THE winner of the inaugural Sir Harry Evans Global Fellowship in investigative journalism was introduced to media leaders in London this week before he begins his studies in Durham.
Waylon Cunningham, from Texas, has won the coveted prize, named in honour of the former editor of the Sunday Times and The Northern Echo who was a Durham university graduate, and he hopes the skills he will learn will help him improve on his first foray into investigating a subject.
“I failed, I made every mistake you could, it was a disaster,” he said, “but I discovered that stories don’t tell themselves.”
Waylon had heard that an American company was developing a seaside resort in Mexico to the detriment of local fishermen. “As I began to make calls, it snowballed into something much larger, but when I googled the name of this resort all I found was glowing travel reports, nothing about the barricade the fishermen had built against the development, nothing about how it threatened the fragile water table, nothing I had heard from so many people including the mayor about the concerns over these American developers taking over this small town,” he said.
“On the ground, it was a huge story but anywhere else in the world if you googled it, you didn’t see anything about it.”
But his lack of experience prevented the story from being published.
“It has been a powerful motivator,” he said. “There are stories worth telling that have not been told and I did not have the skills to tell it.”
Sir Harold Evans (above), who died in 2020, became editor of The Northern Echo in 1961 before going to the Sunday Times where he most famously revealed the Thalidomide scandal.
FULL STORY: SIR HARRY’S ROCKET FUEL
READ MORE: SIR HARRY AND THE THALIDOMIDE SCANDAL
“Harry cared so passionately about the profession of journalism and its role to right injustices, to call authority to account,” his widow, Tina Brown, herself a renowned editor and author, told the Echo this week, “and in this era of disruption and noise, it has never been more important because the truth counts. We are finding it very difficult in the post truth age to know what to make of anything, and the role of journalists of calibre is to keep at the truth.”
Tina Brown and Sir Harry Evans discuss the day’s news
The fellowship, which is a partnership between the university and the Reuters news agency, aims to teach young journalists, like Waylon, about the rapidly evolving ways to keep tabs on the truth in the digital world.
“Harry loved the craft of newspapers, but if he were a young editor today, he would have absolutely availed himself of citizen journalism and social media to get to his stories faster – Thalidomide took him years because he didn’t have modern data techniques,” said Ms Brown.
Sir Harry, who grew up in Manchester where he failed his 11-plus which would have got him into grammar school, graduated from Durham in 1952, having studied politics and economics. “He believed that Durham changed his life,” said Ms Brown. “His father was a train driver and he was the first of his family to go to college, and Durham opened his mind to the wider world and much deeper scholarship.
“The Northern Echo was his great, great passion. The stories he did on the Echo – the posthumous pardon for Timothy Evans, the famous pollution story where he reported on a smell, his cervical cancer campaign – were the bedrock of his reputation.”
Timothy Evans was a man who today would be classed as having learning difficulties but he was hanged for a murder he did not commit and Sir Harry, fired by Liberal politicians in Darlington, took up his case. Sir Harry also took on ICI over its emissions on Teesside, instructing his photographers to photograph a smell which forced the chemical giant to clean up its act, and, using the expertise of local clinicians he had the cervical smear made available to all women, for free, on the NHS.
In his speech at Thursday’s dinner, Waylon Cunningham said: “Harry was a practitioner of the old adage that journalism should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. He was a big believer that the best medicine for social ills is not a soothing balm but instead the heated fever of investigative journalism that leaves readers shaking and powerful people sweating.”
Lord Kim Darroch and Waylon Cunningham at Thursday’s event
Waylon was introduced at the event by Lord Darroch, the former British ambassador to the US who comes from South Stanley, near Consett, and is himself a Durham alumnus. There was a panel discussion involving the BBC’s Clive Myrie and CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, which acted as a prelude to a two-day summit in May which will be addressed by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the investigative journalists on The Washington Post who uncovered the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s and brought down US President Richard Nixon.
Waylon Cunningham, third from left, with Tina Brown, Clive Myrie and Lord Kim Darroch, second from right, at Thursday’s lunch
Alessandra Galloni, editor-in-chief Reuters which will oversee the journalistic side of Waylon’s studies, said: “Sir Harry’s legacy will live on through this fellowship and the upcoming summit, which we hope will inspire journalists to fearlessly seek the truth for generations to come.”
Professor Claire O’Malley, Durham University’s Pro-Vice Chancellor said: “As a university with a truly global impact we value the opportunity to work with Reuters and Tina Brown and her family to support inspiring, investigative journalism.
“We are proud of the role that Durham played in shaping Sir Harry’s exceptional outlook and the role that we can play in this global fellowship guiding future generations of journalists telling the stories that shape our world today.”
Waylon, who grew up in a mobile home in east Texas where he learned to string barbed wire for cattle fences before I could read, has just spent his first few days in Durham.
Waylon Cunningham at Durham Castle
“The postcards actually do justice to the place,” he said. “It’s very Hogwartsian, with charming, beautiful cobblestone roads and the train running through. I’d packed for cold temperatures, but it’s quite temperate and much wetter than I expected, although the hospitality from South College has been tremendous.”
IN HIS OWN WORDS: SIR HARRY’S STORY
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