Tina Brown (53) and Harold Evans (79) have been to western journalism what Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are to Hollywood. As editor of three of the most prestigious publications in Britain and the US – Tatler, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker – Brown has wielded tremendous power and pushed the rules of magazine journalism. Over the years, she has nursed famous controversies and famous authors, growing some and guillotining others. After the closure of her own publication, Talk, Brown withdrew to write The Diana Chronicles. She’s now back, restless for new ground to break. Evans, husband and one-time mentor, was voted the greatest newspaper editor of all time in 2002. A veteran war reporter and author of many acclaimed books, Evans is most revered for his tenure as editor at the powerful Sunday Times, where his famous crusade for Thalidomide-affected babies made world news.
Tina, your cardinals in journalism?
To make people read. I don’t read 12,000 word front page stories about crop rotation in TheNew York Times. Should, but don’t. It looks boring, has no theatrical appeal. The challenge is not to stop doing those stories, but to make them sexy. Find the angle, the headline, the presentation that will compel people. At The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, I spent a huge amount of time on headlines, captions, blurbs. I’d talk for hours with the writer — not shaping the story ahead, but figuring how to enter it. The other thing for me is the high-low mix.
In our post-modern age, we have a more lateral view of culture. I may not want to waste time on Britney Spears’ latest meltdown, but I do want to know the cultural stuff. And as an editor, it’s always a smart thing to recognize when a window of interest is open. For instance, when A Mighty Heart came out, it was a good opportunity for journalists to use that cultural moment to go back and examine what happened to the ISI and Omar Sheikh. In America, we have a very popular show called 24, which is about this Special Forces guy catc – h ing terrorists. Two minutes before the bomb goes off, he tortures them into speaking. The show is gripping and the guy’s a hero, but what does it say about America’s attitude to torture? So you use 24 to have a discussion about that.
You’ve done a lot of society journalism. You wrote the piece that blew the whistle on the Lady Di-Prince Charles marriage. What’s your stand on the personal-public debate?
In my Diana book, the story was the marriage and if you didn’t go into what happened in the bedroom, you couldn’t get at what the heck happened. Why was the most beautiful woman in the world not loved by her husband? Other than that, as a rule I absolutely don’t support invasive stuff about celebrities. I’m not goody-goody as a journalist, but it shocks me when people masquerade to get private pictu – res of people topless or in their bedroom. In America, it’s gone to such an extent, people almost feel browbeaten into revealing something about themselves to seem real and human. Take Barack Obama, who I think is terrific, but his wife went on TV recently and said, in the morning he has bad breath and leaves his socks around. My jaw sagged. I thought, what are you doing to yourself? Can you imagine Jackie Kennedy saying this about John F. Kennedy? It’s insane. Suddenly all his mystique collapsed. I want to return private life to where it belongs. You can’t be iconic without mystery. I love juicy stuff, not sleaze.
What were some iconically juicy stories?
Diana was the key one. The OJ Simpson stuff in The New Yorker was also really good. Jeffrey Toobin was a DA and hadn’t written any journalism when I hired him but he turned out to be someone who understood juiciness. He did some wonderful stuff. Then there was Henry Louis Gates Jr — the African-American professor at Harvard. He did a fabulous story called 13 Ways of Looking at a Black Man. He interviewed everyone from Toni Morrison to Jesse Jackson and because he himself was such a distinguished black professor, he got them talking in a way they never ordinarily would. He got people like Colin Powell to talk about OJ as a black man. It was great stuff because it was brainy as hell but also sexy because these people were being colloquial in a way they never are. I love this kind of private voice in public. What’s unfair is that because of the “dumbocracy”, as I call it, people end up sneering at a lot of very talented people. Brad Pitt, for instance, is a very interesting man with all kinds of global interests, but he and Angelina are interviewed so stupidly you end up hating them. There are plenty of idiots like Britney Spears also, but they have to be written of as tragic figures actually. The worst reverberation of saturation journalism is that we actually don’t end up knowing anything about anybody.
What is the biggest challenge facing media in America today? And India?
Corporatisation. The sophistry of the big conglomerate guys is to say there’s never been more plurality of outlet. Sure. We have a thousand and one outlets now, but their circulation is zip. There isn’t a place to have any meaningful public discourse. You’re just talking to yourself. Most publications and networks don’t have the critical mass. And the major networks and newspapers don’t want to do the work.
There’s so much self censorship in the media, we’ve never had less news. Everyone’s
got an eye on the balance sheet.
It’s the same in America. After 9/11, there was such a huge opportunity. In a strange way, the months after 9/11 were exhilarating. Everybody had focus. There were all these writers and journalists who had been forced to write garbage for years, and suddenly it was okay to write 10,000 word pieces on Pakistan. It was wonderful. Journalists were electrified. In a strange way, everyone was waiting to be called to something better, but Bush ruined it. First there was the divisive us-and-them policy and then he said everybody should go shopping. What a battle cry! And it’s true, everyone did slip right back into the world of Paris Hilton.
With so many channels and papers in India, it’s difficult to become an opinion maker. Attentions are so fractured.
I thought of that myself when Norman Mailer died last week. Mailer’s generation was full of great public intellectuals. When Mailer and Gore Vidal and Willam F. Buckley Jr said anything — it mattered. But now, you are just some guy on TV with a thousand other pun- dits. Nobody matters.
Is there a way of pushing back corporate influence? Or is it just a question of moral resolve — editors and proprietors saying let the bank balance dip, we must do real work?
You have to have freedom to have personal resolve in the first place. Point is, where do you do your 10,000 word investigation? You have TEHELKA which is great. But can you make a living out of it? That’s where corporates have the power to bend you. Everyone I know in TV in America is miserable about their jobs. I was in a major network green room and I overheard the producers arguing over whether to give Tony Blair two minutes or three. The two-minute woman was arguing against the extra minute vehemently as if she was talking about an hour and a half. It’s enough, enough, she said. Giving an extra minute was an issue: that’s where we’ve got to. The only answer is to set up public trusts. Journalists have to become entrepreneurs. The search for the billionaire with a conscience is a dead end.
When you inherited Tatler, Vanity Fair and New Yorker, what was their essence? And what did you turn them into?
Tatler was a fusty little social magazine, but it also had a 200-year history of being a satirical literary magazine. I wanted to bring together the writerly magazine of the 18th century and the social magazine it had become, without the fustiness. I created a society of inclusion, a culture of celebrity — social life in its modern
form. We brought in very good writers. I had Martin Amis and Julian Barnes writing when they were kids, doing fun, social stuff. Very irreverent, with a lot of attitude.
In its first format, Vanity Fair had tried to be a New Yorker with pictures. They were doing the classic 15,000 word pieces, but I knew people were not going to read it, even if it was by Marquez. What I tried to do was combine the original glamour and froth of the 1930s with the great narrative journalism of American magazines in the 70s and 80s such as Rolling Stone and Esquire. I tried to find voices who could redefine the magazine the way Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe did. And I found some fantastic writers. Domin – ick Dunne — a film producer who had never written anything was going to the trial of his daughter’s murderer when I met him at a dinner. I said, why don’t you keep a diary? It became a sensational piece. In visual terms, we had Helmut Newton and Annie Leibovitz who did some sensational photographic stuff. My goal was to combine the high and the low. So you might have this wonderfully fun piece about Demi Moore being pregnant on the cover and inside a big piece on the fall of some regime in Africa. I did find that the more intense the serious strand became, the more the magazine sold.
The New Yorker was the biggest challenge. It was this sleeping beauty, this legendary magazine that had a lot of china you didn’t want to break. The challenge was to wake it up without smashing anything. When I took over, I actually let go of 75 journalists and hired 45. It was very tough. I kept only the best, writers like John Updike, who were very supportive because they too were bored. They wanted an editor who’d talk to them and suggest ideas. We had some wonderful writers like David Remnick and Lawrence Wright. Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point was a kid at the Washington Post when I hired him. I also added photographs to the magazine — there was huge outcry against that. So I decided that for the first two years we would only have Richard Avedon, the greatest American photographer whose purism of style was so appropriate for The New Yorker. I believe in the DNA of publications. So I went back to the old issues and I found that under Harold Ross, the formative editor, the magazine had been far more visually exciting than the sententious publication it had become in the 60s under William Shawn. I decided to restore its great illustration stamp. Do away with the bland covers with houses by the sea or whatever. We got cartoonist Art Spiegelman who had won the Pulitzer for his book about Auschwitz, Maus. Very gifted, very counter culture — he did some immensely wonderful and controversial covers. Our circulation grew. We attracted younger readers — which was necessary be- cause many of our readers were very old. We hit 3,00,000 circulation in those years and to this day the publication is doing very well.
Why did Talk fail?
I’m afraid I didn’t do due diligence about my partner, Harvey Weinstein. One thing I learnt is that you really have to have this believing management. I was really lucky with Condé Nast. I’d been with them for 18 years, so I was, shall we say, a little blinkered. We were supposed to have five years to gestate, we got two. It’s interesting, at Vanity Fair, for the first 15 months, we had a tremendously difficult time getting it right. Newhouse was about to close it down and I begged for another six months. That’s when it took off. At Talk, we were in the same place. But then came 9/11 and that gave him the excuse to pull the carpet. But in fairness, for two years there was an absolute advertising desert. It’s a pity because I had found very good new talent. I feel bad because we missed creating another narrative outlet. There’s only The New Yorker and Vanity Fair where you can write. There’s no space for new energies or a younger writer who hasn’t had a big chance yet. That’s a big miss. After Talkshut down, I went off and wrote my book, because I wanted to be in control. I wanted to process my heartbreak.
What kind of magazine would you do now?
I’d love to do something like TEHELKA. I’m really quite jealous. TEHELKA is exactly the kind of literary news magazine I’d like to do. But though media is almost more important than politics at this point, the trouble is American newspapers where my heart lies are really a dying thing and you can’t persuade people to invest in them. It has to be online. I’ve been working on a website. I’m determined to make global journalism sexy. But the web is a capricious thing. No one has figured the economic model. It will get resolved. We are in the in-between stage. It’s like being in the middle of the Industrial Revolution. Until we figure the online model, we’re stuck with old models with the corporations killing everything. There isn’t a serious journalist who doesn’t feel this. This is not just about professional dissatisfaction. It’s— as Al Gore says in his book — really affecting the marketplace of ideas, it’s affecting our lives. When you get to a point where you can’t get anybody’s attention for anything, terrible things get ignored. I had no idea this was such an affliction in India too.What’s rumbling in the other India? How angry is that India about the new affluence? One has no sense of that.
What future do magazines have in an age of 24/7 TV? Media technology is moving towards news designed to individual taste. This points towards the breakdown of the whole idea of a collective universe. Where are we headed in all this?
America is so insular, 30 percent of Americans still think Saddam Hussain attacked the WorldTradeCenter. Magazines have a limited role to play. There’s no use covering basic news, but people still want context, want perspective. These readers need to be nurtured and cultivated. You need committed, visionary managements for that. News television, on the other hand, is a lost cause. Current affairs is pretty much dead in the US. You can’t do a story like In the Steps of Mullah Omar because you can’t get it on air. This is where the Internet comes in. There will be web channels we’ll all watch.
What do you think the trick on the web will be? I find blogs totally overrated. No rigour.
That’s what the DNA of my website will be. Rigour. I don’t want any more spouting of sloppy opinions. I don’t have the time. ABC just fired 75 TV journalists and hired 75 bloggers instead, responsible only to themselves. It’s insane to do that to your brand. This is just the exuberance of a new medium. No one wants to look uncool, but who’s reading it? People keep asking me to blog, but I’m not going to lower my standards, and why would I write for nothing? Haven’t done that since childhood.
‘Freedom of the press is a moral concept, or it is nothing’
The legendary British editorHarold Evans on investigative journalism, stings, the public role of the press and on what to show and what not to. An interview with Shoma Chaudhury
Out of your ten lessons of journalism, which would you pick as the most significant for India?
I feel more optimistic about media in India today than in the 60s. TEHELKA’s story on Gujarat is a great example of the power of a free press and what freedom of the press actually means. But as India takes its place in the global economy, it’s important to remember that more than the government it is business conglomerates who present the greatest challenge to the freedom of the press. Business houses hate the risk, expense and discord that come on the tail of any serious investigation. India would do well to fight that trend. Freedom of the press is a moral concept or it is nothing.
For stories to have an impact, other institutions of democracy must kick in. In India, there’s apathy and the trend is to ride out any storm. How does one combat that?
What you are facing here is not unique. It’s common. In Britain, there is a phobia in the media for mentioning any other media. When we were investigating the Thalidomide story at the Sunday Times, we found new things that were very important for the health of society and the administration of pharma companies.
But nobody took any notice. Most investigations are followed by silence. That’s when you have to be persistent. You have to come back time and time and time again without becoming a bore. You also have to credit other media and run with their stories. I saw a story in the Guardian about how workers in South Africa were not being paid properly by white companies; we decided to acknowledge their lead and follow up on their story. That’s how you build momentum. At other times, we approached the BBC or radio with our stories, or tried to arouse the interest of a person who would attract media — a member of parliament or political leader of another kind. The final possibility of raising attention is to have an event: in the Thalidomide case, my colleague Philip Knightly thought of getting the shareholders of the company involved in the moral issue. The campaign caught fire.
You fought the Thalidomide case for eight years, taking it up in the European Court of Human Rights. Must journalism spill into activism for results?
With the Thalidomide case, that became necessary. It was a huge sprawling investigation that had many implications. There was a law in Britain that you could not publish anything about a civil suit in front of the court. We fought that through the courts of Britain right up to the European court until the law finally had to be changed. But that’s a long story. The interesting thing with your Gujarat story is seepage. My optimistic thesis is that though you arouse no vital interest in the beginning, as the truth seeps through the layers of corruption and inertia and settles in the public mind, you will find fruition. Democracy works like that in curiously jagged fashions. But other media must always pitch in.
When it comes to violence, what do you show and what do you not? Channels here have a way of looping sequences that is inuring people to violence.
I’ve discussed this at length in my book, Pictures on a Page. You must always know why you are showing a particular picture. When Bangladesh was formed, the mujahideen collected all these intellectuals on a polo field and invited photographers to watch. They started prodding the unarmed people with their bayonets and eventually penetrated and killed them. When this began, they shouted, just watch what we are going to do. Some photographers walked away not wanting to participate in their violence. Two stayed and later won the Pulitzer. I argued the prize was wrong becauseit implied those who had walked away to express their humanity had not done their duty. Take Don McCullan — the world’s greatest war combat photographer. But when he was in Vietnam, he was invited to witness and photograph a street execution. He refused to go. A man so brave in combat that when bullets were raining he’d get up and take a light reading! I’d say you should never put yourself in a situation where your basic human decency is compromised.
But surely sometime you must document atrocities. How will people in safe alcoves far away ever imagine and empathise?
Yes, but you must be careful about how much you show. I wouldn’t show a photograph of a hooded hostage on TV. I might do it once, but I would not repeat it, because then you become part of their campaign. In England, a minister’s daughter was a drug addict. I didn’t publish the picture of her injecting herself. What purpose would it serve? Or when Jane Mansfield, the famous actress was killed in a car crash, her head came off. There was a photo of that, but I wouldn’t publish it. What are you proving? That she doesn’t have a head. Now with your Gujarat story, if I’d been editing the Sunday Times, I would have done some checks of our own, but I would certainly have followed that story. And we would not just have used the pictures of the men talking, we’d have carried some other emotive pictures as well. Sometimes the shock is justified.
The other big debate is on stings. I feel there are good stings done in public interest and bad stings misused in spurious contexts. Am I missing something?
No, I also think stings must be done to get at the truth. Of course they must be done with great discretion. In England, a Daily Mail reporter dressed up as a butler in the queen’s room just to get private pictures of her. It’s stuff like that which gives stings a bad name.