IT has been a privilege to meet Sir Harold Evans twice before but the third encounter in London last week was perhaps the most inspiring yet.

“Call me Harry,” he said when I greeted him at BBC Television Centre. “How’s my old paper?”

He meant The Northern Echo, of course, where he made his name as editor in the 1960s and set the bar so high that none of us who followed could ever hope to reach it.

Even now, more than half a century after he left the North-East for The Sunday Times, it never ceases to amaze me how many people in our region still remember him with respect and ask for news of him.

He turned 90 in June and it was amazing to interview him for an hour and to see how fiercely the fire still burns. When talking about his famous campaign to expose the scandal of the Thalidomide drug, he banged the table with such a smack that it made me jump in the chair opposite.

The Government and the drugs company wanted a cover-up, but Harry was having none of it. His campaign to give the victims’ families a voice began at The Northern Echo, continued at The Sunday Times, and led to a compensation fund that is still reaping benefits to this day.

My interview with the great man is part of a documentary about the importance of local newspapers which I’m presenting for Inside Out on BBC1 at 7.30pm tonight. And who better to ask about journalism than one of history’s most admired journalists?

Despite rising to the pinnacle of his profession, he has never forgotten the value of journalism at the grass roots. He began his career as a 16-year-old reporter on a weekly newspaper in Ashton-under-Lyne, in Lancashire, going on to become assistant editor on the Manchester Evening News, before joining The Northern Echo and hitting the North-East with a whirlwind of campaigning journalism.

Thalidomide is just one example. Cervical cancer testing was established on the NHS because of another of his Northern Echo campaigns, and a posthumous pardon was won for Timothy Evans, who was falsely convicted and hanged for the murder of his wife and baby daughter at 10 Rillington Place in London.

Then there was the notorious case of “the Teesside smell” when he refused to accept the denials of the bosses of an industrial plant about whether a pungent local stench was the result of a chemical leak. Instead, he commissioned a photographer to take a picture of the haze coming from the plant and published it on the front page alongside a photograph of untainted air in a nearby village.

Who else would have thought to take a picture of a smell? But Harry did, and the firm had no choice but to confirm the leak.

It is a joy to be able to report that he remains a firebrand at 90: still waving his arms when talking about injustice, corruption and Donald Trump; still bursting with energy; still turning questions on his interviewer and demanding answers; and still banging that desk.

The challenges facing the regional press are not a secret. They are well documented, and publishers are battling with the transition from print to online that has seen many local newspapers across the country close and lots of local journalists lose their jobs.

But Sir Harry’s core message is unequivocal. “Local journalism is absolutely vital. It must – and will survive, I’m sure of it, because it is such an essential part of democracy,” he said. “But there must be reform to ensure it can be properly funded.”

In particular, he believes that at least part of that funding must come from social media giants, who he says lack accountability and make no financial contribution to the industry.

“Local newspapers also play a vital role in training journalists and they are more trusted and accountable because of their unique connection to communities,” he said.

He went on to give the example of the time The Northern Echo published a survey confirming that fruit and veg prices in Darlington were too high compared to other towns.

“I had a gang of greengrocers in reception demanding to see me,” he smiled. “That’s the difference – being part of the community.”

With that, he was gone – off to spend the next hour on a national radio programme before travelling the next day to Cardiff University to give a keynote speech on his lifetime in journalism, and then flying back to New York, from where he serves as Editor At Large for the Reuters international news agency.

It will always be Sir Harry’s Northern Echo to a very significant degree, and it was again a privilege to see that the whirlwind shows no sign of stopping.