Home > industry > My job is to make sure that I keep people accountable, says Stephen Sackur

New Delhi: Stephen Sackur, 50, is the host of HardTalk, a current affairs interview programme on BBC World. He was in the country recently to interview some prominent Indians, including finance minister P. Chidambaram, Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah and women’s rights activist Kavita Krishnan, as part of a BBC series on India. In an interview, he talks about his career, his particular style of interviewing, and the future of the genre.

Edited excerpts:

What brought you to HardTalk?

Well, I was initially a foreign correspondent for the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). In the beginning, I was posted in Middle East for a long time. After which I spent some time in Washington DC and got to know North America. That stint, in turn, led to three years in Brussels as a BBC correspondent. So I had a lot of experience as a foreign correspondent.

Meanwhile, people at the BBC were looking around for someone to take the show from Tim Sebastian, the previous host, and were trying to find someone who would be grumpy enough for the job. I did some trial shows for them and quite enjoyed myself. Since then I have been here.

Some critics would say that it isn’t simply hard talk. The tone of the interview is too confrontational, verging on being almost mean to guests.

Well, I don’t think it is mean. I would see it as being rigorous and challenging. My job is to make sure that I keep people accountable. Mind you, in the UK, we have always had a history of such interviews. The interviews between David Frost and (US) President Richard Nixon in 1977, in which President Nixon admitted to having committed illegal acts as President. Frost specialized in the longer form of such interviews. This genre is rigorous and well researched, and I take it seriously.

If you had to look back at your career, which interviews would you say were your best or ones that you felt were really interesting?

Well, I think one of the most interesting interviews... actually, the entire story behind the interview of the late President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez was fascinating. I actually got that interview through filmmaker Oliver Stone. He was a great friend of Chavez. Chavez eventually invited me to his presidential palace. He gave some good answers and later was saying they should have some version of HardTalk there as well. Of course, it was still an authoritarian country.

Have you ever been surprised when a guest has accepted your offer of being interviewed?

Well, yes, more than a couple of times. I went to Equatorial Guinea to interview the dictator Teodoro Obiang, who had ruled the small country for 33 years. I initially thought there would be no way why he would agree to do the interview. But he did, and while the answers that he gave actually hurt him more than anything, I suspect though that he did it because he wanted to show that he took on a formidable international forum such as HardTalk. That is another thing in this business that you notice very quickly. Vanity and ego are big reasons why people accept to come to the programme.

How would you contrast your interview style with that of, say, someone like Charlie Rose, the host of Charlie Rose Show on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)?

Well, I think Charlie Rose is a great journalist. His style is more conversational. Of course, the market in America is different. He gets great stuff from his guests. We get great stuff from our ones. Mind you, he is not as international as we are, his audience is largely domestic.

More broadly, I think journalists in America fall into two camps that either become shout fests, as in the case of shows like Cross Fire, setting up constant ideological battles, or they have been deferential to power- and decision-makers.

Who would you have wanted to interview in India?

We would have loved to do it with Narendra Modi (the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 national election). I understand that he was keen as well. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. You will have to ask his people why that didn’t happen so. Of course, we could have done it in Hindi because we have simultaneous translations. After all, Chavez’s interview was done in Spanish.

Can anyone be a good interviewer? Does the long-form genre of interviews have a future?

We all ask questions. Now, with the advent of the Internet, of course, everyone can publish their thoughts. The genre of the public affairs interview has life in it. The skill behind doing good interviews relies on a lot of research and doing your homework, making sure you know the subject very well. As to what works on television, I am not prescriptive about it. I am quite prepared to believe that someone who is 28-years-old will replace me. I don’t know.

In my case, I do fall back on my experience of covering the Middle East in certain instances, and so my experience as a foreign correspondent helps. If you can say so, I am at the hi-brow serious end of interviews, which has its own requirements.

Has the job changed you? Do you relate to your children differently?

My daughter, when she was eight, once asked me why do you ask nasty questions. I tried to explain to her that questions I ask aren’t nasty, they are just critical. And so, my children have always kept me honest. The questions I ask are sometimes important, some of the answers I hear are important. But it doesn’t mean I am important. There will be a time when I am not doing HardTalk and life would be fine. After that, who knows, I would want to write, maybe do a show or two here in India.

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