Full text of Nick Robinson's Steve Hewlett Memorial Lecture

Nick Robinson
Presenter, Today programme

Image caption,
Steve Hewlett 1958-2017

Full text of the lecture as delivered at the Royal Television Society on 28 September 2017:

I am honoured to be asked to deliver this, the first annual Steve Hewlett memorial lecture.

Thank you to the RTS, the Media Society and to Rachel for inviting me to deliver it. It's great to have Steve's boys - Freddie, Billy, Bertie - here, his sister Sue and other members of the family too.

Steve's death was news - national news - which, had he been here to see it and to see you all gathered here for the first annual Steve Hewlett memorial lecture - would have produced one of those characteristically laconic Hewlett chuckles.

It was news, of course, because millions had grown used to turning up the car radio or stopping the ironing or waiting before turning on the kettle to make sure they not miss the latest weekly instalment of the Hewlett cancer chronicle - in which a middle aged man described the pain in his oesophagus; the splitting of his nails or chapping of his feet; the search for the drug or the treatment that might buy him some relief and some more time before the end which he sensed and we sensed was coming all too fast.

"To cut a long story short" was one of Steve's catchphrases. His tales from the medical frontline - many of his tales - were, of course, anything but short and could, of course, be all too painful to listen to. Few would have imagined that they would be a recipe for broadcasting gold. Except, perhaps, for Steve. They were one last reminder of his sixth sense which meant he knew, he just knew, the stories that would engage an audience and, boy, did he know how to tell them.

It was something I saw from the moment I first met him. I was as establishment as you could get - a BBC trainee straight out of university who'd been schooled at the Oxford Union debating society. Steve, on the other hand, carried the aura of radical chic which came from his time at the new and positively daring Channel 4 where, it was said, he'd made a film giving a Marxist interpretation of cricket - combining two of his greatest passions.

Years later, he would become editor of Panorama and inherit me as his deputy. We accidentally made history together - and not in the way we would have liked - by becoming the first ever programme to have an interview with the prime minister blocked from transmission by a court ruling. "Cutting a long story short" it involved me falling out with a certain Alex Salmond for the first but certainly not for the last time. Steve could have blamed me. But he backed me. It's what great editors do but it is something they can only do if like Steve, they are rigorous in their approach to the facts, open minded to the views of their critics and brave enough to take editorial risks and to defend their team when they do.

Even more years after that he and I would talk regularly - both on air and off - about the issues he analysed and explained as presenter of Radio 4's Media Show. It was there that Steve won the Nick Clarke Award for an interview which the judges described as 'challenging, well argued, well structured, well informed, impartial and courteous'. A fine summary of his journalism.

What brought us closer, though, was our shared experience of cancer. When I was recovering from the surgery which successfully removed my tumour but robbed me of my voice, Steve reassured me and wrote in the Radio Times that the audience would get used to my new throaty sound. When he told me about his diagnosis I wrote him a beginners guide on how to cope with chemotherapy. I still fondly recall the marathon cancer chat we had during a more than two hour drive from my home in London to the University of Essex to help open their new journalism course. When I finally arrived and got Steve off the phone I realised I'd forgotten to talk about what I called him in the first place to discuss - journalism!

Tonight I'm determined not to repeat that mistake. I am here to talk about the business - you might even dub it a calling - which Steve loved. A love and a calling which so many of you share. Telling stories about the world we live in. Stories designed to explain it to people, to reveal things they don't but ought to know. Stories that educate, inform and, yes thank you Lord Reith - entertain. Or what we call, rather less inspiringly, news and current affairs.


So, to cut a long story short my message tonight will be that:

News is too important to be reduced to a three letter word - OMG or LOL or WTF - with all else left hidden by the all powerful algorithms which prioritise emotion - whether empathy or anger - over facts and analysis.

But that is the risk given the rise of news on social media.

AND given signs of an erosion of trust in the UK media, I will argue we need to learn from Steve's open minded willingness to challenge the conventional wisdom.

AND to embrace a mission to engage with the audience we are not currently reaching.

That will involve finding new ways to ensure on air diversity - not just gender, ethnicity and age but, crucially, background too.

And what should come with it - diversity of thinking.

Finally we will need to re-make the case for impartial news media.

The challenge

Let's begin - as Steve might have said - at the beginning.

When Steve first became a journalist people had the choice of just three TV channels. There were no news channels, websites, blogs or social media Apples were what you put in a pie. Galaxies a chocolately treat. Don't worry this isn't going to become the journalistic equivalent of the four Yorkshiremen sketch.

But - bear with me just for a moment - spin on to when Steve became editor of Panorama and I was his deputy in the mid 1990s. There were now - wait for it - four terrestrial channels. Sky TV had just been invented. As had the worldwide web just been invented.

But you know all that. What you may not know is what the latest figures show:

  • When those between 16 and 24 "watch" a broadcast they're only watching on what their mums and dads would call "the telly" or 'the Box" on just over a third of what the statisticians call viewing occasions [Routes to Content, BBC TV Audiences]
  • More and more access news on their smartphones - almost a half whilst in bed, a little fewer on the bus or train and, wait for it, a third whilst on the loo [Reuters Digital News Report, 2017]
  • No wonder those same 16-24 year olds are watching less than half an hour of TV news a week - a fall of third in under five years [Ofcom News Consumption Report, 2016]

To summarise a little crudely - fewer and fewer young people are watching news on TV. More and more of them are getting it whilst looking at their phone on the loo.

To summarise rather less crudely let me quote one of the bosses of one of those corporate giants who pose the greatest challenge to the old ways of doing things - the head of Google News - Richard Gingras who I met a week or two back in Silicon Valley. He, bear in mind, is a veteran journalist who's had ink on his fingers not a teenage techie.

"We came from an era of dominant news organisations, often perceived as oracles of fact. We've moved to a marketplace where quality journalism competes on equal footing with raucous opinion, passionate advocacy, and the masquerading expression of variously-motivated bad actors."

Gingras points out what is, perhaps, the key challenge posed by social media - "Affirmation is more satisfying than information. Always has been."

Now before I move on to what I think we should do to respond to these challenges and before anyone assumes I am in despair. let's just note that BBC News reached three-quarters of adults in the UK each week in 2016/17; more than any other news provider.

And we are trusted - 91% of under 34s came to BBC 2017 election coverage in the week of the vote.

And, if you'll forgive me an immodest note here, record numbers are tuning in to that old veteran - the Today programme even in our sixtieth year.

But one stat I've learned preparing for this speech made me realise that we cannot say complacently "The young will grow into watching or listening to BBC. After all we did."

It's a stat about Facebook which - remember fellow Twitter obsessives - is really where more and more people get their news. BBC News has an impressive 44 million followers on the site. Yet most of our stories don't actually reach more than a tenth of that figure - four million. The algorithms tend to favour what people like and share and people like and share things which produce an emotional reaction. So following the BBC doesn't put it high on your news feed. You must follow it AND you and family and friends must choose to like or share it regularly which only really happens when people think OMG, LOL or WTF.

But perhaps the figure that raised my eyebrows the highest was those for trust.

  • Trust in UK media is down by 7% in the latest data from the Reuters Digital News Report - way ahead of the United States but still down
  • And in one YouGov survey a while back Wikipedia entries were judged to be marginally more trusted than the BBC. Market researchers would tell you that it's within the margin of error BUT it does tell you something

What's the problem?

What underlies this decline in trust? It is due, I believe, to two main factors - the increased polarization of our society and our national debate and the increased use, particularly by the most committed & most partisan, of social media and alternatives to what they call MSM - the mainstream media.

In the space of just three years the country has seen a referendum on whether to split up the UK followed by one on whether to split away from the EU, had two general elections, changed prime ministers, gone from having a majority government to a minority propped up the DUP and seen the unlikely rise and rise of an opposition leader who was at first regarded by himself, never mind anyone else, as having no chance of getting and no interest in having the job.

But it is not just politics that is divided. Our society is. Jon Snow spoke powerfully and movingly in his MacTaggart lecture about his encounters with the residents of Grenfell Tower. "Where were you? Why didn't you come here before?" some shouted at him.

I had my own experience of how the news we report is seen and heard on the streets - not at Grenfell Tower - but on the streets of Finsbury Park in the early hours of 19 June. It was a hot night. The windows of my bedroom in Highbury in North London were open when I heard the scream of sirens and the insistent buzz of low flying helicopters.

I did - what so many of our listeners and viewers do now - I reached not for the radio on switch or the remote control but for my phone and went to Twitter. Just down the road police had closed off a road after a van had struck worshippers outside a mosque. I threw on some clothes, rang the office and ran down the road where within seconds I was surrounded by a group of young Muslim men waving their mobile phones at me.

They were angry - and not just because some were desperate to get beyond the blue police tape that was now blocking their route to see if family and friends were safe. Why - they demanded to know - are you not calling it terrorism? They showed me the BBC's report which described a "collision". So too, in fairness, did other mainstream sites like Sky News.

I tried explaining that news organisations always waited for the police to determine whether an incident was an accident, an attack or, indeed, terror. They weren't impressed. They thought we were on their side of those who wanted to cover up attacks on their community. They said they trusted their own media more.

It is a pattern we see increasingly. People who seen themselves as not part of the establishment - whether young Muslims, Scottish Nationalists or UKIP-ers, Corbynites or Greens, backers of Leave pre-referendum but, since the vote, backers of Remain - have not just complained about the coverage of what they increasingly refer to as the MSM. They have their own alternative media sites - Wings over Scotland or Westmonster or The Canary or - in the case of the pro EU crowd - a new newspaper - The New European.

They would all be horrified to be compared with each other since what motivates them is the belief that the other lot are not just mistaken but an existential threat to the future of their country but they have and do often respond in similar ways to what they call the mainstream media.

Their most shared and liked stories are attacks on the MSM and the BBC in particular for ignoring their stories or giving too much coverage to the other side. They share a certainty fuelled by living in a social media bubble that we reporters and presenters are, at best, craven - obeying some dictat from our bosses or the government - and, at worst, nakedly biased.

Some might respond to this by saying - it was ever thus. Broadcasters and the BBC in particular have been accused of bias by politicians ever since a young Winston Churchill launched an assault on the BBC for its coverage of the General Strike in 1926. You cannot, he argued, be impartial between "the fireman and the fire".

But these times are, I believe, different. Firstly, because the fracturing of our politics means the criticism is coming from all sides and from grassroots campaigns not just whichever of the government or opposition feels most vulnerable. Secondly because back then the purpose of the attacks was to bully and intimidate the BBC or, occasionally, ITN into changing the way it reported a particular story or to drop this or that programme or journalist.

Our critics now see their attacks as a key part of their political strategy. In order to succeed they need to convince people not to believe "the news". When I interviewed Paul Mason - formerly a distinguished colleague at the BBC and Channel 4 - now a hyper-partisan campaigner for Jeremy Corbyn he told me "we see the media as the enemy navy, we need our own navy."

Campaigners on the left as well as the right have been looking and listening and learning at what has happened across the pond. They know that there is method behind what some regard as the madness of The Donald's attacks on the "failing" press as purveyors of "fake news".

Italy's leftwing populist Beppe Grillo has described the Italian media as "the opium of the people, they hide the truth to reassure you, while you slowly die." In Germany the right-wing Alternative for Germany party (AfD) have revived the Nazi insult "lugenpresse" meaning "lying press"

Attacks on the media are no longer a lazy clap line delivered to a party conference to the raise the morale of a crowd of the party faithful. They are part of a guerrilla war being fought on social media day after day and hour after hour.

So, if, as I argue, we'd be wrong to simply ignore this challenge how should we respond to it?

The response

Once again I turn to Steve for my inspiration. Steve, as I've said, was a student radical. More Jon Snow than Nick Robinson. He led a rent strike. He was a student Communist. So dangerous was he considered that his career at the BBC was held back by one of those famous Christmas trees on his personnel file. So, Steve went to Channel 4 to work on a new series called Diverse Reports.

In Steve's own words "there was a clearly defined purpose. Wherever you can find the liberal consensus probe it, probe it, probe it. And if there's another way of looking at it, broadcast it". And broadcast it he did making the only show I've heard of which examined the case for restoring capital punishment.

When we worked together at Panorama, Steve angered some of his colleagues and, I suspect, many of his mates by commissioning a film spelling out that high strength cannabis or skunk could and did lead to psychosis.

When he died he was working on a series examining Celebrity which he said would have presented the Kardashians as "very serious role models"

I believe that we should do exactly what Steve proposed. Precisely how is not for me to decide. One possibility is a series, like Diverse Reports, labelled and separate from mainstream news. Another is a platform for opinions like Viewsnight - Newsnight's experiment. But I doubt either will have the Heineken effect of reaching the people other news cannot normally reach.

So, my instinct is that we should build this mindset into all the programming we do so that we ask questions - and can share online items that ask questions - which are all too often not asked.

Again and again over the years views which start off being seen as extreme quickly become the new conventional wisdom. There are examples of this on both left and right and others that don't fit neatly into the political spectrum. Monetarism and the economic theories of Milton Friedman were seen by many in politics and the media as eccentric, right-wing and foreign until they were absorbed into the Treasury's bloodstream in the late 1970s and taken up by both major parties. Green politics followed the same path. So, too, did gay rights. As did the idea that demanding immigration controls is not racist. Now, ideas once widely dismissed - like re-nationalising major industries or abolishing nuclear weapons - allow Jeremy Corbyn to claim that he is now in the political "mainstream".

Let's be clear. Though, I don't propose handing the airwaves to first one side then another to deliver a televised press release or party conference speech. These ideas would be analysed and challenged as rigorously as any other.

Challenging the conventional wisdom

I wrote a book a few years ago called "Live from Downing Street". The theme that emerged again and again was not bias - to this party or that…to right or left - but this slowness to challenge the conventional wisdom of the day.

I wrote about Churchill's pre war warnings about the dangers of German re-armament being heard by radio listeners not here in his own country but in the United States.

Churchill desperately wanted to give a radio talk on the Home Service (that's how things worked in those days. You gave a talk rather than popping up to be interviewed in Radio 4). But the last recorded talk on that subject - as against others which the BBC's founder John Reith was happy to have Churchill talk on - was in 1935.

How do we know this? Well, Churchill complained to a young BBC producer who visited him at Chartwell, his country house, on the day after Neville Chamberlain returned home from signing his agreement with Hitler in Munich and declared 'peace for our time'. A memo records their meeting. They spent hours discussing the Nazi threat and 'Churchill complained that he had been very badly treated in the matter of political broadcasts and that he was always muzzled by the BBC of the Government.'

That producer was, incidentally, called Guy Burgess. So it was that, on 1 October 1938, the man who would become his country's most famous traitor tried to reassure the man who would become its saviour that the BBC was not biased.

The way Churchill was handled is a powerful warning of the dangers of the BBC believing it is being balanced by silencing the voices of those who do not represent conventional wisdom. It is an answer to all those who complained that Nick Griffin - who is, let me stress, no modern-day Churchill - should never have been invited on to Question Time. It's a riposte to Brexiteers who fill my time line with demands that I should not interview "that failed leader" Nick Clegg or the Remainers who say the same about Nigel Farage and to those who argue that Nigel Lawson should never be interviewed about climate change. He - they - should, be challenged and if, as Lawson did on Today recently, they get their facts wrong we should say so. But they should not be silenced.

The former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, warned some months ago that we would face sanctions and fines from Ofcom unless we end what is alleged to be our anti-Brexit bias.

My response now is what it was then - back in March - when I tweeted "Do not adjust your set. Normal service from the BBC means you will hear people you disagree with saying things you don't like (that's our job)."

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

The lesson of Corbyn

Ever so briefly, and you might think rather surprisingly, I was hailed by Jeremy Corbyn's backers as confirming their view that the BBC was biased against him.

I was interviewed by Lyn Barber soon after he became Labour leader and whilst I was unwell and off work. She wrote in the Sunday Times: "Was Robinson as shocked as I was by the way the BBC (and other media) rubbished Jeremy Corbyn?"

"Yes" I apparently replied - though I blame the chemotherapy I was then taking for my lack of normal caution - before adding: "Although I was off work, I did drop a note to a few people after his first weekend saying this is really interesting and we owe it to the audience to sound as if we're interested."

My point then was not that my colleagues weren't treating him fairly. They were quite properly reporting on the widespread opposition he faced in his own shadow Cabinet and the Parliamentary Labour Party. My point was that the ideas that made Corbyn popular - whether scrapping Trident or renationalisation - should be examined and interrogated in their own right and not simply as a cause of rows or splits.

Talking to my own children - two of whom are voters and one who soon will be - they are really not interested in whether this or that idea was considered outlandish three decades ago. In my view too many interviews with Jeremy fail to take him and his ideas seriously enough. And when we do his supporters complain that we're being hostile or aggressive.

It is Jeremy Corbyn who now says he is a prime minister in waiting and, I assume, he wants to be treated as such.

Not just diversity of people - diversity of thinking

It has become fashionable to argue that one of the reasons the media failed to spot political movements like the rise of Corbyn, the rise of anti-EU feelings or the rise of Trump is because journalists are "too far removed from those who" they report on.

Jon Snow in his MacTaggart argued that the media was "comfortably with the elite, with little awareness, contact or connection with those not of the elite".

Ofcom's Chief Executive Sharon White has told broadcasters that the regulator will soon start asking them to provide more data on the social class of those they employ.

The BBC's James Purnell has said the Corporation is considering introducing targets.

Once again I think back to my experience with Steve. We first met when I was a trainee TV producer working on Brass Tacks, a BBC current-affairs programme based in Manchester. In Manchester note. I was from the area. He'd been a student there. We - it - had a different perspective from people at TV Centre.

Our team included a former merchant seaman with a broad Scouse accent and arms covered in tattoos. I have worked with few like him in TV since.

When I was Political Editor I often felt the best-known member of my team was Paul Lambert - or 'Gobby', as everyone called him. He was the man who stood in Downing Street shouting questions at those going in or coming out of Number 10. He didn't speak with the rootless received pronunciation of many in broadcasting but in the Estuary English used by millions.

Now I confess to being a tad sceptical about targets for employing the right number of working class journalists but transparency and the data it produces are the right way to start this debate - just as they have done, albeit not quite so intentionally, with issue of women's pay in the industry. But …moving swiftly on …

What really matters as Ofcom's Sharon White has said is "diversity of thinking not just visible diversity" or, indeed, diversity of accents.

You see Jon Snow was, in my view, too harsh on himself. No-one doubts that this privileged public school son of a bishop who had tea with the prime minister when he was a young man cares passionately about the lives of people from a very different background to himself.

His reporting from Grenfell required what all good reporting does - a commitment to get to the truth, tenacity and, yes, empathy. Jon's empathy stems from his values, his time as a charity worker and the work he now does with countless charities. His background is not a bar.

Take another famous John. My esteemed colleague at the Today programme John Humphrys. His journalism is rooted in an altogether more humble background - a grammar school boy from the Welsh Valleys. Some of his best reporting has been from the places he grew up observing the changes that had happened in his own lifetime.

We need more of both sorts of John!

When I moved to the Today programme someone - who will remain nameless - suggested that I should become the programme's Northern voice. Proud though I am of being a boy from the North West and willing though I am to bang on about Manchester and United in particular I had to gently point out that I'd lived for longer in North London than the North of England.

However, this boy from the right side of the tracks - from what used to be called the Cheshire stockbroker belt - loves nothing more than getting out of his comfort zone.

A few years back I made a documentary called "The Truth about immigration" which pointed out what I thought was obvious but others seemed to regard as controversial. To the young, the well off and those working in the big cities immigration often represented a cultural diversity to be relished, a better choice of local food shops and take aways and, yes, a cheap cleaner, builder or, even, nanny. But to other people it represented an unsettling change in the area they'd grown up in; an overcrowded GP waiting room or queue to get into the local school and competition for both jobs and wages.

Hearing both those attitudes is what represents diversity of thinking - it also represents BBC impartiality.

It involves not just who we employ but how we do our jobs. We should get out more, we should study the polls with more not less intensity and we should look for underlying trends. That does not mean extending still further the fatuous vox poppery that is a substitute for a serious examination of voter attitudes. Filming on a high street until you have obtained clips of contradictory opinions tells the viewer next to nothing.


I suspect the biggest cause of viewers and listeners feeling any broadcaster is biased is their sense that they are not hearing views from people like themselves. Quite naturally, they assume that the reason they don't is that their views are deemed unacceptable.

A survey carried out for the BBC more than a decade ago in 2006 found that more than half of respondents thought broadcasters often failed to reflect the views of 'people like me'. Those most likely to say this were middle-aged C2DEs - those without access to the internet and those with least interest in news and current affairs.

I'm not aware of a more up to date survey but I fear it would not be that different today.

I recall a time when I was Political Editor and I asked a producer at TV Centre - as then was - to interview a family outside London on what they thought about some controversial cut to public spending. When the pictures arrived in my edit suite the "set up" shot - which established who they were - consisted of them reviewing photographs of their recent family safari photo. I refused to use them demanding to know how many people in Britain could afford the ten grand which I guessed it would cost to take three kids to Africa?

A Mission to engage

When I joined the BBC back in the mid 80s News & Current Affairs, as it was then called, was split between two factions who were at war with themselves. The 'Birtists' - disciples of his 'mission to explain', which insisted that analysis had to come before the demands of good pictures or compelling storytelling and the BBC old guard he'd been hired to tame.

The warring factions reminded me of Monty Python's Life of Brian, in which the People's Popular Front of Judea was determined to fight the Popular People's Front of Judea instead of joining forces to confront their common enemy - in this case the threat posed to serious broadcasting by the advent of multi-channel TV and much greater consumer choice.

I had been recruited by the old BBC but soon found myself adopted and promoted by the Birtists. I remain an unapologetic cheerleader for his view that knowledge and expertise are critical to good reporting. The specialist editors at the BBC which have now spread to ITV and Sky are his legacy.

But I propose that it is now time to add a Mission to engage alongside Birt's Mission to explain. i.e. to reach out to those who currently do not make the BBC their first choice either because they do not treat news bulletins and current affairs programmes as "appointments to view" and consume an increasing part of their news via social media or because they are convinced that we are part of the MSM.

And the target I'd much rather explore is one that challenges us to engage more people from the groups that we currently struggle to reach.

Re-making the case for impartiality

Underpinning all that I have proposed it will be necessary to re-make the case for impartiality.

Too many of my generation now treat it like the weather - as a natural phenomenon rather than understanding that it is an artificial legal requirement which could easily be reversed if viewers, listeners and readers stop believing in it.

There is a danger that a growing number will question whether impartiality still has any real meaning, whether it is an establishment plot to limit debate and whether it can be sustained in an era of almost infinite media choice.

That is what happened in the United States. American media regulation was always less restrictive than it was here - allowing radio shock jocks for example. But what was known as the "Fairness doctrine" did, though, ensure that a single network could not broadcast from a single perspective, day after day, without presenting opposing views.

However, the US equivalent of Ofcom - the Federal Communications Commission - scrapped it in the Reagan era on the grounds that it 'restricts the journalistic freedom of broadcasters...[and] actually inhibits the presentation of controversial issues of public importance to the detriment of the public and the degradation of the editorial prerogative of broadcast journalists'.

So, we ended up with where we are now - two-thirds of right-wingers watch one news network - Fox News of course. Liberals tend to watch CNN, MSNBC or the old terrestrial networks. As a result there are no 'shared facts' in American public life. This was obvious long before Trump's election. When President Obama tried to open a debate on healthcare reform Fox News said it would introduce socialist death panels in which government bureaucrats would decide who lived and died. On the other side liberals filled MSNBC with claims that Republican wanted to kill the poor. We are still no closer to resolving that debate and TV News is not helping.

There is still a powerful case for impartial journalism which seeks to inform rather than influence or sway or respond to commercial imperatives. For decades the worlds of impartial and partial journalism have been separate. Broadcasting offered one, print the other. You could have news, or news plus views. Now, though, these worlds have converged.

On my TV and my iPad BBC and Sky 'impartial' news channels co-exist with news-and-views channels from America, the Qatari-based Al Jazeera and English-language news services funded by the Chinese, Russian, French and Iranian governments. And that's just in English.

Fox News is disappearing from British homes but RT - which in many ways is its left wing equivalent - is increasingly popular here. It is funded by and run from Moscow. It doesn't just promote the Kremlin's views on issues such as the Ukraine or Syria it encourages political forces it believes will weaken its enemies - the governments of the West.

RT has had more Ofcom rulings against it than any other news network. In my view it should not be treated with a lighter touch simply because it has a small - albeit growing - audience.

All this leads some to argue that TV news should go the way of print. It should be free of controls and customers should pick the product that suits them best. Rupert Murdoch's son James, when he was still chairman of BSkyB in his Mactaggart lecture launched an all-out assault on a system of regulation which he described as 'authoritarianism'.

How, in an all-media marketplace, can we justify this degree of control in one place and not in others? The effect of the system is not to curb bias - bias is present in all news media - but simply to disguise it. We should be honest about this: it is an impingement on freedom of speech and on the right of people to choose what kind of news to watch.

Before the 2010 election he lobbied the Conservatives hard to dismantle the regulator he found so irksome. A senior Tory minister has told me that had the party secured a majority it was his expectation that Ofcom would have been weakened or dismantled altogether, the Murdoch company News Corp would have taken full control of BSkyB and James Murdoch would have got his way and turned Sky News into a channel to challenge what he saw as the BBC's innate liberal bias.

Rupert Murdoch has dubbed Sky as "BBC Lite" and was once asked whether he wanted to make his British channel more like his American one. He replied: "I wish."

Naturally, as an impartial BBC man I have no views on whether the Murdochs's should or should not take control of Sky but I think this debate has not ended.

Indeed, to be fair to James and Rupert, Mark Thompson argued when he was the BBC's Director General "in the future maybe there should be a broad range of choices. Why shouldn't the public be able to see and hear, as well as read, a range of opinionated journalism and then make up their own mind what they think about it?"

I wonder now that he is at the "failing…fake news" New York Times he still feels quite as sanguine. I don't.

I believe that we should not rely on our past and our record day to day to make our case - important though they are. We should tell our audience that the BBC is not owned, run or controlled by the government, media tycoons, profit seeking businesses or those pursuing a political or partisan agenda

It is staffed by people who regardless of their personal background or private views are committed to getting as close to the truth as they can and to offering their audience a free, open and broad debate about the issues confronting the country. They will always seek to broadcast what they know, be open about what they don't and ready to admit when they get things wrong…to deliver what Carl Bernstein calls 'the best obtainable version of the truth.'

Best obtainable version of the truth

So, how do we do more to be seen to broadcast the best obtainable version of the truth?

Let's go back to my experience in Finsbury Park when I believe we should have been clearer about why we weren't instantly using the language that those following the story closest were.

I make no criticism of the tiny handful of people working in the newsroom that night. This story was far from unique. The explosion which rocked the Manchester Arena was called just that - an explosion for some time before it was called terrorism. Caution in these situations is right. The BBC will rather not be the first for news if it earns the joke slogan "Not wrong for long."

But - and it is a big but - it taught me that we should be much more open and explicit about what we know and what we don't and how and why we do what we do.

An off the shelf line or two which explained how and when we decide to call things terror attacks could have been added to the initial reports.

My bosses will not thank me for this and they may fear that it will produce even more complaints than we get now but I urge them to widen this approach further by, for example, translating the next set of Producers Guidelines - the BBC's bible of editorial standards - into fluent human that can be tweeted, blogged, broadcast (it doesn't really matter which) in real time as stories are reported.

I have seen the costly, wasteful, debilitating hours that are spent parsing this or that phrase into how to answer a complaint about an item that was broadcasts weeks if not months earlier. Let's move more quickly…show our workings more…confidently assert why we're doing what we're doing or, when necessary, admit a mistake swiftly and move on.

Let's not leave the editorial debate we had on the metaphorical cutting room floor along with the footage we didn't use but pin at least some of it up and then - when complaints do follow - point to what we said and did at the time.

I'm delighted that the BBC has invested in a Reality Check - fact checking - unit. Contrary to the complaints of many who oppose Brexit they helped many BBC outlets to say that the claim made in the EU referendum campaign that £350 million a week was being sent - that word was crucial - to Brussels was untrue. Indeed, I said as much to camera on a BBC1 special a few days before polling and what's more I used a pen to put a great big cross through the claim.

I did, incidentally, also say that the Remain claim that every household in Britain would be £4,300 a year better off was misleading and impossible to verify.

I confess that I discussed having a sort of giant fridge magnet made to attach to the Vote Leave bus carrying the words of the many independent figures who pointed out the inaccuracy of their central claim.

That might have been just a tad OTT but I suspect we will have to get more and not less assertive about stating what is true and how we know it even as we also point out that many ferocious political debates simply consist of competing and unverifiable claims about the future.

A last word

Permit me a last word about why despite all the turbulence I've described and we're all familiar with I am confident about the future. It's thanks to the success of the programme which sixty years almost became known as "Listen whilst you dress" or "Background to shaving".

In the year I joined the BBC the "Today programme" as it became known was threatened - or so we were told - by the arrival of another American import. After nylons, Mars bars and burgers came…wait for it…breakfast television.

Frank & Selina on the BBC's sofa…the so-called "famous five" including Parki, Anna and Frostie on TV-AM would, once and for all, knock Today off its perch.

But Today survived and, what's more it thrived - trouncing breakfast TV - securing double the audience of the TV sofas.

And in this the era of Twitter and Facebook, podcasts and downshifting, viewing on your iPad, on the loo as well as in your sitting room it has a record listenership.

The reason? Because, at its best, Today tells the audience what they need to know in a way they understand hearing not just from political and business leaders but also from the best and the brightest in science, the arts, religion and, yes, fashion - one of Britain's most successful industries. It broadcasts too - and must in my view hear more - the experiences of ordinary folk with stories to tell not, I stress, the two a penny opinions of the TV vox pop or radio phone in.

It succeeds not because it necessarily makes people go OMG or LOL or WTF - although hopefully we do do that often enough. It succeeds because it passes what Steve used to call the "My Mum" test. I hope I am not patronising his Mum Vera or, indeed, mine too much when I say that it is the best test of our journalism - whether it would seem relevant, comprehensible and engaging to our Mums, our Dads, our brothers or sisters - indeed anyone of any age or gender or background who is not a news junkie or political trainspotter.

In a world in which there is ever more information but it gets ever harder to reach the people you want to reach our challenge is to engage people we could once take for granted. It is that mission which - along with the Steve Hewlett scholarship - would be a fitting testimony to Steve.