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Stephen Sackur

Presenter - HardTalk | 24 Jan 2014

The news channels (in India) are very lively and sensational, but don’t have the depth of coverage, something like what the BBC would offer. It’s also interesting to ask people in India how interested they are in international news. Do they want to have a broader knowledge about what’s happening in the world? Indian news channels don’t spend time looking at happenings outside India.

Stephen Sackur, presenter of HardTalk, BBC World News’ flagship current affairs interview programme, has been a journalist with BBC News since 1986. Before taking over HardTalk, Sackur was based in Brussels for three years as the BBC’s Europe Correspondent. He travelled across Europe to cover major stories around the continent, including Europe’s worst terror attack of recent times in Madrid in 2004, and the expansion of the European Union from 15 countries to 25. Prior to this, he was the BBC’s Washington Correspondent from July 1997.

Sackur has also been the BBC Middle East Correspondent in both Cairo (from 1992 to 1995) and Jerusalem (from 1995 to 1997), covering the peace process, the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the emergence of the Palestinian Authority under the late Yasser Arafat. To prepare a documentary on Islamic fundamentalism, he lived with Hezbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon for two weeks.

In India to record three special HardTalk interviews, Sackur spoke to Rashi Bisaria about the challenges of his profession, his views on Indian media and some of the interesting personalities that he has interviewed over the years.

Q. You have been hosting HardTalk for the past eight years. How has the experience been?

It’s been great. It’s one of the most privileged positions in journalism. I get to travel a lot, meet powerful and generally interesting people, and get to ask them questions that I think my audience would ask if they had the opportunity. So, as they say in America, “What’s not to like? It’s a great job”. The only downside is it is very gruelling as I have to travel quite a lot. It’s unrelenting as it’s a daily show, so I have to cram my head with information about one guest and then forget it only to cram with new information about the next day’s guest. The range of guests we have is extraordinary.

Q. Do you think you have developed an insight into people and personalities after having interviewed such a diverse range of people?

I hope so. People think that HardTalk is unrelenting, combative and almost like a boxing ring. I don’t agree with that. The most important skill that I have to have is to be able to listen properly. The show is about the guest and not about me, so it’s important to hear what the guest has to say. It’s not a contest. The most important thing is to dig in and find out what makes the guest tick, what makes them do what they do. To get to the heart of what people do is sensitive business. If you just have one tone which is grumpy and angry, it doesn’t work.

Q. Can you make out if the guest you are interviewing is lying?

One thing I have learnt about public figures is that they have a great ability to convince themselves that what they are saying is true even if it is not necessarily entirely true. Therefore, to say that what they are saying is a lie is too black and white. There is quite a bit of territory between black and white and that’s the territory HardTalk is in quite often.

Q. Can you recollect some memorable interviews or those that really standout?

When I went to interview Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, it was quite challenging. The way I got the chance to interview him was because I had interviewed Oliver Stone, who was a friend, and he decided to help me out. We flew off to the Presidential Palace and it was memorable, because it turned out to be this combative interview where he tried to bully me, intimidate me, wagged his finger at me. But I had done my research and stood my ground. It was interesting because this man was authoritarian, but he still gave all the time I wanted, spoke to me quite freely.

Q. What about your interview with Imran Khan? That also became a bit heated.

Yes, that had a lot of hits on YouTube. I have interviewed Imran a couple of times on HradTalk. He’s very amenable and affable, but now he’s a politician, he wants to win votes and he wants to make his case. If I am asking him tough questions, then it does bother him.

Earlier, when I was younger in the job, I would allow myself to get a bit emotional and indignant, but nobody wants to see an indignant interviewer. You have to keep your emotions in check. It’s my job not to get emotional. But like in any job, you learn from experience, and so have I.

Q. How involved are you in the whole production of the show?

I’m very involved in every aspect of the show. I’m involved in the selection of guests, the briefing notes prepared by the research team. The power of the research is the key to the success of the interview.

Tim (Sebastian) was a fantastic HardTalk presenter. He defined the show. He started it. When I was a Foreign Correspondent, I used to watch HardTalk and think “My God, Tim is tough”. He’s probably more in your face, I’m a little less direct and more considered, more conversational. To make successful television, you have to be true to yourself and let your own personality come out.

Q. Do you miss active reporting?

I do. I miss being a frontline reporter. It’s the best job for any journalist, being a foreign correspondent. HardTalk’s a great job too, they are both good jobs. The beauty of what I do is that in the old days of Tim Sebastian, he would do straight-forward one-on-ones, but I wanted to take the audience to places where HardTalk and the BBC had not been to. We developed “HardTalk on the Road”, where we mixed the interviews with the reportage, where I go back to being a reporter. We have done that in fascinating places such as Yemen, Congo, Honduras, and have told some extraordinary stories. I think my show went where it had not gone before. We want to keep going to difficult places.

Q. Have you watched any of the Indian channels? What are your views about them?

Yes, I have watched some of the news shows. When I came, Mr Kejriwal was involved in his sit-down protest. The news channels are very lively and sensational, but don’t have the depth of coverage, something like what the BBC would offer. It’s also interesting to ask people in India how interested they are in international news. Do they want to have a broader knowledge about what’s happening in the world? Indian news channels don’t spend time looking at happenings outside India. When I was in Washington, I could see the American media turning in on itself, becoming more self-obsessed. It was bad for America and if India goes too much in that direction, it will be bad for India too.

Q. What changes have you seen in the BBC in the style of reporting and production from the time you started out?

The internet has changed everything. In the earlier days, we would be seen as the source of information and would disseminate it to the world, but now it’s a more interactive experience with our audience.

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