Smashing the Silence

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Tim Sebastian, once the iconic anchor of HARDtalk, is still doing what he does best—stirring things up with the Doha Debates.

Tim Sebastian, once the iconic anchor of HARDtalk, is still doing what he does best— stirring things up with the Doha Debates.

Chariman of the Doha Debates Tim Sebastian was in Chennai as part of a three-city tour to conduct debates on ‘Was British Rule good for India’, for Entrepreneurs’ Organisation. Sebastian spoke to Anuradha Ananth, who he met at NDTV’s studios.

Anuradha: I’m actually quaking because I’ve only seen you grilling people on your show, and I’m thinking maybe you have a similar grilling technique even when you’re being interviewed.

Tim: (still laughing) No, I don’t think so. I’m off duty.

Anuradha: Now that you’ve put me at ease, let’s start by talking about The Doha Debates, a concept born during a discussion with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad in 2004.

Tim: (smiling) Born over a lunch, like all good things are.

Anuradha: The first topic of debate was Arab governments’ aversion to reform, and the second one on the separation of mosque and State. Incendiary topics, both. Yes, you have the Emir’s backing, but has it been smooth all the way?

Tim: They get more incendiary as we go on. But the conditions under which we operate are very unique. We don’t ask for permission for anything we do, and we don’t accept interference in the topics we choose. We retain absolute editorial independence and that’s really unique in the Arab world.

I’ve told people, ‘If anybody takes away our editorial independence, we will pack up and go’. I believe passionately in free speech, and what we do advances the cause of free speech because it gives young people a chance to talk about controversial issues, sometimes, for the first time in their lives. Debating isn’t a Western construct; it’s something that came out of that region 1,400 years ago when the Prophet was there. They were debating, arguing, probing, enquiring in a way that has fallen into abeyance now in the Arab world.

Anuradha: Considering the climate in the Arab world, do you think it’s serendipitous that this happened—The Doha Debates—or did you go to Qatar with a mission in your mind?

Tim: I didn’t go with a mission, but I was asked if I had anything to contribute to the reform process there and I said, ‘No, but I’ll go away and think about it’, and I came up with the idea of townhall debates.

What I didn’t expect was that the young people would buy into it to such an extent. For example, we had the motion, ‘Muslims are not doing enough to combat extremism.’ We discovered that our audience can be very self-critical, as that motion was passed. They also passed the motion that the Sudanese president should be handed over to the International War Crimes Tribunal. Directly against the line their government puts out. We are seeing quite a lot of self-assertiveness coming out of these debates.

Anuradha: Can you quantify the positive fallout of these debates. Do you see a tangible change in the mindset of policymakers or is it just a platform to vent?

Tim: Colleges in Qatar have set up their own debating societies now. They take part and host international competitions in Qatar, which has never happened before. They prepare for the debate. They are embracing the whole idea. The other thing is anecdotal evidence—people coming and saying, ‘I was going to vote this way, but actually I changed my mind during the course of the Debate,’ which is gratifying.

Anuradha: In Hardtalk, I always thought you went for people’s throats. You didn’t give them enough space. Was it a ploy to cast them in a negative, unfavourable light and see how they extricate themselves from the situation? Did you and the BBC decide that the tenor of the show would be tough and combative?

Tim: Not for the sake of it. People tend to sympathise with the person who’s getting bashed. The point of being tough and being robust and different is to hold people to account and get something new out of them. What’s different about Hardtalk is the homework we do, so we can chart how the interview is going to go, what charges we want to put. The show is the court of public opinion, a lot of the people being interviewed should have been in front of a criminal court. The battle for control in an interview takes place in the first minute or two minutes. You need to establish control, especially with a skilled politician, or he’s going to run rings around you for the rest of the interview. He’s very well prepared. He knows what points he wants to make. You have to get in first and lead that interview, not him.

Anuradha: Tell us about the time when Mo Mowlam kicked you under the table.

Tim: Mo Mowlam was the British minister for Northern Irish Affairs, who’d done a lot of dealings between the IRA and the British Government, which brought an end to the conflict in Northern Ireland. It was a tough interview. At the end of it, I felt a stab in my ankle. Startled, I said to her, ‘You kicked me! Why?’ She said because I was nasty piece of work (laughs).

Anuradha: Has anyone refused to be on your show?

Tim: (smiling) Prime Minister Blair wouldn’t come. We were pleased because we thought we were doing something right.

Anuradha: Or maybe it’s that stare, that unblinking stare. (Tim laughs uproariously.)

Anuradha: Have you ever been put in a spot by an interviewee?

Tim: Yes, by a man in a position of great responsibility in the UN, responsible for displaced people mainly in Africa. I was doing my usual thing of saying whether the UN had failed in certain places. At one point, he said, ‘Wait a minute, just stop! I can’t save millions of people but I do have a small plane and when I can, I fly it into a war zone and I put as many women and children on it and fly them somewhere safe.’ He looked at me across the table and said, ‘How many people have you saved?’ It’s the best question that’s been asked on Hardtalk and that too by an interviewee. It makes you think, brings you up short, and that’s good.

Anuradha: Do you see yourself as an activist?

Tim: (laughingly) I’m just an angry old man…

Anuradha: …who bullies his children by the way!

Tim: (laughing) I’m bullied by my children. I’ve learnt to follow simple instructions. That’s been my career development.

Anuradha: What do you do in London when you’re not working?

Tim: I’d like to go home, find out what my children are doing and tell them to stop it. Spend time with them, go to movies a lot, go for long walks in the park. I spend too much time on planes, so it’s nice to be out in the open.

Anuradha Ananth is features editor of NDTV-Hindu