Softball on ‘HardTalk’

Some TV is pure shock and awe.

Take the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)’s internationally-broadcast current affairs interview program ‘HardTalk’.

In times past, Englishmen had a reputation for politeness and reserve. It’s possible that was really just another smug self-serving Anglocentric myth – but there did seem to be some validity to the stereotype – at least on the BBC. Politeness was normal. A generation ago, interviewers like Richard Dimpleby combined incisive interview technique with courtesy. His son maintains the tradition.

But politeness is no longer at the cutting edge, if HardTalk is any guide. These days, the brightest and best British interviewers have an extra talent to offer viewers. They can shout louder than anyone else. This especially applies if they interview foreigners.

In the unlikely event I ever get interviewed on this marvellous program, I shall certainly take a megaphone along. These guys are experts at shouting down their guests!

A couple of years ago, the Chief Shouter was Tim Sebastian. But the BBC has is going through generational change.

In 2008, Shouter No 1 is Steven Sackur. It’s a hard call, but I think he may be an louder shouter than Tim. His lung capacity is probably greater. One of these days, there really should be an International Shouting Competition between Britain and the USA. Perhaps the USA will field Bill O’Reilly. It would be a match well worth watching – a clash of titans. I’d bet a Euro on Sackur to over-shout even the Beast of the ‘No Spin Zone’.

But I digress. Today I had an awesome shock. I tuned to the BBC and saw HardTalk was about to begin. By reflex, I turned the sound down. There have been HardTalks – especially when African or Arab leaders are interviewed – where I’ve been concerned for my eardrums.

But on this occasion Steven Sackur seemed to be on sedatives. Perhaps someone had slipped him an Eccy? Sackur was polite, softly-spoken, almost docile. His eyes seemed glazed with adoration. I turned up the sound and listened. For the first time, I realized that Steven can be a charmer when he tries. Polite, almost ingratiating.

So what hard happened to HardTalk? Why so soft, all of a sudden? It’s an easy question to answer.

On this occasion, Mr Sackur interviewed Shimon Peres, the octogenarian President of the Israeli State. Mr Peres probably doesn’t like being shouted at. In any event, it didn’t happen. It goes to show the BBC has flexible editorial standards. But of course, we knew that already…

Old Mr Peres is a very skilled, very experienced liar. He has been lying for over 50 years. It was Peres who told John F Kennedy, to his face, that “Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East”. For the role that Peres played in soliciting French nuclear technology during the 1950s (before De Gaulle put a stop to this ‘co-operation’), Peres is sometimes called the ‘Father of the Israeli Nuclear Bomb’.

You’d never guess any of this from watching Hard Talk, of course. Sackur served Peres one gentle softball after another, sporting a silly schoolboy grin. He listened respectfully to the Great Man’s replies. When Peres stopped speaking, he asked another. It was nice to see that when he tries, Sackur can be a perfect gentleman. He does know how after all!

There was a sensitive moment when Sacur mentioned the Jewish settlements that now house close to half a million Israelis. All sited on land where Israel has no right to build. All illegal under international law. Settlements built under Israeli governments of all political complexions, systematically over several decades.

Sackur used the ‘O’ word. ’Occupation’. It was like a young boy teasing his grandfather, pushing to see how far he could go before the old man erupted.

For a moment, I thought there might be an outbreak of shouting, at last… But no, no ‘hardtalk’ today – even in rebuttal. Peres gave Sackur a lecture about how there had never been a Palestinian State. He questioned whether ‘Occupation’ is the right word to use. Sackur seemed well-satisfied with the answer. It was all very touching. And very quiet. Lie a fireside chat for two. I nearly snoozed off in the warmth of their consensus.

Peres, the wizened survivor, seemed momentarily ruffled when, in a nice calm discussion about the Jewish fundamentalists, Sackur mentioned the untimely demise of Ishak Rabin. He sighed and murmured that the road to peace isn’t easy, or words to that effect. How sagacious. It is indubitably much harder if one is being shot at with live ammunition.

If only JFK had dropped in unexpectedly, to resume the dialogue he’d began with Peres 45 years ago (the dialogue terminated by assassins’ bullets (especially a bullet with magical properties, according to Warren Commission lawyer (now Senator) Arlen Specter.

What might John Kennedy say to Peres now?

I imagine him strolling up to the old Zionist, bending as though to whisper in his ear… then letting rip with a shout loud enough to blast the dissembler clean out of his armchair.

Just one word would do the trick.