What Price a Pound of Flesh?

a quest for justice for thalidomide victims

“I think a certain commitment to the public good has vanished in the race for circulation… The kind of investigative journalism, which I think is the absolute essence, is in danger and, in fact, in many places has vanished.” - Sir Harold Evans 2009. Picture: Kevin Donnelly, thalidomide Survivor

In Brief

  • In Attacking the Devil, film directors Jacqui Morris and David Morris effectively explore the complex investigation by British investigative journalist Sir Harold Evans into the biggest scandal in pharmaceutical industry
  • In late 1950s and early 1960s, thousands of expectant mothers in some 46 countries took thalidomide, a poisonous morning sickness drug developed by a German company with Nazi links
  • Children whose mothers took thalidomide were born with severe physical or/and mental disabilities
  • The film features first-hand testimonies by Evans and some thalidomide survivors
  • Evans’ long thalidomide investigation and campaign (as editor of The Northern Echo and The Sunday times) to get justice for victims in the UK was confronted by brutal corporate, legal and political challenges
  • The film reveals new information linking Adolf Hitler and thalidomide
Title: Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the last Nazi War Crime
Running time: 99 minutes
Directors: Jacqui Morris & David Morris
Principal cast: Sir Harold Evans
Release: 2016

“If you are to ask people today what is the worst man made disaster in peace time, they would probably say something like Titanic, 1912 - 1,512 lives. Or they might say Chernobyl, maybe a few hundreds lives have gone to that. Or they might say, if they are being a bit more knowledgeable, when the Union Carbide plant blew up in Bhopal, and the number of people dead or injured by that maybe as high as 10,000. But Thalidomide outstrips all of those ten times over and more. The thalidomide disaster probably destroyed more than 100,000 babies, injured 1 million adults, and yet it doesn’t feature in the list that springs to people’s minds.” - Martin Johnson, Thalidomide Trust.

Thus begins siblings Jacqui and David Morris’ enlightening, infuriating and emotionally draining Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the last Nazi War Crime, a documentary about former Sunday Times editor and his tenacious campaigns, particularly for the victims of thalidomide, a poisonous prenatal drug.

Evans' thalidomide campaign is exemplary investigative and advocacy journalism, and it is easy to see why the story intrigued the film directors. The campaign linked the drug to severe physical and mental deformities in unborn children. It would take a decade of reporting to get Distillers, the distributor of the drug in the UK, to adequately compensate victims.

Said Jacqui about the Attacking the Devil project: “We started with the intention to make a documentary about the journalistic career of Harold Evans. Although we knew that thalidomide was going to be a big part of it, it soon became apparent that it dominated everything else. It had everything a filmmaker needs – a heartbreaking story, goodies and baddies, wonderful archive, and ultimate success. It ended up being a bit of everything: a piece about journalism; some biography; an example of what journalism can achieve.”

Distillers' Board: driven by greed they pushed to enhance bottom lines

Using archive TV footage, recent interviews and dense narration, the film explores the genesis of the drug, and the corporate greed and political inertia that frustrated efforts by the team of investigative journalists led by Evans to cover this story.

Evans (88), as the principal star in the film, eloquently gives context to the wretched affair, from German pharmaceutical company Chemie Grunenthal’s Nazi ties and dodgy drug test trials to the tribulations of the victims and the change of the draconian contempt laws that prevented reporting of civil cases. 

In 1946, Chemie Grunenthal (originally a perfume and soap manufacturer) diversified to exploit post-war demand for antibiotics and sedatives, which were much in demand by clinically depressed people. As Germany became a calmer place, the demand for antibiotics and sedatives stabilised, and Chemie Grunenthal needed another bestseller and fast. It found it in thalidomide, an addictive euphoric, which was first marketed in West Germany in 1956 under the trade name Contergan.

The world’s first thalidomide baby was delivered there on Christmas day of 1956. The wife of the baby’s father (a young chemist for Chemie Grunenthal) had taken samples of the new ‘wonder drug’ to help combat her morning sickness. No one linked the drug, which had thalidomide as active substance, to the baby’s missing ears, and Chemie Grunenthal embarked on a worldwide marketing drive.

In 1958, thalidomide was approved by the UK’s National Health Service and marketed as Distaval by Distillers (now part of beverage giant Diageo Plc.). Distillers, the makers of Johnny Walker, had ventured into pharmaceuticals to take advantage of an expected, huge boom in euphoric drugs.

The image that speaks volumes

In Africa, many of the affected children were born into upper and middle class families particularly people involved in the medical profession, recent immigrants from Europe and wives of employees of multi national corporations.

According to a paper written by historians Susanne M. Klausen (University of Johannesburg) and Julie Parle (University of KwaZulu Natal), these families got the drug themselves during trips to countries where it was legally available or were given samples by sales representatives, doctors or family members who had acquired thalidomide elsewhere.

On 4 August 1962, South African newspaper, The Star, reported the first thalidomide baby born to Mary Perdigao of Johannesburg who got the drug during a trip to Mozambique.

By 1962, the horror of thalidomide was glaring. At the lowest estimate, thalidomide left over 10,000 children with phocomelia. Thousands of women miscarried or aborted. In the UK, 2,000 thalidomide newborns were reported. Many of them severely deformed were left in ‘a cold room to die’ or ‘suffocated by doctors’.”

The directors used newly filmed testimonies of thalidomide survivors recounting their life-long quest to understand their condition and its impact on families, yet the film manages to avoid goriness. For the survivors, the physical, emotional and health effects of the drug continue, with many now experiencing early onset of age-related maladies such as coronary heart disease and osteoarthritis.

Attacking the Devil reveals new information – that thalidomide was developed in the Nazi concentration camps as an antidote to the nerve gas, sarin. One of the inventors of sarin, Otto Ambros, went on to work at Chemie Grunenthal, which sold thalidomide as a cure for morning sickness after the war and before testing for effects on foetuses. In the film, UK-based thalidomide charity Thalidomide Trust presents circumstantial evidence that the drug may have been tested on inmates in concentration camps.

Slaying the devil

When Evans arrived at The Northern Echo in 1961, he sat on former editor WT Stead’s chair. “On the desk was his framed letter in which he said the editor’s job was ‘a glorious opportunity of attacking the devil’.” The words motivated Evans, who had a knack for finding and pursuing hidden issues in the public’s interest.

He saw campaigns as the way forward, and installed teams of journalists to work on long-term projects, including the push for pap smear screenings in Britain and the exposure of intelligence agent Kim Philby as a soviet spy.

Sir Harold Evans: a great role model for current generation of journalists

His greatest campaign – the thalidomide campaign - started at the Northern Echo. There were thalidomide children in Darlington where the Northern Echo operates, and Evans put them in the newspaper, much to the chagrin of some readers.

In 1967 when he started as editor of The Sunday Times, Evans pursued the thalidomide campaign and sought to know why there had been no public inquiry into the issue, yet thalidomide had been withdrawn in 1961.

The then health minister Enoch Powell, who Evans describes as a ‘brilliant man without a heart’, refused to allow a public inquiry. Powell’s stance forced parents of victims to sue Distillers and Chemie Grunenthal for negligence, which the corporates vigorously contested.

But Evans team could not cover the court case. "When we tried to expose the plight of the thalidomide children - some without arms or legs, some born just trunks – they had been denied compensation for ten years. Why wasn't there a huge national scandal about it? Why? Because we in the press weren't allowed to comment on a case before the courts."

So he decided to focus on Distillers’ greed and lack of morals and published photographs of victims. The public backed his calls to boycott the company’s beverages. This forced Distillers to increase compensation for victims from £3.3 million to £20 million.

Young Kevin Donnelly: His parents never gave up on him

Miffed, the government engaged Evans in a legal tussle, which finally landed before the European Court of Human Rights. His triumph in the international court forced the British government to change the contempt laws.

There was an ethical issue in the thalidomide campaign involving the buying of information aka ‘chequebook journalism’, which Evans justifies in the film, saying the publics’ interest to know the truth was paramount.

The newspaper paid two sources for information - Henning Elof Sjöström, a lawyer who had represented Swedish thalidomide victims and had access to documents seized from Chemie Grunthenal, and Dr. Montagu Phillips, a consulting pharmacologist who had been engaged as a professional adviser by lawyers representing British families.

"We didn't stand a chance without that guy [Harold Evans]”, says the mother of one thalidomide victim in the film. “But the bigger they are, the harder they fall."

Asked in 2009 about the future of journalism, Evans said; “I think a certain commitment to the public good has vanished in the race for circulation… The kind of investigative journalism, which I think is the absolute essence, is in danger and, in fact, in many places has vanished.”

The Morris’ award-winning documentary will be dramatised as a major feature film by Hollywood movie producers, The Weinstein Company.