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Don’t be intimidated, ask the tough questions

By Haggai Matsiko

Tim Sebastian, the former host of BBC’s Hard Talk show, is the chairman of the Doha Debates, a forum for free speech in Qatar. Haggai Matsiko spoke to him.

Many people know you as a man of all questions, always preferring to grill politicians and some people have taken it for arrogance, is it the best way to conduct an interview?

Everybody has to conduct an interview according to their personality, I tend to believe that an interview should contain some pressure in it, I do apply pressure but not for the sake of it but to extract something new from somebody, to hold people to account.

Most people know the pugnacious Tim, the one who wants to rip politicians apart, what is that part of you that people do not actually know?

I am an angry old man, what can I say? I go around the world, I am angry at what I see, am angry at injustice, I am angry at human rights violations and of course am angry that so many people get away with so many of those things. What am I like all the time? I think if you asked my children they would tell you that I am pretty relaxed, I do not look for confrontation, but I do not avoid it either because I think that the duty of a journalist is to get involved and engaged in the battles of everyday life and to try to shade some light in dark places. That is the privilege in journalism to try and get some answers on behalf of those who cannot get them themselves.

You have moved interviewed many great people, you were a correspondent, you became an interviewer, a novelist, name it. How has this journey been like?

It is such a long journey but the most important thing about the journey is that you learn something new from everybody you talk to. You never give up learning from your mistakes because we humans make mistakes every day. So I try to extract new information and guidance from each place I visit. So I am excited about what I do, I have been a journalist for over 35 years, I still enjoy it.

On your former show, Hard Talk, aren’t there times when you stepped on big toes and BBC put limits on you?

Toes, oh yes, but that is fine, who cares whether there are big toes or small toes, we all have the same toes, we all human beings.

But as for limits I have to say no. I have to say it was of great joy having worked with BBC for many years but nobody ever told me once what I could or could not say. I was never given instructions and I do not know if there is anything for a journalist than to be left alone to do their job. I was left alone and it was a great privilege.

Some people seem to think that Africa would rather have dictators as long as they can foster economic development, than respect civil liberties, what is your view?

The people I talk to do not fall in that category and I think people like to have a say in running of their lives whether they are in Africa, Asia, Europe or America, seems a general trend that people love to have control over their own lives and the more the control the better.

Your kind of interviewing is quite hard in situations where journalists are threatened, harassed and murdered, how can such journalists approach that style?

By focusing on particular issues, by focusing on the facts, by assembling the facts, and by putting the facts to people who are in charge. I think if you base your questions on facts and you have done your homework on not just one thing but the follow up facts as well then I think you are as active as it can be for the interview.

I believe you have achieved most of the things you set yourself for, what are some of those things that you would still want to achieve?

Do my job better, spread the word about free speech, I think it is very important that it is championed in the whole world. And the leaders see that their control over the spoken and the broadcast world is now at an end and it is time to admit it. And if I could fight to get rid of censorship, then I could continue to do that.

What has been the biggest challenge in your career as a journalist?

It is always hard to get out the truth wherever you are. The battle for free expression is a battle everywhere, it is a different battle according to the country you happen to be in but it is always a battle, people are always covering up things that went wrong. This is not an easy job, it is a hard job and if you do it well it is even harder. We do not go into it because we want a hard job; no we need change in life, which is what I hope most journalist would want to see.

What has been your single greatest moment or achievement in life?

You make a sacrifice of a kind when you are a journalist and give up weekends and holidays, you work longer hours than others; I would have loved to spend a lot of my time with my children as they were growing up. They are three; one of them is a journalist, the other is a producer now for CNN, they are bright, intelligent and I am very proud of them, so that’s what I am very proud of.

What do you advise journalists?

What I think journalists need to know is that they have a really privileged position but they also have duties and they should try never to sell the public short. Try always to ask the difficult question even when people might intimidate you

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