The oracle is indisposed. Petitioners have besieged him all morning, pummelled him over lunch and continue to press throughout the darkening afternoon, the same question on every pair of lips: Tell us, wise one, what is the future of newspapers?
Nodding off as the ordeal grinds on, the oracle offers the same anodyne non-answer to each earnest supplicant. A legendary editor, high priest of the seditious cult of hard-nosed journalism, he has, at 81, just published a mighty tome brashly celebrating the glory of his sacred trade.
But his comments about its future are confined to a few sentences of diffident speculation on the second last of 580 pages.
"Everyone wants me to predict the future," Harold Evans complains. "But I've written about the past!"
He points to the subtitle of the book, My Paper Chase . "It's called 'True Stories of Vanished Times,'" he notes, repeating the operative word: "vanished."
The emphasis speaks for itself.
As one of the great figures of the greatest age of print journalism, a crusader who relentlessly attacked the British establishment from an impregnable bastion within its walls - The Sunday Times under the exemplary ownership of Canadian Roy Thomson - Mr. Evans and his crack team of investigative reporters changed history on a weekly schedule.
They exposed the treachery of Soviet spy Kim Philby, opposed the brutality of British policy in Northern Ireland, campaigned fiercely against the well-connected conglomerate that foisted the unproven drug thalidomide on thousands of pregnant women, leading to hideous deformities, and routinely defied gag orders from governments and courts.
My Paper Chase documents every heady event of Mr. Evans's career with such immediacy one forgets how very vanished the era is. But as he demonstrates, it ended abruptly a quarter-century ago when rising media baron Rupert Murdoch bought the Times titles from the Thomson family, fired Mr. Evans and abandoned their independence in favour of an openly partisan editorial policy.
Better known in North America as Mr. Tina Brown, consort of the glamorous magazine genius who remade and rescued both Vanity Fair and The New Yorker , Mr. Evans hasn't managed a daily paper since then. But his distinguished career in the United States, including a stint as president of book publisher Random House, merits only a single thin chapter in his memoir.
If Mr. Evans declines to predict the future of newspapers, he is determined to recall what they once were, beginning with his apprenticeship in 1950s Manchester, where, he writes, "no fewer than twenty-six newspapers were written, edited and published within a couple of square miles." It was a milieu that "simply throbbed with news day and night."
Mr. Evans's heroes are not the high and mighty he routinely defied as a cocky northerner with the wrong accent, testing the limits of a class-bound society's timid experiment in meritocracy. Instead, he lionizes such figures as William Thomas Stead, a seminal crusader jailed for exposing the extent of sanctioned child prostitution in Victorian England, and whose old office Mr. Evans occupied when he became editor of The Northern Echo, a regional daily. Brilliant but anonymous sub-editors (called copy editors in North America) merit long passages of lavish praise. Even the proprietors are heroes.
Only once in the entire book, when he describes a grilling that the eminent board of Times Newspapers put him through before handing over "the Rolls-Royce of Fleet Street," does Mr. Evans stop to reflect on the present. The single demand they made is that he maintain the paper's independence and never "sell out to Mammon or twist the news for a political agenda."
"Looking back at the commitments they demanded," he writes, "I can't help but wonder at how much journalism has changed."
Mr. Thomson made his mark with absolute benign indifference to the political consequences of Mr. Evans's crusading journalism, an attitude exemplified when his editor decided to publish the Westminster diaries of a former Labour minister in flagrant violation of the "stultifying" Official Secrets Act, which then demanded that ministers wait 30 years to publish uncensored accounts of their time in government.
"Roy Thomson was there that night and he said, 'How's the run going, Harold?' I said, 'Well, I'm expecting it to be stopped any moment by the government because we have the secret diaries of Richard Crossman.' He said, 'Well I hope it's a good read, Harold,' and he walked out.
"It was just incredible. It might close the paper and you hope it's a good read?"
Mr. Evans locked the doors after Mr. Thomson left, barring a messenger with a government gag order in hand, and let loose a blast that destroyed a long tradition of government-ordered press censorship.
"News," Mr. Evans murmurs, citing a long-vanished truism of the old cult while nestled in an overstuffed corner of the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto, "is whatever someone wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising."
The formula that once supported such insights also produced annual 20-per-cent profits for dominant newspapers. But Mr. Evans is scathing about contemporary papers that "lose their nerve" in response to tough times, especially by cutting editorial content, "the most stupid thing you can do."
That strategy helped to lead the once-mighty Tribune Company, publisher of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, into bankruptcy last year, part of a wave that has also immersed The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, The Orange County Register in California, the Chicago Sun-Times and The Star Tribune of Minneapolis.
Piecemeal cutting destroys integrity as surely as political interference, according to Mr. Evans. "There's no advertising to support the sports page," he notes. "You won't dream of dropping the sports section, but they drop the book section. Why? Because they're vulgarians. Seriously. It's so shortsighted."
Without speculating about the future, one can already see "the consequences of not having newspapers," he says, citing the failure of journalistic "invigilation" before the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq war and last year's financial meltdown.
The future looms. The same old question returns. "I can't imagine a world without proper journalism," he confesses, leaning back wearily. "It's one that won't last long."
And, with that, he closes his eyes and sleeps.
John Barber is The Globe and Mail's publishing reporter.