Despite his reputation as one of its great practitioners, Bruce Page never liked the term “investigative journalist.” For him, there was only good journalism and bad journalism. His death, aged 85, severed one of the remaining ties with the early years of the Sunday Times’ Insight team, which pioneered the detailed unraveling of major scandals – not so much telling the truth to power than seeking the truth about power and telling the general public.
During his 12 years at the Sunday Times, he led the teams that (among many other stories) broke the whole story of how Kim Philby, a KGB agent since the 1930s, became Deputy Chief of MI6; uncovered the causes of the thalidomide scandal, in which a drug taken to fight morning sickness resulted in the birth of thousands of babies with severe birth defects; and revealed the causes of the crash of a DC-10 plane outside Paris in 1974, killing all 346 people on board – until then the worst air disaster of all time.
Page pursued the thalidomide scandal for years. The first leg, while long by journalistic standards — it lasted several months — was the shortest. Page established the chemical reasons for the drug’s impact and demonstrated that its manufacturers were aware of its inherent risks. However, the struggle to bring these facts to light took much longer. A series of legal actions brought by the affected families against Distillers, the UK distributors of the drug, have made reports of the company’s actions legally dangerous.
With the help of James Evans, the Sunday Times’ highly creative in-house lawyer, Page’s team rose to this challenge by writing stories that disclosed as much as they could and asserted the moral case for a action to support families. They also demonstrated that the judges awarded the families compensation that was far too low. In the face of these reports and the heartbreaking weekly reports on the hardship families are facing, Parliament and distillers have been forced to help families further. This was achieved despite an injunction, obtained in November 1972 by the Conservative Attorney General, Sir Peter Rawlinson, which had prevented the Sunday Times from publishing its lead story.
The newspaper filed a complaint against the injunction with the European Court of Human Rights. Four years later, in 1976, while the court was still brooding, another attorney general, Labour’s Sam Silkin, withdrew the injunction. Even after the delays, the story still had a huge impact, dissecting one of the great corporate scandals of its time. The court eventually ruled in 1979 that the original injunction violated the European Convention on Human Rights. It was a historic victory in the fight for a free press.
Born in London, Bruce was the son of Beatrice (née Bourne), a seamstress, and Roger Page, a grocer. From an early age, he demonstrated his determination to be wary of vague claims and to check his facts. One morning he surprised Hilary, his sister, by picking up a worm, rinsing it with tap water and chewing a small part. When she asked him why he did this, he replied that his friends claimed that the food they disliked “taste like worms”; he wanted to see if they were right.
In 1946 the family emigrated to Australia. Dropping out of the University of Melbourne after a year, Page joined the Melbourne Herald. In 1959 he returned to London. Although he was not born in Australia, he associated himself with a generation of young writers from below who injected a robust iconoclasm into British journalism; they included Clive James, Murray Sayle and John Pilger. After stints in the Evening Standard and the Daily Herald, Page joined the Sunday Times in 1964.
The paper was beginning to emerge from its post-war slumber as a vehicle for establishment thought. In 1967, Harold Evans became its editor and accelerated the transformation of the newspaper. It created a questioning environment in which Page flourished; years later, Evans described Page as the newspaper’s “animating genius”. In 1969 Page married Anne Darnborough who, like him, was born in London but spent her formative years in the southern hemisphere: in her case, South Africa. Returning to London in the early 1960s, she joined the anti-apartheid movement and became the founding editor of its monthly newspaper, Anti-Apartheid News. Page shared her passion for the cause and, as she did, supported Labour. In the 1970s, parties at their Islington home brought together fellow journalists (often born in Australia), South African exiles and local Labor activists – invariably modernizers before the label became familiar in the 1990s.
However, Page has never let his political outlook infect his journalism — beyond his core belief that power must be held accountable, and his claims and actions must be tested against hard evidence.
In 1972, the week after Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, two of the paper’s reporters wrote a long story accusing the British Army of plotting the murders as part of a secret plan to eliminate IRA leaders in Derby. Page, along with his colleague John Barry, reviewed the evidence and concluded that it did not substantiate the charge against the army. They persuaded Evans not to publish the article. Over the years and ensuing investigations, it became clear that Page and Barry were right.
Another sign of Page’s commitment to strong evidence was that, unlike many journalists, he favored strong defamation laws. According to him, if the facts cannot be proven, they should not be published.
Page left the Sunday Times in 1976. Two years later he was appointed editor of the New Statesman. It had been losing readers and money for years. Page knew the NS had to change, to provide more accurate analysis and new information. His changes were successful – to some extent. The traffic stopped falling and started to rise.
However, the old guard, who preferred the old, loss-making methods, complained that the writing was less elegant than it had been. More seriously, the magazine violated the journalistic law, to quote CP Scott wrongly, according to which “the commentary is free but the facts are expensive”. The losses of the newspaper increase.
Finally, the birth of the dissident Social Democratic Party in 1981 divided the New Statesman’s board of directors. Page came under heavy pressure to stop the magazine being a critical friend of the Labor Party and switch allegiance to the SDP. Although he agreed with many of the policies of the new party, he believed that the task of the progressives was to modernize the Labor Party and that the SDP would delay this.
None of these factors—old-guard sniping, finances, the SDP—explain Page’s unfortunate departure from the New Statesman in 1982. But together they ended a phase of his career that deserves far more appreciation than it received at the time. the weather.
Page then became involved, with mixed results, in various ventures that applied new technologies to journalism. His only major return to applying truth to power was a detailed analysis of Rupert Murdoch’s career, The Murdoch Archipelago, published in 2003.
Dementia plagued his later years, but did not quell his appetite for discussion, nor quench his memory of the battles he had fought and mostly won.
He is survived by Anne, his children, Lewis and Flora, and five grandchildren.