NEWS coverage is enriched by exclusive interviews of newsmakers. These give audiences direct, first-hand information on issues from key individuals in response to pertinent questions.
Interviewers should be engaging and personable, but never arrogant or ignorant. They should coax or tease the fullest answers from their guests, empathising with the subject matter without necessarily sympathising with the interviewee.
The English language media have celebrated interviewers like the late Sir Robin Day of the BBC and Charlie Rose and Larry King of CBS and CNN respectively. But in pursuing higher ratings, some now opt for a harder edge: a brusque style that grates on interviewee and audience.
In interviewing foreign leaders in particular, this style can be a double-edged sword.
Besides placing interviewees on the spot, it also places greater demands on the interviewer by exposing unfamiliarity and inconsistency, which often go unheeded.
CNN’s Zain Verjee and BBC’s Tim Sebastian are cases in point. Both are unfamiliar with this region and its people, although this has not stopped them from hazarding their way through it.
In Britain, Sebastian is an award-winning interviewer who seems to revel in interrogating news personalities, from sports to government. He is also nicknamed “Mr Mean” for his no-holds-barred approach to grilling studio guests on HARDtalk.
Verjee is Riz Khan’s replacement on Q&A, and whose inexperience has been noted in more than one instance. Yet she relishes tackling political subjects, seeing her main role as making the programme “more controversial.”
Apart from unfamiliarity with the subject and some logical inconsistency, Sebastian and Verjee share the habit of cutting off interviewees in mid-answer. This indicates disrespect for their guests, denies audiences a fuller answer, and disrupts the train of thought of everyone but themselves.
Both interviewers also favour rambling preambles leading to a question, supposedly giving some background on the issues. But this also sets up interviewees by making the audience accept presumptions without question, and forcing interviewees to respond in scripted contexts.
In July 2001 Verjee, a Kenyan Indian, visited India for the first time to cover the India-Pakistan summit, admitting that she was still a novice.
Just months later after Sept 11, Verjee hosted an Insight discussion lamenting the lack of (presumed) “more moderate Muslim voices,” while having only a single Arab on the panel. The Pakistani journalist Ayesha Khan, writing in concurrence with the Arab guest, noted that these perceived “moderates” were perhaps not representative of their people who were more radical than Western officials and media seemed to think.
On December 2001, Verjee stood in for Jim Clancy in Q&A to ask whether the media fuelled the “Middle East crisis.” The Jewish Anti-Defamation League (ADL) took offence at the presentation, complaining to CNN and noting that only one Jew was among the four studio guests.
By then, Verjee herself seemed sufficiently chastised by the ADL complaint. On the same day US Secretary of State Colin Powell would hold final talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (April 16), she accused the PLO’s Hassan Abdel Rahman on air of alleging Israeli atrocities, saying he had no proof since “there are no bodies.”
That was days after corpses of victims in Jenin, including civilian casualties, had been reported worldwide.
When Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad visited Washington in May last year, Verjee had him in her sights. Once again, she asked about the (perceived) lack of (presumed) “moderate Muslim leaders.”
Mahathir replied that it was no good for these leaders to say things because they may not be supported by their own people, concurring with earlier observations elsewhere. Verjee followed that with a question that confused authoritarian leaders with hardliners, while presuming that the US supported them.
In another question, Verjee presumed “a connection between al-Qaeda, Sept 11 and Malaysia,” highlighting “the extent of that sort of operation going on in Malaysia, Sept 11 hijackers are coming and going out of Malaysia.” It was the stock image of the country lifted from the sensationalist portrayal in Time magazine, a sister outlet in the CNN-Time-Warner group.
Verjee pursued this hackneyed Malaysia-as-terrorist-haven theme to question why people were arrested as terrorist suspects in Malaysia if it were not a terrorist hub.
She did not understand that when Time and CNN talk of terrorism they mean al-Qaeda, but while the Malaysian authorities do so they mean violent destabilisation from the CPM to the KMM.
She also failed to understand the nature of preventive detention, whatever her own politics on that. This related directly to her earlier question about why Sept 11 was “such a turning point for Malaysia,” which Mahathir had answered – that even the US now appreciates the value of such detention.
Armed with more presumptions, Verjee neglected the prospect of ISA detainees being taken in on suspicion of subversive activity, however defined. Instead, she presumed they must have been notable oppositionists posing a notable threat, thus making Malaysia notably threatened.
Sebastian swung through this region recently when HARDtalk called on Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong of Singapore. An analysis of the interview also shows a similar lack of preparation in interviewing a national leader.
Despite some deficiencies in knowledge, Sebastian goes farther in the browbeating stakes, appearing like a hostile lawyer extracting confessions to put them on record.
Sebastian showed impatience and Western presumption in repeatedly trying to make Goh voice disappointment with the Indonesian court’s decision to jail Abubakar Baasyir for only four years. The evidence against Abubakar, such as it was, vaguely identified him as the spiritual leader rather than the operations chief of Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the role played by Hambali.
Instead of acknowledging Indonesia’s adherence to due process, which has seen JI operatives sentenced to death, Sebastian was pressing for the results and answers he wanted.
Sebastian further pressed Goh to admit that Singapore’s past policies had failed, simply because Singapore was now making some changes.
Since Sebastian did not question Singapore’s achievements based on past policies there can be no question of failure, and his neglect lay in failing to see that the very acceptance of change showed a keen appreciation of adapting to the times – a key in evolutionary success.
Sebastian then questioned Lee Hsien Loong’s candidacy as prime minister as if offspring must not succeed their parents, remaining noticeably quiet about George W. Bush’s presidency.
Sept 11 may have “changed everything” to the point of encouraging news interviewers to launch unilateral and ill-conceived incursions into unfamiliar foreign territory. But if they are to “give a balanced perspective to a global audience,” as Verjee put it, they must enquire judiciously based on adequate research.
While jaded audiences may welcome the new style and political partisans hail it with its perceived oppositional bent, trading time-honoured journalistic values for the instant pizzazz of splash and spin is worrying to journalism itself.
Apart from everything else, it shows Asia still needs better international news coverage.