Journalism at Cardiff University, about the paper’s moral campaign against thalidomide’s manufacturers, the fight for political validation and the rise of investigative journalism.


Richard Sambrook: When did you first hear about thalidomide and the problems it was causing?

Harold Evans: I was editor of The Northern Echo in 1961/1962 in Darlington [Northeast England] and I saw some photographs, in the Observer, of thalidomide babies who were at Chailey hospital, without legs [or] arms. I was touched, and so I arranged to publish some of those photographs in The Northern Echo.

To my astonishment, it was regarded as a very bad thing: a number of readers complained, “we don’t want to see these terrible sights.” I was very shaken by that, because I thought it would be regarded as bringing attention to their difficulties.

At that time, of course, I had no idea how shocking this scandal was. How corrupt everything was. How the press had been totally, hopelessly supine. How the politicians had lied. How the law was totally ineffective. At that time, when I put those photographs in, I had no idea of that.

When I got to be the editor of The Sunday Times, by one of those coincidences, a very good reporter called John Fielding told me he had access, he thought, to some documents by Distillers, the company that manufactured these drugs, on the license from the German company called Chemie-Grünenthal.

I arranged to see the expert witness who had these documents on disclosure. And they revealed how the marketing campaign to sell thalidomide to pregnant women as a sedative was a completely dishonest and deceitful campaign, altering results and medical reports and the like.

So, having the planning documents – a lot of them, eventually, and also having documents from Sweden where similar cases were pending – I appointed Phillip Knightley to go through the German documents [and] get them translated. It was completely appalling – and it was only the beginning.

Journalist Phillip Knightley in 2012. Paul Hackett/Reuters

I was mainly concerned, then, about when the cases would be settled, and were no longer sub-judice, so we could actually say “look here, this wasn’t properly investigated”.

The assumption at the time was that there would be no trial, because it would be [so difficult for the] families trying to bring these children without legs and arms, or maybe with arms, or partly arms, or internal injuries; this whole range of problems.

And why, you might ask, why were they in this situation of having to go to court to take compensation for a drug which had been prescribed on the national health service, and passed as safe by the government medical advisory committee?

Why didn’t the government:

  1. Have an inquiry, as we do after a train crash, or an air crash? i.e. What are the facts here? How did this drug get to be sold as safe for pregnant women when it wasn’t?

  2. If it was still sold, who did it, and why?

  3. How did it get past all the supposed barriers to poisoning people?

And of course, the first and most appalling thing of all, is that Mr Enoch Powell, the minister of health at the time, refused point-blank to have a public inquiry. Which is amazing. It’s like saying we’ve had an air crash, but we’re not going to have a public inquiry. Why not?

He said, his advisers said, and every single newspaper – The Economist, The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph – all said the same thing: this isn’t a scandal. This is one of those accidents. Nobody knew at the time – they chorused – that a pharmaceutical could cross the placental barrier and reach the fetus. So nobody’s at fault.

This lie – this ignorant piece of bullshit – was bought by every newspaper. And how, you might ask, did that come about? Why wasn’t anybody smart enough or wise enough to just check what was happening at that time around the world, so far as the knowledge of a pharmaceutical being able to pass the placenta was known? It was: various drug companies – in Britain, the ICI, for instance – already knew this, and had already taken steps to make sure various chemicals were tested for toxicity – teratogenic effects in the case of thalidomide.

So we now have a situation in which the government, having sponsored a drug; the press, supposed to be the watchdog; parliament, supposed to be the watchdog – all of them were utterly useless.

So, I thought this was an agent for us to spring out of our den.

Richard Sambrook: At what point did you decide to really get into campaigning mode?

Harold Evans: Once the minister for health, Enoch Powell, had told them there was to be no public inquiry, the families struggling to bring up these children had no recourse except to mount a legal campaign. They didn’t have the means, these several hundred families, to take on a giant corporation legally; they couldn’t afford it.

Enoch Powell, 1912-1988. Allan warren, CC BY

The legal aid given by the government was originally very restricted. And the next step was that the lawyers failed to see the scientific case that there had been negligence and unscrupulous marketing. The lawyers acting on behalf of the families were prepared to settle the case out of court, on sums that they could agree with the drug companies, which would then be sanctified by a judge. This took a long time.

In the meantime, we got more and more engrossed by what we were discovering. What happened was that the German trial was about to begin, and we had the German documents. We were advised by a renowned QC that we could, under no circumstances, publish anything about the German trial, because it would prejudice the British courts against the British distributors of the drugs.

When my brilliant legal advisor, James Evans, and I walked away from this meeting in the counsel’s chambers, I said: “We can’t tolerate this, James, we can’t be put in this position. We can’t report the German trial when we already know from the German documents that there’s a scandal.” So he got a second opinion from Mr Peter Bristow (later a judge) which was somewhat more relaxed.

So I decided to go ahead. And Godfrey Hodgson wrote a major report – the front page of the Review section in the Sunday Times – which set out how the drug company had just ploughed ahead and misled and deceived people.

Richard Sambrook: I read in your autobiography that you said it’s no use publishing the truth once, it has to be a long-running campaign. Just explain your thinking behind that.

Harold Evans: The German criminal trial hadn’t begun, and thanks to the legal advice of James Evans and the work [at The Sunday Times] of Godfrey Hodgson and Phillip Knightley, I thought the lawyers for the families would then go to the Distillers company and say “look, we’ve got a fantastic case here, let’s have a generous settlement”.

No, they didn’t. They were prepared to settle, still, on a completely inadequate sum, while the parents were struggling with these children. It was the most appalling thing.

When the judge approved of this derisory settlement, without taking into account any actuarial evidence, Nicholas Harman, who had joined us from The Economist, wrote a piece which I published on the Sunday Times opinion page: “What Price a Pound of Flesh”. As I was about to sign off on it, the duty lawyer said “you can’t do that, it’s contempt of court!” We’d already taken the chance with the German report and we went ahead with the opinion piece.

But it’s no use publishing the truth once. The news of this first settlement was a sensation to several hundred families who hadn’t been joined in the first cases. Remember, nobody knew just how many mothers had been affected. Many families hadn’t realised that their children’s disabilities were a result of a defective pharmaceutical. But now the statute of limitations laid it down that after three years claimants lost the right to sue. When the parents petitioned to sue, there were court hearings where lawyers said, among much else, there hadn’t been any settlements anywhere.

David Mason, the art dealer [and thalidomide parent activist], was very enterprising. He flew to the United States and found that a case had been settled. This impressed Judge Denning, Master of the Rolls, who gave approval for the suits. So that was good work by David Mason.

Many more parents came forward, having realised their child’s disabilities were likely to be caused by thalidomide. Stephencdickson, CC BY

But now Distillers were faced with nearly four hundred claims. They had an answer to that. Their proposed settlement said, if any one parent objects, nobody gets anything. Another piece of outrageous banditry. The law officers of the crown then got a court verdict that deprived Mason and four other litigants from having any say. They were deprived of their rights as mothers and fathers. The Daily Mail ran a great front page: SCANDAL. Denning soon stopped that nonsense.

But the all-or-none blackmail was just one atrocity. Now Distillers were offering even less – actually, half – of what the first group had been offered. Phillip Knightley came into my office and said: “we can’t stand this”. I said: “no we can’t!” I called up James Evans, the lawyer in our company, and I said, “James, I’m going to publish. I cannot sit by and see this scandal. I don’t care what happens.” And he said, “hang on a minute, let me think.”

The result of this talk was that he came up with a brilliant scheme. He said, “let us argue the moral case here, and not get into the legal case, so that we’re not going to be accused of contempt of court.”

Richard Sambrook: So you’d take moral liability, not legal liability?

Harold Evans: That’s what we’re saying, exactly right.

So with Bruce Page, Elaine Potter, Knightley, and also Marjorie Wallace, we had a strong team. Bruce Page had written a long memorandum to me on how inadequate the settlements were, in the professional judgment of another hero in this saga – an actuary John Prevett, whose calculations showed that they were asked to settle for less than half of what they ought to get for a lifetime of pain and suffering, and care, and so on.

That’s the famous moment. In September 1972, having waited basically for eight years, I published this huge splash in the Sunday Times, saying: children on our conscience – we cannot let this continue. There’s a moral obligation on the company, Distillers, and a moral obligation on the government to make a settlement which is satisfactory. At least, not one which is punitive, and I still believe there should be a public inquiry into how this scandal occurred.

Richard Sambrook: But you were pulled into a parallel campaign really, weren’t you – because you had to continue the campaign over thalidomide on behalf of the victims, but you’re also pulled into a campaign on free speech and the way in which the contempt laws were being used as well, which went all the way to Europe, didn’t it?

Harold Evans: Exactly right, that’s a very good point. When the campaign began, it began as a protest on behalf of the thalidomide children. And of course, accompanying that was a protest about the fact that the press had not been able to expose the scandal because of the restrictive press laws in Britain, where the law of contempt basically came into operation much earlier than in other countries, if at all.

Why? Because the Daily Mail front page scandal led to them getting a letter from the Attorney General. They backed off and wouldn’t touch thalidomide anymore. Nobody in the press would pick up the amazing scandal about this compensation that we’d now published – nobody. The only single thing that I got into the public eye, apart from our own publication, was a short interview on the BBC, with a lawyer standing by to make sure I didn’t say anything outrageous. So it went on – week, after week. Dead silence.

However, Jack Ashley called me up, just before he was appointed cabinet minister. He came over to my office and met the team, and said, “I’m going to stop working in my office; I’m going to spend my time trying to get these cases ventilated.” Alf Morris, the Minister for the Disabled, an old school pal of mine, also took the same attitude: that they must bring it to the floor of parliament, and get national attention and national action, and this could not be tolerated.

Edward Heath, 1916-2005. Allan Warren, CC BY

So what happened? Well, [Ashley and Morris] tried to get it discussed in Parliament and were ruled out of order. Mr Edward Heath, the Prime Minister, said: this is not a matter for the parliament, this is a matter for the courts. After all these years, we’ve documented this scandal, we’ve exposed it, but we still cannot get it ventilated in Parliament. Enoch Powell had started this appalling attitude.

Fortunately, there was a moment – a real key moment in the whole thalidomide campaign, if there is any one single moment – when I published the first article on the financial scandal. I said at the foot of the article, on the advice of James Evans, a future article will examine more of the scandal (it didn’t say when it would be published).

The Attorney General got alarmed at what we might say in a future article, and sent me a letter saying I was liable to be summoned for contempt of court for what I’d already published, but it would be examined when he got back from Europe. About ten days later, he got back from Europe, and I got one of those foiled, embossed envelopes from the Attorney General. He said, “in the circumstances, I’ve decided not to proceed against you, for this first article on the moral campaign – but if you go any further….”

The letter was really vindication on the moral campaign. So I called Jack, and I’d just got him in time. That very day he was going to see the speaker, former Tory minister Selwyn Lloyd, to argue the case for the legitimacy of a Commons debate. I shouted down the phone, which his wife lip-read to him: “Jack, the Attorney General is not going to proceed against me on the first article on the moral grounds. You can argue this with the speaker.”

So Jack went to the Speaker, and pointed out that the Attorney General was not proceeding against Harold Evans on the first moral article.

And Jack got me to see Harold Wilson. Harold Wilson said to Jack Ashley and Alf Morris and me: I’m going to give you the opposition time if you can get permission to raise it from the speaker. And overnight, Selwyn Lloyd, the Speaker, said Ashley and Morris could bring the motion, an early day motion, before the house of commons.

That was a fantastic breakthrough. Because as soon as Jack Ashley got up in the commons and made his speech, followed by Alf, the floodgates were opened. And MPs of all parties joined in.

Richard Sambrook: So getting that political validation really transformed the position of the campaign?

Harold Evans: Indeed. I said to the team: “I want the story every week now, on the front page, on thalidomide.” And they said: “But we can’t keep it going,” and I said: “yes we can!” We’ll keep it going for a year, on what’s happening to these 400 children, and then the next year we’ll say what’s happened in the year since. We’ve got to continue this until the very end of time.

Terry Wiles (right) is one of the many thousands of children born with phocomelia due to thalidomide. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Marjorie Wallace had done such fantastic work by going around and meeting the families, and getting to know them. Some of the most moving stories, on how these families were coping, and so on. Distilers gave in. A group of shareholders had begun to agitate; sales were affected; and Ron Peet of the Legal and General Insurance company made a big difference saying that it made commercial as well as moral sense to achieve a decent settlement. So victory on the compensation after some four months.

Bruce Page then had initiated another stroke of very brilliant investigative reporting. He asked Elaine Potter to discover what other drug companies were doing about fetal testing at the time when Distillers was doing none, at the time Grünenthal was doing none. So off she went, around the United States, and Britain, and of course came back with conclusive evidence that Distillers had been ignorant about what scientific progress had been made, and that it was standard to test drugs for teratogenic effects. So we now have this other element of the story, and so we began to write that.

We [also] wanted to expose the truth in a full article. When we announced we were going to now go into everything anew, having started the moral campaign, we were now going to go into the legalities of things as well. The Attorney General took me to court. He won a verdict against us. The House of Lords ruled that the article must be suppressed. The chief law officer had a very curious argument. He said “we have decided it is alright for the Sunday Times to have conducted the moral campaign of opinion. But it is not permissible to publish the facts on which the campaign is based!”

I decided to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, with the leadership of James Evans, Anthony Whitaker and Anthony Lester. So we flew in bumpy planes to Strasbourg, and eventually, we won the verdict the government had breached Article 10 of the Human Rights Convention. It meant the law had to change in favour of the free press. Hooray!

But we still couldn’t publish the full and most damning article of all on how reckless the German company and its British licensee had been. It was now banned. In response to Distillers’ argument that we had broken their “confidence”, Mr Justice Talbot said that the law of Confidence meant that a breach of the company’s confidentiality could be justified only on grounds of national security.

Since that time, the British government has formally apologised. The fortunes of many of the victims have mostly been transformed in Canada, after a huge and brilliant campaign by The Globe and Mail, inspired by Mr Stephen Raynes, a lawyer from Philadelphia, who succeeded in getting compensation in Canada increased to give the 100 or so victims a chance of a decent living. That was a far-sighted decision by the Canadian government. How did Stephen Raynes get into the story? His father won a case in the United States.

But the originating German manufacturer Grünenthal is resisting paying any compensation to Spanish victims. And yet, the outstanding scandal that remains is that Chemie Grünenthal, the company which created the disaster, will not admit its technical fault or legal liability at all, and keeps saying “we did all the standard tests at the time.” It’s completely untrue! The standard tests at the time by reputable companies included tests for toxicity in the womb.

Richard Sambrook: Looking back over this, the whole campaign and investigation, you did an extraordinary thing in 1972 in managing to get through the legal hurdles and really force focus onto this, and had real tangible outcomes for obviously the victims and for principals around the free press and around the drug companies. It’s not over, as you said. But it was an extraordinary investigation, and one of many that your Insight team led at that time.

Do you think, looking at journalism today, that that kind of campaign could be run today, given the very different economic circumstances and commercial pressures around newspapers and so on? You must have felt the commercial pressure at that time as well, which presumably you had to resist.

Harold Evans: That’s a good point, Richard. I told my chairman Denis Hamilton that I was going to go ahead with this exposé of the scandal. I said: “we’re taking a risk,” and he was supportive.

As I was about to sign off on the articles, I got a call from the advertising director, Donald Barrett. He said: “Harry, I hear you’re going to publish an attack on Distillers. I want you to know it’s our largest single advertiser.” He said: “I know it won’t stop you, and it shouldn’t.” I thought that was really quite interesting.

The atmosphere in the company encouraged a relentless search for the truth. It was due to Lord Thomson, and the Thomson family, who afforded their editors the right – and duty – to make professional judgments on public affairs. The company has to this day maintained this faith and trust in the integrity of good journalism. It is an act of trust to give the editor the freedom and the editors the responsibility to honour it. Yes, we took large risks, and yes, the owners and management tolerate the fact that investigation might be expensive. We were commercially successful, which helps.

But the important thing is that we couldn’t do this kind of investigation unless the [company was] … a kind of family, with the editors in the middle. First of all, you have the ownership recognising the professional skills, if you like, of the editor, and trusting his judgement, and secondly, the editor [must have] the skills and dedication of really skillful people. I mean, in all my career, I’ve not come across a brighter bunch of people.

Richard Sambrook: And that applies to the lawyers as much as to the journalists, of course.

Harold Evans: The journalists and lawyer were prepared to take on any subject: get to the bottom of molecular biology, get to the bottom of civil engineering. They weren’t just one-off guys, they were capable of doing any kind of [work].

I was very, very lucky. Partly because my predecessor Denis Hamilton had a lot of really smart people, and encouraged them. I was able to recruit some people also, and [had] James Evans’ legal advice and Anthony Whitaker and my poor secretary Jill Thomas, who I had typing 365 individual letters overnight. That kind of thing couldn’t have been done without that wonderfully inspiring collection of people working together.

Richard Sambrook: Absolutely. When you look back, do you think there’s anything in hindsight you would have done differently, or do you think you fought the battles that had to be fought in the way that was available to you?

Harold Evans: Looking back, I think I could have taken the risk earlier than I did. I think I could have taken the risk maybe six months or a year earlier. But the circumstances were very pernicious at the time, because I’d been endlessly attacked.

And don’t forget, while all this was going on, the world was blowing up! New terror; this that and the other; war in the Middle East. So I kind of excused myself, that I was running a world newspaper, with the world collapsing around us. So it was to be expected, perhaps, that I couldn’t have done it earlier.

Richard Sambrook: Well, very few newspapers and very few editors have the kind of impact that the thalidomide campaign had, and you as an editor – of the Sunday Times in particular, but elsewhere as well – have had.

Harold Evans: Any worthwhile editor, given one, the onus and two, the staff that I had, would have done what I did.

At least, I think so!

Richard Sambrook: Well, I hope so – but I do think that you in particular, and the paper that you ran at that time, was exceptional. And it’s been a great pleasure to hear your recollection of it, and to talk to you about it. Thank you very much indeed.

Harold Evans: OK Richard, thank you.

Stay tuned for other instalments in the thalidomide series this week.