Film explores Harold Evans’s work to expose the truth about thalidomide

By Marsha Lederman

The importance of excellent, rigorous journalism became clear to Harold Evans during a family vacation when he was 12. Walking on a beach in Britain, he and his father encountered a group of soldiers, evacuees from Dunkirk. They shared desperate stories of the battle and evacuation; Dunkirk was disastrous, they said. But when the family returned that day to the boarding house where they were staying, a Daily Mirror headline told a different story of the evacuation: “Bloody Marvellous!” it screamed.

That event became a guiding force for Evans, who became a journalist, choosing to expose difficult truths – and effect change – rather than serve up morale-boosting pap. And the results have been, yes, bloody marvellous.

Evans’s remarkable career, in particular his work in Britain editing The Northern Echo and The Sunday Times, is the basis for a new documentary by the brother-and-sister team Jacqui and David Morris, having its international premiere at Hot Docs this month after an earlier version premiered at Sheffield Doc/Fest. Attacking The Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime won the special jury prize at Sheffield, has been picked up by the Weinstein Company for theatrical release scheduled for this fall and the Weinsteins are also planning a feature film based on the documentary. It plays like an edge-of-your-seat thriller, emotionally powerful but never sentimental, while heralding the power of journalism.

“A newspaper office is full of inquiring minds looking around for trouble,” Evans said to me at one point during a lengthy interview from New York, where he now lives (with his fellow journalist wife, Tina Brown). At least it should be, we agreed, commiserating about the current challenges facing the industry.

(Evans is currently editor-at-large for Thomson Reuters. The Thomson family’s holding company, Woodbridge Co. Ltd., is the majority owner of The Globe and Mail. David Thomson, who is chair of Thomson Reuters, is executive producer of the film, and The Globe and Mail’s board chair.)

“The press have had a real knocking over the last few years and I think this is so important a film to open people’s eyes to how important the press is,” says Jacqui Morris, who co-directed the documentary with her brother.

While the project began as a look at Evans’s career, as events took shape, it became focused on the fight of his life: his years-long campaign to secure adequate compensation for victims of thalidomide and expose the injustices that had allowed the catastrophe to occur.

“We didn’t realize how extraordinary the whole saga was and how important Harold Evans was until we sort of got going,” says Jacqui Morris, during an interview from London. “So that sort of dominated the film, which wasn’t planned from the beginning but … it was such an extraordinary tale that we felt we had to do it justice, really.”

Extraordinary almost seems like not a strong enough word for this tale, which has its roots in the Second World War – much like Evans’s journalism career itself. But as it turns out, these roots go far deeper into the war than initially understood.

The film connects the dots between Hitler and thalidomide. One of the inventors of sarin gas was ordered by Hitler to develop an antidote to the nerve gas. Otto Ambros (the “A” in sarin), a Nazi official involved in Auschwitz, convicted at Nuremberg but later freed, went on to work at Chemie Gruenenthal – the German company that developed thalidomide. In the film, the Thalidomide Trust presents convincing (although still circumstantial) evidence that the drug may have been tested on concentration camp inmates. “My God, I never thought I’d see the likes of that again,” said the uncle of a thalidomide baby when he first met him. He was one of the soldiers who liberated Bergen-Belsen, where he saw small children who looked a lot like his new nephew.

Sir Harold Evans (Harry to his friends; knighted in 2004) was born in Manchester and began his career as a reporter at 16. In 1961, he was offered the editorship of the regional daily The Northern Echo, in England’s northeast.

It was there that Evans first made a mark with his crusading style of advocacy journalism, upon which he has built his career.

“Any good newspaper has a duty to uncover the facts which are easily ignored,” Evans, now 86, told The Globe. “And then when there’s a convincing case, to act – not to sit back and say, ‘That’s not our job.’ Whose bloody job is it?”

Evans’s past media crusades contributed to changes in both Britain’s medical and legal practices, including the elimination of that country’s death penalty. But it was the thalidomide scandal that came to dominate his career.

Thalidomide, as the film documents, was developed by Chemie Gruenenthal, and marketed as a miracle drug for pregnant women suffering from morning sickness, beginning in 1957. The results were devastating: Thousands of babies were born with severe birth defects (one father recounts seeing his newborn daughter who could “only be described as a torso with sort of little flowers where the arms and legs should be,” he says in the film). Many babies were stillborn – or left to die, the film explains in one of its many heartbreaking details. One of the thalidomiders (as they are sometimes called) recounts how he had been put into a container, thought to be stillborn, until movement in the box alerted someone to the fact he was alive.

The children who did survive were often shunned by society (and sometimes by their abandoning fathers) and they presented terrific challenges for loving but desperate parents, including mothers who were also dealing with a tremendous (if completely unfounded) guilt. By 1962, widespread bans were implemented. In Britain, to Evans’s astonishment, no inquiry was called, no compensation offered. The families, frantic for help, were left to sue. But once the case was before the courts, newspapers were prevented from reporting on the issue until every case was settled.

At the Sunday Times, Evans sicced the paper’s investigative Insight team on the injustice. Risking jail time, Evans launched what he called a moral campaign in his paper, which eventually produced significant results: a debate over compensation in the House of Commons, which opened the door for other media to report on the story. The company manufacturing the drug in Britain, Distillers (which no longer exists), reeled – consumers boycotted its alcohol products; share prices plummeted. Distillers finally agreed to pay the £20-million in compensation Evans had been calling for.

Still, the newspaper could not report everything it knew: It was legal for it to conduct its moral campaign, but illegal to publish the facts upon which the campaign was based.

“That was the situation,” Evans says in the film. “How could anybody stand for that?”

He couldn’t. He led a court battle – which led ultimately to a change in the laws inhibiting such reporting.

This was a prolonged campaign, more than 10 years, dizzying with twists and turns, told so compellingly in this film that I emitted involuntary gasps of disbelief and fury (and some tears) as I watched. I wasn’t surprised when Jacqui Morris told me the experience was life-changing for those involved.

“I think for me it’s the most difficult thing we’ll ever do in our lives because it’s such an incredibly complicated story and it’s a story that we’ve had to distill and simplify, but still keep the essence of it and still keep the truth of it,” says David Morris. “Essentially, everything’s going to be relatively easy from now on. We’ll never get anything like this again.”

The thalidomide story is still evolving. Following The Globe and Mail’s own series of stories published last year, the Canadian government finally announced increased compensation for victims in this country (where thalidomide continued to be sold for several months after it was withdrawn elsewhere). There have been revelations about the Nazi involvement in the drug’s creation, and scandalous cover-ups. There are more developments to come. Evans, passionate as ever, is still at the story like an inquisitive dog with a rotten bone, investigating, writing, exposing – thrilled as ever with the possibilities of his calling.

“I have two loves in life,” he says before taking off for another meeting. “One is Tina Brown and the other is journalism.” ♦

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