As a new film is released about his crusade to get to the truth about thalidomide, Sir Harold Evans talks to Chris Lloyd about his greatest journalistic campaign

“THAT was the real driving force – why, why, why,” says Sir Harold Evans, and even though he’s in a car in London taking him to his movie premiere, up in Darlington at the other end of the line, you can feel him slapping the air three times to emphasise his point.

Sir Harry is possibly the greatest campaigning journalist of the 20th Century, and his documentary film, which goes on general release this weekend, is about his greatest campaign – the fight for justice for the victims of the drug thalidomide.

Loading article content

The film is entitled Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime. Just as the title is taken from Evans’s time in Darlington, so the Thalidomide campaign began here when he became editor of The Northern Echo in 1961.

“In Darlington, there were children being born with thalidomide difficulties,” he says. “I saw photographs in the Observer magazine of children born without limbs because of the drug, and so I put them in The Northern Echo and that was the beginning of my lifelong interest.

“At that time, some people were offended by the photographs, but the reason I published was because they showed something had happened – mothers have given birth to these children: is it just a fluke of nature or is there some other cause? When there’s a train crash or an air crash, you want to know the cause.

“We made some inquiries and by the time I reached the Sunday Times (in 1967), I couldn’t understand why there hadn’t been a public inquiry – that was the real driving force: why why why.”

Finding out the whys and the wherefores proved extremely difficult. Thalidomide had been made by a German company, Chemie Grunenthal, in the late 1950s to combat morning sickness in pregnant women, and had been distributed to the NHS in this country by the firm Distillers. It was soon noted that these women were giving birth to babies with shortened and deformed limbs; many didn’t survive at all.

The drug was withdrawn in November 1961 – but then the real battle began. Because it was believed that the placenta protected the foetus from anything consumed by the mother, officialdom refused to accept a link between the drug and the deformities. Then, when a compensation case came to court in the early 1970s with Distillers offering £3.3m, Evans was unable to report on the link because journalists were banned from commenting on legal cases.

But Evans spotted a loophole: instead of reporting the legal issues, he launched a campaign entitled “Our Thalidomide Children: a cause for national shame” which looked at Distillers' moral responsibilities. He risked jail, but the public backed his call for a boycott of Distillers’ drinks products, the company’s share price fell by £35m in nine days, and it soon returned with an offer of £20m compensation.

“When I arrived at The Northern Echo, I sat in what I was told was WT Stead’s chair,” says Evans, referring to the great social campaigner who edited the paper in the 1870s. “On the desk was his framed letter in which he said the editor’s job was ‘a glorious opportunity of attacking the devil’.

“I looked at it every day and thought am I going to betray the legacy of WT Stead and not do anything?

“Everytime I looked at the letter, I was given a new charge.”

There were 2,000 thalidomide babies in Britain (468 of them survive today); worldwide there were 20,000 in countless countries where the drugs companies were shielded by the law.

“Only three years ago, we got decent compensation for the Canadian and Australian victims, and the victims in Spain to this day have not been given compensation,” says Evans. “This is an amazing scandal. In Latin America, it is still being prescribed for leprosy and we still get births.”

The documentary, which has already won awards, is being shown in London cinemas from tomorrow before opening around the country later – York Picturehouse is scheduled to show it on March 22. The rights to the story have been bought by the Weinstein brothers, the Hollywood film producers, who plan to dramatise it.

“I’d like Boris Karloff to play me,” says Evans, a diminutive figure who is now 87. “It has to be someone in their 40s, like I was, and it has to be somebody who is tall – 6ft 2ins, at least.”

The twist in the plot is that the documentary makers have uncovered a link that not even Evans’s journalists in the 1960s discovered. They knew that the German manufacturers had Nazi links, but now it is believed that the drug was initially developed as an antidote for nerve gas and it was tested on prisoners in concentration camps.

“We first got thalidomide babies in 1959, but now we know they saw the same kinds of deformities in Belsen in the late 1930s when they were doing experiments and thalidomide was probably a derivative of their drug,” says Evans.

You can hear his voice break in anger and you can feel him stabbing the air in fury as he says: “It is probably the longest piece of running villainry that ever went unexposed.”