We do ‘coverage’ but not news. We cover events. The PM goes to town. We cover it. Was there anything new? No. Was it interesting? No. But we covered it. MR TIM SEBASTIAN OF ‘HARD TALK’ FAME
Mr Tim Sebastian, celebrity journalist, has given many guests a hard time on his ‘Hard Talk’ series of interviews on the BBC. His direct, intense and unsparing questioning has often offered riveting fare for an audience not used to seeing their politicians being grilled and taken apart.
Mr Sebastian is quick to rebut a suggestion that his style was aggressive, preferring instead to term it as ‘robust and firm’. That may be a quintessential British understatement. But as he explained to me, he saw his role as that of a prosecutor in the court of public opinion.
In a wide-ranging interview, he explained his philosophy, the trends that he observes in the media, the menace of 24-hour news cycle and the need to challenge views. It was a master class in journalism given by one of its premier practitioners. He is in India to anchor a new debating show. Excerpts:
Does the fact that you are a well-known journalist make it easier to get our politicians on board your show?
I don’t know. In other countries it often works the other way. You are known by the people who are on your show and those who are not. You are known by your friends and by your enemies.
Have you had important people say no to coming on your show?
I have had a British PM (Tony Blair) say ‘no’ for seven years. When I later asked one of his press people after he stepped down why, he said there was nothing in it for him. So there we are. One of the reasons we lost guests was because we never made deals. We still don’t.
If people come on the show, we reserve the right to ask about anything. We won’t cut out anything afterward. If people later wish they hadn’t said something, sorry, it’s too late. Nobody is forcing you to come on the show. But those are our conditions. So we have lost a lot of our guests over the years.
But that’s fine because the audience knows that if people do come — that it is fair, it is open, above board, no deals done under the counter. What you see is what you get.
How do your other interlocutors from India compare with politicians outside?
Well, Indian interlocutors aren’t any different from anybody else. Most people react the same way in a studio. You can’t separate them by nationality.
Politicians do what they do — which is to spin effectively. They are very highly media-trained — before they even step into the studio. They even have their three talk points that they should say, no matter what the questions are.
There was a lot of criticism about your aggressive style of questioning…
I don’t think that I was aggressive. I was robust. But you know, when you sit down with an interviewee, you and he are there for different reasons. There is going to be a tussle and it is going to be an adversarial relationship.
He is going to put his spin, and make himself appear as good as possible.
I am there to look at things that have gone wrong. I am the case for the prosecution, if you look at this as the court of public opinion. That is my job. It is not my job to offer him a platform to say whatever he likes without interruption and let him monopolise the whole event.
My questioning may have been firm and robust. And if I crossed the line, I was quite happy to apologise to people and did so — on several occasions.
Another criticism levelled against you is that you interrupted very often and didn’t give enough time to your guests?
You are dealing with people who are well prepared. That’s why you have to interrupt them. Otherwise you will never get to your questions. They’ll be too busy on their answers.
Well, if I didn’t interrupt, they would have taken the whole time allotted. Obviously, I am going to be criticised. You put your head on the block and you have to expect the public to chop it off.
But enough people seem to have been watching the programme over so many years (laughs). I haven’t been so far fired from any of the programmes I have been involved in. Yes, we do get criticised. Why shouldn’t the media be criticised? A little humility among journalists is a good thing. After all, we are talking to the people who do the difficult things in life — those who run countries, armies, employ tens of thousands of people, are responsible for putting food on the plates of the employees. And what do we do? We sit on the fence and we criticise everybody. We do easy things in life. I am conscious of that when I sit across people.
There are two things that are most important in journalism. One is accuracy. The other is fairness. And they are not necessarily the same thing. You can be accurate — but you can be unfair — in the question that you put to them in particular circumstances or in the particular time. And you have got to have both of those things in your mind when you interview people. The public knows pretty well what is fair.
The line between news and entertainment is diminishing. Figuratively, Page 3 is on Page 1. Isn’t this a disturbing trend?
There is trivialisation. But I’ll put it differently. The big issue is 24-hour news — because you have a big black hole to fill every day, stretching to a future without end. Any old nonsense gets on the air these days. We had to fight for space when we were doing news bulletins in the BBC, (at 1 p.m., 6 p.m. and 9 p.m.). We had to have good news judgment. Not anymore. Now it is ‘Duck crosses the road” and the camera is there. That’s ‘breaking news’. 24-hour news has destroyed our judgment which was good. Also, we do ‘coverage’ but not news. We cover events. The PM goes to town. We cover it. Was there anything new? No. Was it interesting? No. But we covered it. News is supposed to be about people. If it is not about people, it is not a story.
I saw this so keenly in the Middle East where ordinary people are not written about — they have been air-brushed out of the picture. So, society neither knows nor cares about what different sections of society do.
In the game of coverage, nobody benefits. Yes, the black hole is filled on TV. That’s all. A few advertisers may be happy. But the public? They are brought up short by 24-hour news.
Is there a way to go back? Do we have to live with this?
Yes. We can go back. There is a backlash again. The public are not stupid. They are not getting what they want. Journalism is being kept alive by the best blogs, by online newspapers and wonderful journalists doing wonderful work. It will come back.
It has to be quality over quantity. Quantity doesn’t serve them. A lot of newspapers have adapted and they are going the extra mile.