News

Steve Hewlett on that Diana interview, Northern Irish prisons, and his cancer diagnosis 

To a rapturous audience of close on 300 fans and media admirers - and against the advice of his doctor - Steve Hewlett braved the stage of the BBC's Radio Theatre on Friday evening to share some of the golden moments of his extraordinary career as one of broadcasting's most respected and best loved journalists.

Introducing the event, Helen Boaden, the outgoing Director of Radio, said that it would be “naïve to pretend that it was not a complicated event emotionally as Steve had been admirably open about his cancer diagnosis”.

In his both his interviews with Eddie Mair and The Observer, Steve had brought “the same relish for proper facts and analysis, clarity of argument and dry wit about his illness that had characterised his journalism” – not to mention his “tenacity - he’s a real stubborn bugger”, as she could testify having known him for over 30 years.

Thus, the event was being held “to express our regard, affection and admiration” for Steve, and solidarity as he navigates this incredibly difficult period in his life”.

“It’s a bit weird”, Steve told Roger Bolton in the interviewing chair, drawing the first of many laughs throughout the evening. “I feel like I’m attending my own wake!”.

'I never felt I had a great deal to lose'

Adopted at birth, and chosen by his future granny because of his bright rosy cheeks - “although little did they know, I had whooping cough” - he had always “felt special because someone had picked me”.

It had also set a trend for turning what might have been misfortune to advantage during his professional life, he said.

Despite his obvious talent (in fact Roger had given Steve his second TV job on Nationwide), proper staff contracts were often held up because the notorious Brigadier ‘Ronnie’ Stonham, in charge of political vetting at the Corporation in Room 105, had vetoed Hewlett because of his university student activism.

“And I wasn’t even a member of the Communist Party. Funny that, Denis Healey, who was a member of the Communist Party could become Minister of Defence, but it was all too much for a researcher on Nationwide!”.

Steve went on to tell how he progressed to Panorama, often with the help of colleagues with a bigger contacts book. Asked by Bolton about his “intellectual self-confidence”, he said: “Of course I have felt overawed by things but I thought, if I could work in a bar and just about keep things together, then everything would be fine. And I never felt I had a great deal to lose.

“Even at Panorama, and where I eventually went back as editor 20 years later, and where you might be forgiven for panicking, the one thing I felt absolutely confident about was how to make films and how to help people get the best out of their material. I didn’t know anything else but I did know about that”.

Notorious H-blocks and Princess Diana

Of all the programmes he has made, Steve picked out two highlights, both with amusing side stories.

One was Hewlett’s pioneering first in getting access to film inside the Maze Prison’s notorious H-blocks; the other of course was the Diana interview with Martin Bashir in November, 1995.

Of the first, Hewlett told how under Thatcher’s ban on proscribed organisations being allowed “the oxygen of publicity”, there were only two items that fell foul of the government’s new guidelines.

Both were in relation to prisoners’ food, and one – “a huge farmer’s boy with a shock of red hair, God knows what he was in for” who had complained about “the size of the sausage rolls.

But because both men were representing the IRA, they had to come out!”.

'When the film finished no one said a word'

Of the Diana interview, which won a record audience of 23m, Steve praised John Birt, the then director-general, for purposely delaying telling the chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, whose wife was lady-in-waiting to the Queen, because it might have endangered the programme.

Hussey was subsequently furious. And again to huge laughter, he also recounted the atmosphere in the room when the film, “for which most of the world’s journalists would have given all their arms and legs… but could equally for the BBC high-ups be a career-changing event” had a pre-broadcast screening to Birt, Richard Peel, (Head of Press), Tony Hall, (Director of News) Richard Ayre, (Controller of Editorial Policy), and Tim Gardam, (from Newsnight).

“When the film finished, no one said a word. Not a word. Complete silence. Until Tim finally said: ‘Well, he certainly won’t be able to marry Camilla now!”.

Proceeds from the evening are being donated to the Royal Marsden Hospital.

Listen to the full audio from the evening

Become a member

JOIN THE MEDIA SOCIETY FOR £5/month