A heart to HARDtalk
The venue: The Madinat Jumeira Hotel. The event: The Arab Media Summit 2003.
The lobby was packed with journalists, guests, media students, and television crews. H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE Defence Minister and Crown Prince of Dubai, was walking out of the inaugural session.
My objective was clear _ to have an up, close and personal look at the presenter of "Hardtalk", the daily half-hour interview programme for BBC World and BBC News 24_ He sauntered into the conference hall, with his laptop. Walking up to him with a fellow journalist, I asked if I could speak to him. After the session, he said. I didn't believe him.
Question hour over, scribes from every newspaper swamped him. I gave up, and started moving towards the exit. Something made me turn back, I had to talk to the man who makes politicians, generals, statesmen, policy makers, backroom boys, show biz people squirm, simper, and sob.
Making eye contact, I let it be known that I was still waiting. He smiled and settled down with black tea. Just five minutes he said. I took 15.
"Darn persistent woman" was his parting shot. It was my turn to smile ....
VASANTI SUNDARAM and Tim Sebastian in ...
FOUR interviewing tactics that you employ?
1. Listen to what the person is saying. If you just go in with a prepared set of questions, you're going to miss what they are saying.
2. Prepare your questions well. Never, or at least try never to ask a question you don't know the answer to in advance. You have to go in with the knowledge, you have to go in with the ammunition.
3. Never ask a question that can be answered by a "yes" or "no". Unless you' re asking somebody a very meaningful question like "Did you kill anybody?" Save the "yes" and "no" answer for those really important vital questions.
4. Don't accept "No" for an answer. Be persistent, keep going, keep probing.
Nobody will give you anything for free. Nobody will tell you anything of substance unless you work for it. And, if you don't succeed at first, back off, and come back to it again.
Do you brief your guests about the questions prior to the shoot?
Never. They go in cold, they don't have a clue of what lies ahead in the next half hour. You don't talk beforehand because you'll say all the things beforehand that you want to say in the interview.
Has "Hardtalk" ever gone live?
Some of them in the beginning were live, but are now all recorded. People never turned up on time, we had to travel to get guests, and can't always come to the studio each day at the dotted time when the programme is being forecast. It would be an administrative nightmare, we would have many, many holes to plug during a live programming.
Is any editing done after the shoot?
We try and get it right the first time. In the studio, we go straight through with the 23 minutes. No interviewee has the prerogative to say he'd want portions of his talk deleted. Once it's on tape, the material is ours.
What about the lack of visuals in "Hardtalk"?
We used to use pictures when the show started. But the pictures started to dominate the interview and we would take the interview a particular way just to be able to bring in certain pictures we had prepared in advance, taking away the focus of the talk. So, we stopped that.
THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY
Has anyone literally broken down at not being able to handle your rigorous gruelling?
No, people have broken down because they have talked about very sad, difficult things that have happened to them, but they haven't broken down over my questions. I talk to very tough people, I don't browbeat children or old women, I browbeat people who can take it.
Have you ever been at a loss for words during an interview?
I've never been rattled by my guests questioning me. People do ask difficult questions, but they have a right to ask difficult questions. I try and give a truthful answer to any question that is directed to me. Whenever I don't know what to answer, I say, "I don't know". There is no shame in saying you don't know, when you don't know the answer.
What do you try to arrive at during each episode of "Hardtalk"?
We ask questions on behalf of the people in that country who can't ask them themselves. There is a strong human rights bent to the programme. What I arrive at is some fresh insight, fresh piece of news. If the guy in front of you won't answer the question, you just hang on and on until they do. I have 23 minutes, and in that time slot, I want something new to be conveyed to my viewers. My programme is being carried on News channels, don't forget that little word NEWS, which is very central to "Hardtalk".
What is the homework involved in each programme?
A lot of it. We have a producer who prepares a brief on each interview, sometimes working two or three days on each person. That's a very, very extensive and exhaustive brief on who they are, what they say they did, and what they really did, and what people say about them. I come in, and spend some hours over it the night before, and the next morning. Sometimes, I ask the team to go back and look for more input, talk to different people, do more research.
What have you learnt of the human mind out of your years of profiling people?
How easily people lie. Through their teeth.
Any learning experiences?
You know what has been the best thing about this programme? It's been meeting some of the remarkable people who have against the odds, done extraordinary things, made extraordinary sacrifices, and risen to the occasion, risen to a challenge in a way that neither they nor anybody else expected. It's a humbling experience. What do I do after all? I just sit in the studio all day, and ask people questions. I'll let you into a secret. What I do is the easy part, what these people do is build something. It's these people who go out and make something work, create. I don't.
Your equation with the guests at the end of the programme?
Even if you have a terrible fight with somebody during an interview, you'll shake hands and you'll talk afterwards. There are very few people whose hands I don't shake and that's a conscious decision. I don't shake the hand of killers, because I simply can't do that.
Has any interview touched you as a human being?
Many interviews have touched me, but one of them set me on a different course if you like. It really opened my mind. I was talking to a man who was with the United Nations, in charge of displaced people. And at one point, when I was talking about how the U.N. hadn't done this, and how the U.N. hadn't done that, the man leaned across the table and said, "I can't save millions of people, but I do fly my plane into a war zone, pick up some people, put them in the back of my plane, fly them somewhere safe, and I let them out." He looked across at me, and asked me, "How many lives have you saved?" Good question.
Any revelations by guests that have taken you by surprise?
Mohammed Al-Douri, Iraq's former Ambassador to the United Nations I enjoyed talking to him. What surprised me most was when he said that the Iraqi government never believed there was going to be war. Everybody else did. He sent back reports week after week, month after month telling the Iraqi government there's going to be war, and they still said no!
Has anyone done a "Hardtalk" with you?
Yes, I have done three "Hardtalks" in India. I have been questioned right in front of an audience. In Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai by two Indian journalists and one industrialist Anil Ambani!
After more than a thousand interviews, how do you keep yourself motivated?
It's fear. It's fear of those cameras, those glass eyes staring at you. I was a shy schoolboy who was too shy to read in class without his heart thumping so loud that everybody could hear. I was too shy to act in school plays, and then I go and get a job like this!
Is there someone you've wanted to feature, and haven't been able to?
Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.
Are they afraid of your grilling?
I don't know, ask them.
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