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

The following article was first published at The Conversation on December 7, 2015. Click here to view original source.


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

December 7, 2015 2.17pm EST

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”

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.