New Delhi: With at least 10,000 interviews to his credit as a journalist and television presenter, Sir David Frost has spent four decades doing what he enjoys best. He’s interviewed every British prime minister since Harold Wilson, who served two terms in the 1960s and 70s, and all but the latest of US presidents since Richard Nixon, who resigned in 1974 over the Watergate scandal. His interview with Nixon was the subject of a popular play that was turned into a movie, Frost/Nixon. And President Barack Obama is high up on Frost’s wishlist.
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On a visit to India, the 70-year-old Frost, currently engaged with the Al Jazeera network for a show called Frost Over the World, spoke to Mint about his most memorable interviews, the Indian elections and the future of journalism. Edited excerpts:
After 40 years of interviewing, what stays with you?
Obviously one would be the Nixon interviews—Frost/Nixon—because of the impact they had and also because of the scale—28 and three quarter hours of interviewing. I don’t think anyone has ever talked to anyone for 28 and three quarters. (We did it over) 12 days on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for four weeks.
How did you manage to convince him to sit with you for that long?
I think that he wanted to do something comprehensive and then I had to push him to do more. They were talking of 12 hours maximum and then I pushed him for 24 and that was a contractual commitment (on) the length…we needed a bit more time and we ended up doing 28 and three quarter hours.
It was a fascinating experience. Monday, Wednesday, Friday was so that he had a day off in between and we could review what we had talked, go through the transcript and you have to be careful with transcripts because sometimes you get a person doing them (who) makes a modest slip up.
Global stint: David Frost says it’s very difficult to have anything off the record during an interview because that sort of thing won’t get you far. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
I remember reading the transcript one day and it said, Nixon said, “Then of course I withdrew 50,000 troops after I met you at Midway (island near Hawaii).” Well, I hadn’t been to Midway. So we went back to the tapes because none of us remembered him saying that. Of course, what he’d said was “after I met Thieu (president Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam) at Midway”!
The thing about Nixon interviews was that people said it was impossible. It would be impossible to get him to a level…you know to get material out of him. In the end, his mea culpa went further than even we had hoped.
The first time I met (South African leader) Nelson Mandela would be one that I would mention (among my top interviews).
And then in addition to those two, in terms of someone with real charisma, the late Senator Robert Kennedy whom I interviewed in 1968, 41 years ago... A very attractive quality, this quality of being self-deprecating. For instance, I said to him at one point, “A lot of people say the reason they call you ruthless (is) because of the tough things you had to do as campaign manager for your brother in 1960.” And, he said, “That’s just my friends making excuses for me.” Not taking the easy compliment. That was a very attractive quality.
(Former UK prime minister) Tony Blair is a great subject for an interview because he will make policy on the air in an interview, which most people wouldn’t do. I’m sure in this particular case (present UK Prime Minister) Gordon Brown would wish he hadn’t. This was an interview in January 2000. He was under pressure...as there had been a flu epidemic that January and not enough NHS (National Health Service) support.
He finally said, “Well we’re going to increase our health spending to the level of the equal of all the European nations.” That was a massive commitment as it meant (increasing it) from 7% of GDP (gross domestic product) to 9% or some such huge number. Later, in a programme called The Blair Years on the BBC, it was confirmed that Gordon Brown (then chancellor of the exchequer) called up Blair and said, “You just stole my bleep budget!” (By bleep, Frost was referring to the tone used by television networks to mask expletives on air).
Then we did what would unfortunately be the last interview with the late (former Pakistan prime minister) Benazir Bhutto. I had interviewed her through the years. An extraordinary life (makes hand gestures to show she had had a lot of ups and downs in her life).
I interviewed her in Dubai after the first assassination attempt (in Karachi on 18 October 2007), when she was visiting her children in Dubai. She was a dramatic figure, but anyone with that sort of life can be particularly riveting.
(Afghan President) Hamid Karzai is somebody who we’ve done two or three times on Al Jazeera English. He is a remarkable subject. I remember I met him first in London. He’s so elegant you would have thought he would never last in such a tough environment, but he has lasted and I guess to last in such a tough environment, whatever the criticisms of what he’s done, is an achievement.
Every interview I did with (three-time heavyweight boxing champion) Muhammad Ali was memorable. His rhetoric was militant but you could tell that the man himself was a warm and gentle figure and the rhetoric didn’t suit him.
As a journalist when we interview people there are a lot of things that are unsaid, nuanced or not on the record. Do you have a diary that you’ve kept through all your interviews that you could look back upon or is it all in your head?
It’s very difficult to have anything off the record because that sort of thing won’t get you far. I don’t have very many of those. Funnily enough politicians got very liberal in the sense that they never try and say I won’t answer questions about such and such. And indeed if you ever agreed to something like that you’d have to declare it at the beginning of the interview.
At this stage of your career, and in this time of blogging and other forms of journalism, how do you see the future of journalism?
That’s a very interesting question. In general, these forms of journalism are not necessarily new media so much as new ways of disseminating previous media. A blog is a very personalized editorial, really, isn’t it, and so on in that way. At the moment, Al Jazeera English is available only on the Internet in India.
I don’t think (blogging is) changing journalism as much as the means of distribution. And the traditional media have got more and more ways of people participating. I don’t think it changes the nature of what we do but more and more people get to see and read it.
Al Jazeera English isn’t carried in America. No cable network has agreed to carry it. Would you say you lack the reach you had with the BBC?
Yes and no. More no than yes. The two really important places where everyone would like to see Al Jazeera English more fully distributed than just on the Internet would be India and the US. It started with 80 million households in 50 countries and now it’s 150 million households in over 100 countries.
Recently I went to Nicaragua to interview (former president) Daniel Ortega, who, of course, I had not met before. As a result of that programme, there were 2,000 clippings on websites—all but two in Spanish. And the (Pervez) Musharraf interview I did just before I came to India has been huge in those areas.
In that sense, one’s reaching a wider and larger audience but as you rightly say there are these two countries. I hope in India the government will be able to sign on after the elections. Al Jazeera English is very much an international channel. It’s not a Middle East channel at all. It is on the side of the South (as different from the North or the developed world).
So in answer to your question, overall with those two exceptions, the programme is reaching a wider audience with the main challenge being pronouncing the names of Icelandic politicians because they all have names with 17 letters (chuckles).
You have this vantage point from speaking to all the world leaders. What do you read of the world today in terms of economies tanking, the Middle East crisis and so on?
Politicians surprisingly tend to over-simplify the progress that can be made in the Middle East. They talk glibly about a two-state solution. But you go one step beyond that to the fact that there is no prospect of a two-state solution. The best there might be is a three-state solution.
And, then, sometimes they become doom-laden messengers as in the case of the credit crunch, which obviously is serious. I once coined a phrase, “two events equals one trend” and that’s exactly what it is in dealing with the credit crunch. The other thing is I don’t think politicians are necessarily the best qualified people to gaze into a crystal ball. They have quite reasonably concerns about the present day and the impending elections. Politicians can only be only one or two steps ahead of the public. If they get eight steps ahead of the public, the public won’t buy it.
You’re here to cover the Indian election. Tell us your thoughts.
I’ve found these few days very exciting. I find the scale of this democracy is stunning. I cannot tell you how impressive it is. 714 million voters and 828,000 polling centres and so on. These things are mind-blowing and very exciting that democracy can thrive in such a complex way.