Attacking the Devil: Illustrating the best of investigative journalism
By Georgia Luscombe
On Friday 7 November, the Frontline Club played host to award-winning journalist Marjorie Wallace and director Jacqui Morris (McCullin, 2012) for a preview screening of Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime, followed by a Q&A.
As audience members stirred with sympathy for the victims of the thalidomide scandal, portrayed with honesty and dignity as they spoke directly to the camera, Wallace and Morris described their own determination to bring one of the greatest horrors of the post-war era to popular attention.
“You liberated them,” Morris said, “they thought that they were out there on their own.”
“You can’t imagine how isolated these people were,” Wallace replied. She lived with the families of the thalidomide children before writing her series of articles in 1972, as part of the ‘moral campaign’ to bring the plight of the ‘thalidomiders’ to public knowledge.
Attacking the Devil follows the journey of Sir Harold (Harry) Evans as he went from launching campaigns in The Northern Echo, such as the right to PAP Smears on the NHS and exposing the innocence of Timothy Evans, to becoming editor of The Sunday Times in 1961. Using footage of the offices of The Sunday Times in the 1960s and 1970s. The film also provides a visual window into the hard work of the paper’s Insight team, of which Wallace was a member.
“It was a wider film to start with,” Morris explained. “. . . A huge edit.” The investigative campaigns of the Insight team, overseen by Evans, were so detailed and numerous that condensing them into a 99-minute documentary film was a momentous task. Morris described how she chose to focus on the thalidomide scandal because the work of the Insight team on that story “illustrates the best of investigative journalism”.
Wallace emphasised that the success and integrity of the Insight team in that era was due in large part to the then-owner of The Sunday Times, Lord Thompson, who believed in the benefit of long-term investigation. After Rupert Murdoch took over the newspaper in 1981, Harry Evans stayed for only a year. Wallace explained that, “Harry couldn’t buy into the Murdoch way of thinking.”
The film shows Evans giving testimony at the Leveson Inquiry in 2012, were he defended the need to maintain editorial standards.
“Above all Harry Evans was an extraordinary person to work for,” said Wallace, after describing how she first met her former editor at a tennis court whilst she was looking after her six-week old baby. He whisked her off to write for The Sunday Times about the thalidomide scandal, finding her a baby-sitter immediately and asking her to start “on Monday”. She slept on the floors of the families’ homes and lived their lives alongside them to really understand what they were going through. “You can’t write a story until you’ve seen that person’s mantelpiece,” Wallace laughed.
The film, which was co-directed by Jacqui’s brother David Morris, will be released in cinemas in March 2015.