Hard-talking journalist Tim Sebastian on ruffling mighty feathers, and his new India-focused series.
Tim Sebastian, BBC’s iconic journalist, famous for grilling politicians and other guests on Hardtalk, is in India to anchor a new show. On the lines of his show The Doha Debates that focuses on politics in the Arab world, the 13-part India series — The Outsider — will air on Saturdays later this month on Bloomberg TV India.
Sebastian is clearly impressed with his Indian audience and the level of homework they have done. Most importantly, he says, they are listening and have an open mind, as evidenced by a significant shift in their opinion at the end of the debate.
A great believer in the power of group dynamics, he says human beings have congregated for thousands of years for a particular reason — to discuss and debate issues of the day and age.
“The most interesting things in life are not available on Google. They are in your head. And how you extract this from people’s head — whether groups or congregations or people sitting across the table — that’s the challenge. It is the human contact, and it is always different.”
Sebastian made his reputation with Hardtalk, an interview show that steered clear of anything syrupy. The guests knew they would be asked difficult questions. Not surprisingly, some guests (including, famously, Tony Blair) refused to come on the show. But a large number did — enough for Sebastian to run the show for over seven years, five days a week.
Asked about his preparation, he says simply that he didn’t have a life outside the programme. He also points out, “We were dealing with people who were experts in the subject, who lived and breathed it, and we were coming into it for one afternoon. So we had to be very clear about the areas where we were going to challenge people’s views. You can’t do that unless you had the ammunition. So our researchers went out and talked to experts and did interviews themselves, a pre-interview on the subject that we were talking about. We had to isolate very carefully the issues we were going to talk about.”
Critics say he was aggressive, badgering or interrupting his guests, particularly those who hailed from a certain section or region, and didn’t give them enough time. Sebastian begs to differ: “You know, it is easy to beat people up in a studio. I don’t think the audience likes that very much.
“It is not what I do. You should be robust in your questioning and polite at the same time. I don’t think that you should cross the line.” He says the role of the media is to ask questions on behalf of the public and insist on answers: “You are not there to provide a platform for a party's political broadcast, free of charge.”
To illustrate what went into ‘challenging’ views, he recalls his interview with an Israeli government spokesperson on the siege of Gaza. At the height of tensions, there was international concern on how much food was allowed into the territory. The spokesperson had said, “We allowed 400 trucks a day.” But, says Sebastian, “unless you knew that a minimum of 600 trucks a day was required just to guarantee the minimum continuation of life, you have nothing to combat. You have no context to put this in. So a lot of our research was about giving out the context in order to challenge what people were saying. So, for instance, you could tell the Israeli spokesperson, ‘I see, you are not providing even the minimum required for life’.”
He cheerfully admits to not caring if he ruffled a few ministerial feathers if the issues concerned war, famine, civil liberties, human rights and the like.
He says matter-of-factly, “The issues were always more important than the people sitting across.” On his experience with Indian politicians, he recalls, with some prompting, his encounters with Jaswant Singh and George Fernandes — two ministers who stood up to him. He concedes that they gave a good account of themselves.
A LESSON IN HUMILITY
But even as he made a reputation asking tough questions, Sebastian calls for a little humility among journalists. He remembers the time he had to eat humble pie, “I was interviewing a UN official — Dennis McNamara, who was in charge of displaced people — and I was doing the usual thing about the UN failed here, there, etc. At one point, he said, ‘Wait a minute. Just hold on. I can’t save millions of people. But I have a small plane. When I can, I fly into war zones, put as many women and children on it and fly them out and land them somewhere safe.’ He looked at me and then asked, ‘So, how many lives have you saved?’
“I put my hands up and said, ‘Good question’. It makes you think. Something like that brought me up short. And we should be brought up short. Just because we have the privilege of asking questions on behalf of the public, it doesn’t give us any special rights in society. We should be accountable as well. We are not infallible.”
The role of media
So, is the Indian media on the right track?
Sebastian believes that we have an extremely vibrant media, but is quick to warn, “You have battles for press freedom just as we do in the US and the UK. But none of us can be complacent.”
The most important thing is to give people a choice, he says, adding that the role of the media is really to connect different sections of society — so that they know and they care — about issues and about each other.
He draws attention to the fact that despite technological advances, journalists across the world have a battle on their hands every day.
Deploring the tendency of governments to restrict information and the Internet, he says, “It is a great pity. That’s why we need organisations like Wikileaks. If our governments didn’t lie so much, we wouldn’t need Wikileaks. But they do. So we need whistleblowers, we need insiders to tell us what’s going on; we need access to documents that are inconvenient to government to let us see. So it is a battle.”