Friday, 10 February 2017

Britain is still a country for and salutes its scarce old Prince of Media, Steve Hewlett

Steve, who is 59 years old this year and receiving paliative care for cancer in the Royal Marsden Hospital, has had to face the fact that his remarkable career, which has spanned 35 years and work in television as the producer of programmes which made television history and more recently as commentator on BBC Radio 4, is over.

In March 2016 Steve was told by doctors that he was suffering from a very aggressive form of cancer and art of his strategy to manage his condition has been to write 'My cancer diary' for the Guardian and have a regular slot on 'Eddie Mair's Interview' on BBC Radio 4's PM Programme. Many thousands of readers and listeners have taken fillip from his fortitude and public response to his openness has been overwhelming, with him saying that it never crossed his mind it would have that effect on audiences.

In October last year Steve wrote : 'I’ve got cancer. It’s a Stage 4, advanced adenocarcinoma located at the junction of my oesophagus and my stomach which has spread to nearby lymph nodes and to my liver. I never imagined seriously that I’d get cancer. I don’t mean I didn’t recognise it as a possibility – after all I smoked until 20 years ago and enjoyed eating and drinking – occasionally to traditional journalistic excess – and I know that many of us will get cancer at some point in our lives. But it was always going to be someone else. That is until it wasn’t.'

His prognosis wasn't favourable, but because of his tenacity and his admission that : "in navigating the system a little bit of journalistic nous comes in handy", he was able to discover a treatment option, albeit an expensive one that he had to pay for himself, which until last week appeared to be defying the odds. On the 8th February, however, he told Eddie Mair, who interviewed him in hospital, that he had asked his consultant : "What are we talking about ?" to which she had replied : "We're now in a phase where you'd better live every day as it comes."

Looking back on his life Steve has said : "I feel incredibly lucky to have had the career I've had. I've met Colonel Gadafi. I've spent eight to nine weeks in the Maze Prison. I made a film about Bloody Sunday, which to this day, I think is one of the best things I've ever done. It was about as close to 'the' story about Bloody Sunday, both human story and what happened, I think any one's ever got. I've made films in Africa. I've done loads of things and met loads of people. I feel I've been pretty lucky."

This week, in answer to Eddie's question to Steve when he visited him in hospital :
"Do you have anything you're itching to get off your chest about the media world ?" He voiced his concerns about the institution he clearly cared for deeply and had first worked for as a 23 year old cub journalist 35 years ago and worked for on and off ever since, producing programmes of which he was justly proud, namely, the BBC : "I worry about the BBC's leadership. There are quite a lot of things going on in the world of the BBC. The scale of the savings they've got to make are truly gargantuan and I see no real evidence that they are up to the challenge in a sufficiently strategic way and that is going to create moments of severe vulnerability. I worry about the BBC for that."

Steve's Life in the Media : 

Steve was born in Birmingham in 1958 and was transferred to a nursery at 9-10 months, ready for adoption and when he was placed in the hands of his adoptive parents, Vera and Larry Hewlett, it was all down to his new Nan because, as he recalled, she was the one who picked him out from the "rows and rows of babies, rows and rows of cots in a childrens' home" because he had the rosiest cheeks and fair curly hair and the "reason I had the rosiest cheeks was because I was coughing my guts up with whooping cough."

In 1977, having passed his 'A' Level exams, he took himself off to Manchester University to study a 'Liberal Studies in Science' degree which combined Biology with History, Philosophy and Economics, a relatively new discipline, which it was hoped would lead to a more imaginative linking of teaching and research in the physical sciences and social sciences, providing science students like Steve with a broader 'liberal' education.

As a student activist and briefly a member of a far left group, he was involved in Student Union activity which involved a rent strike and a campaign against the increase in fees for overseas students and, without knowing it, came to the attention of M15.

After graduating from university in 1981, he both taught at the new Manchester Polytechnic and at the same time dabbled in the world of journalism, selling tips to the BBC’s regional researcher for £15 a story. His first big break came when the BBC's 'Panorama' phoned him up about the huge explosion which ripped through the Chemstar Chemical Processing Plant in Stalybridge which caused the death of a lorry driver, injuries to two people and the evacuation of more than 300 families. Steve, who had got the phone numbers of the two men connected to the incident from an old journalist called Ken Ferguson and passed them to the Panorama team, gained their regard and later mused : "They obviously thought they'd stumbled across this great investigative talent."

Employed on a temporary contract with the BBC, at the age of 24 he became the 'de facto' producer of a piece, which turned into a full 'Nationwide' Special with a David Dimbleby introduction. It focused on the police cover up of the rape of a woman who committed suicide. He recalled : "No one would believe her because the rape had been committed by Saudi Arabian Army officers who were King Fahd's Personal Guard." However, "that night the Argies invaded the Falklands and this story just disappeared."

Meanwhile, Steve's activities as a student had come to the notice of the BBC’s notorious Special Assistant to the Director of Personnel, former army officer, Brigadier Ronnie Stonham. whose job was to vet BBC staff. Three years later in 1985 two reporters from the Observer spoke to Steve about his experience with the 'Christmas Tree', the BBC's security file and reported in the article : 'In 1982 a similar attempt was made to blight the career of a young journalist-the only one we traced who is too worried to be named. A former student activist and briefly a member of the small and eccentric Maoist group, the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), he joined the BBC on an informal three-month contract and reported an incident, based on leaks from policemen, that a rape by a Saudi in Britain had been concealed for diplomatic reasons.' 

At the time his contract was not renewed because he was labelled as 'subversive', but by the time the Editor of 'Nationwide', Roger Bolton, told the Personnel Department that was not going to let them dictate who he hired as a researcher and forced the renewed offer of his BBC contract and  a job on the new BBC1 consumer show 'That’s Life', Steve had already decided to work in independent production on Channel’s 4 trailblazing 'Friday Alternative' and 'Diverse Reports.'

In relation to the new Channel 4 he later reflected : "When I was there, right at the beginning, there was a clearly defined purpose, which was : Whenever you find a liberal consensus, probe it, probe it, probe it. If there's another way of looking at it, broadcast it and we did all sorts of things on the right and the left. I think I may positively the only person I know in the whole of television, even today, whose ever made a programme that advocated capital punishment, which is something, I have to say, I don't believe in for two seconds."

One of the first programmes he did for 'Diverse Reports' was entitled 'Peace Convoy' and focused on the alternative lifestyle of the hippies and began with Series Editor saying : "In the last week the press and the politicians have been waging war on the Peace Convoy, the hippies have been hounded and vilified, but very little effort has been made to find out who they are and what they believe. Tonight in 'Diverse Reports', members of the convoy answer the critics and explain why they chose their alternative life and what they think of the way we live."

Returning to the the BBC and up until 1994, he worked as Executive Producer / Producer on 35 episodes of its documentary film strand, 'Inside Out' with its focus on investigative journalism. The 'Special' he produced in 1991 with Peter Taylor focussed on life in Northern Ireland's prison, 'The Maze', at the time when it was Britain's maximum security terrorist jail, with eight 'H' blocks holding 450 Loyalists and Republicans, bombers and gunmen of the conflict in Northern Ireland. He spent 8-9 weeks working in the Prison with Peter and recalled : "It was a bit like the view that the prison could be a crucible for the kind of things it might be possible to reproduce on the outside and I can remember well that inside the prison the Medical Unit was accepted as 'No Man's Land', so when the leaders had to go and chat about this and that, their medical excuses would be made and they'd turn up in the Medical Unit and they would chat."

Steve found it amusing that the only interview in the prison which had to be dubbed by an actor's voice was when the prisoner who was the 'IRA food Representative', met with officers and said : " You see them there sausage rolls, they're not big enough," because at that point he was deemed to be representing a proscribed organisation, despite the fact that "other people were talking about killings, the IRA, the UVF, the UDA." 

The 'Inside Out' episode went on to win major awards from both the Royal Television Society and the Broadcasting Press Guild but it was his 'Remember Bloody Sunday' that he was most proud.
It was made in 1992 to mark the 20th Anniversary of the event on 30 January 1972 in the Bogside area of Derry, Northern Ireland, when British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians during a peaceful protest march against internment and as a result 14 died. Peter Taylor took the testimony of both soldiers and civilians and left the viewers to draw their own conclusions. Steve remembers the programme as the one which gives him the most professional pride.
Colonel Wilford commanding the Parachute Regiment :
and :
Father Edward Daly :
and :

Steve had moved from 'Inside Out' to 'Panorama' when the journalist Martin Bashir said to him : "Look, the Royal marriage is obviously on the rocks, something's going to happen. Do you think we should have a look at it ? in a very 'panoramy' sort of way" to which he replied : "Royalty's not my main interest, but I can see that there might be constitutional consequences of any potential breakdown." He gave Martin the go ahead and allocated resources and as Executive Producer he was present during Martin's subsequent filmed interview of Diana in an Eastbourne on a sunday evening in 1995.
Steve recalled that shortly afterwards : "the production team had come to talk about it at my house in Shepherd’s Bush. The minute they left I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach. I thought it will be shit. The only thing that was worse than not having this interview was that it would be fawning nonsense. I felt that could be career ending.” Yet, after those initial misgivings, he was encouraged when the editor phoned and said : "I think you've got a film." He expressed his exhilaration when he later said : "The journalistic world would give most of their arms and legs, all of them, to get this interview and we've bloody well got it. It was an extraordinary feeling."

He kept the programme secret from the rest of the Panorama team, which employed some of the world’s best investigative journalists, when he said : "we were doing a top secret story about police corruption and that shut them all up.The hardest thing was to keep it from Alan Yentob (then controller of BBC One). Everybody knew that if Yentob got the faintest whiff of it, it would be everywhere.” The Director General, John Birt, didn't tell Mamaduke Hussey, the Chairman of the BBC about the interview and "was absolutely committed to the BBC doing this programme and showing it. There was no interference of any description. Birt took a huge personal risk.”

The broadcast, 'An Interview with HRH the Princess of Wales' was viewed by an audience of 23 million and has taken its place in television broadcasting history.

At this point in his career, and still only 40 years old, Steve was considered for the position of Controller of BBC 1, which in the event was given to Peter Salmon and in 1998, he left the BBC, moved to Channel 4 and then to Carlton ITV, where he remained for six years as as Director of Programmes / Production and at the age of 41 in 1999 he commissioned 'The Second World War in Colour' narrated by John Thaw.

The series featured disturbing images and he took this as an opportunity to warn that broadcasters were sanitising the horror of war because of a mistaken fear of a backlash from squeamish viewers and said : "There is a general sense that we are becoming more restrictive. The drift needs to be recognised; there is a danger that if you are not careful you change the journalistic impact and the sense of what happened."

Steve courted controversy when he was prompted to speak out after comparing BBC World's coverage of the Kosovo Conflict with its international rivals. On a visit to France, he saw local versions of the aftermath of Nato's bombing of a refugee convoy. "Without exception it was absolutely ghastly; it was not what I am used to seeing. Undeniably, an appalling tragedy had occurred." By the same token he thought that the BBC's coverage of the event was dramatically different : "It was so sanitised that it made me question whether the event had happened at all in the way I had previously seen."

Steve was critical of Carlton where he recalled he : “ended up in the bizarre corporate politics of an ITV company where people don’t understand television.” In 2004, Carlton Communications was taken over by Granada and Steve was made redundant, but not for long, since in the same year he was appointed the new Non-executive Director of 'Tiger Aspect Productions.'  At the time the Company Chairman, Peter Bennett-Jones, said : "What excited us was Steve's direct experience of working for all the major UK broadcasters he knows the UK broadcast landscape inside out and has extensive knowledge of the international market. He has expertise and contacts across the board of programming and will be a great asset to Tiger Aspect."

He remained with Tiger Aspect for three years and then put together what might be called 'a portfolio career.' He wrote a weekly Media Column for The Guardian and in 2008 started presenting 'The Media Show' on BBC Radio 4 and was billed as 'Visiting Professor of Journalism and Broadcast Policy at the University of Salford.'  With its focus on the fast-changing world of media in all its forms :  print, television, radio, online and telecommunications, it was tailor-made for Steve who said : "I hope the programme will be able to lift the lid on many of the current stories within the media, offering genuine insight and intelligence, making this show a must-listen for both those within the industry – but always accessible to a wider audience of those interested in a subject that affects all our lives."

In addition, he also continued to make TV programmes which included one whose subject was Rupert Murdoch and his relationship with Britain and Tony Blair and in 2009 he acted as Executive Producer for 'Scenes from a Teenage Killing' made by Minnow Films and aired by the BBC, a documentary directed by Morgan Matthews, it was nominated for a BAFTA for 'Best Single Documentary.'

In 2015 he was in the news again with 'Reinventing the Royals', his two-parter which he wrote and presented for 'Panorama', which explored the family's relationship with the media and attracted
controversy before it was aired when it was claimed in the 'Radio Times' that Clarence House had refused to release archive footage and had tried to stop it from being aired. It seems appropriate that Steve's last story for the BBC, which became front page news, ruffled Establishment feathers, just like his first had done in police and Saudi circles as a 24 year old reporter 33 years before.

An old media maestro to his roots, Steve has said with perfect self-effacement :
"The only thing I felt absolutely confident about was how to make films and how to run cutting rooms and how to get the best out of their material."

He also once described a quality he had, in relation to his career in the Media, that is perfectly applicable to the calmness and tenacity with which he has approached his struggle with cancer :
"In situations where you might be forgiven for panicking because everything's at stake, I never really felt that."

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