There was an error in this gadget

25 December 2009

HARDtalk 2009 - the good, the bad and the bizarre

By Stephen Sackur
Presenter, BBC HARDtalk

The HARDtalk studio is dark. The two leather chairs on our simple set are empty. This year's interrogations are over and it's time to remember the good, the bad and the downright bizarre from HARDtalk 2009.

2009 saw the first walk-out in the middle of a HARDtalk interview

It was the year we took the show on the road as never before. From interviews recorded deep inside the Arctic Circle, to a New York Bank vault and a Congolese forest.

And it was the year of the unpredictable guest. From the media manipulator who stormed out of the studio before the interview was done, to the fashionista who confessed to wearing no knickers (I felt no need to demand further evidence).

Shivering guests

Of all the big stories in our HARDtalk year, perhaps the most frequently revisited was climate change, and what to do about it.

For two weeks in the summer I travelled round Greenland, mixing our usual challenging interviews with reportage from the field.

Huskies in Greenland
As the ice melts people living in the Arctic Circle will need fewer huskies

So it was that I found myself quizzing Australia's environment minister Penny Wong and India's climate envoy Shyam Saran high above Baffin Bay with icebergs for a backdrop.

In my four years on HARDtalk I've seen the occasional guest give an involuntary shiver of trepidation - but never before have I quizzed guests shivering with cold.

The debate itself was heated, even if the guest themselves were not.

The failure of the rich nations and the developing world to strike a comprehensive and binding agreement in Copenhagen was foreshadowed in this and several other HARDtalk interviews with key players in the climate debate.

And amid the political arguments Greenland gave me some unexpected insights into the impacts of global warming.

I've been called a hard-bitten journalist more than once in my life - in western Greenland the description was all too accurate

Melting glaciers I'd expected, but what about the Greenlanders who are growing their own vegetables in the unprecedented summer warmth? And the clouds of voracious mosquitoes that can now be found deep inside the Arctic Circle?

I've been called a hard-bitten journalist more than once in my life - in western Greenland the description was all too accurate.

Hubris and greed

The struggling global economy was another staple on the HARDtalk menu throughout 2009.

Perhaps most memorable was my interview with Lawrence MacDonald, a former vice-president of the ill-fated Lehman's Brothers investment bank.

We wanted an evocative and moody location - and we found it in a subterranean bank vault with mighty steel doors underneath Wall Street itself.

Stephen's exchange with Noam Chomsky came in for some criticism

It used to house depositors' cash, now it is an exclusive gentleman's dining club for Wall Street's remaining gazillionaires.

Mr MacDonald told me the compelling story of a company overwhelmed by hubris and greed. And what is this contrite banker doing now? Running a boutique investment fund for high-worth investors, of course.

Wall Street may be chastened, but it is unclear what has really changed. After a highly charged and (I hope) entertaining exchange with Steve Forbes, the millionaire publisher and defender of liberal economics, I was presented with a small gift.

It was a silk tie embossed with Mr Forbes' favourite self-description: "The Capitalist Tool."

Empty chair

By way of extreme contrast my HARDtalk year also took me to eastern Congo - perhaps the most war ravaged region on the planet over recent years.

The most upsetting interviews of the assignment were with two teenage girls - children still - who courageously chose to tell me how they were systematically raped by Congolese gunmen.

They spoke out, they said, in order that the world would know what is still happening in their country.

Sometimes in HARDtalk we push guests closer to their limits than perhaps we realise

The UN has its biggest peacekeeping force stationed in DR Congo, but there is precious little peace to keep.

And the UN has found itself on the same side as some highly questionable characters - including the warlord "Bosco" Ntaganda, who is wanted for war crimes, but now serves as a commander in the Congolese government's armed forces.

We believed we had arranged an exclusive HARDtalk interview with General Bosco in his headquarters. We set up the cameras, prepared the microphones and waited.

And waited. Bosco never showed up. It was the first time HARDtalk aired an interview with an empty chair.

PR guru Max Clifford walked out when the questioning turned to Jade Goody

That was not the only spot of guest trouble we had in 2009. For the first time in my HARDtalk career I experienced a walk-out in the middle of an interview.

The guest in question was Max Clifford, Britain's foremost celebrity publicist and agent. One of his highest profile clients last year was Jade Goody, a woman made famous for her appearances on reality television.

Goody was diagnosed with terminal cancer and spent her last weeks in a blaze of Clifford-controlled publicity which earned her children a great deal of money.

When I asked Max Clifford about his involvement with Ms Goody he was clearly unhappy. When I asked a follow-up question he stormed off the set.

As we had only recorded one-third of a full HARDtalk interview this was a programme that could never be aired.

Needless to say it led to a major inquest in the HARDtalk office. Did I cross a line? Was I gratuitously offensive? I really do not think so, but it was a reminder that sometimes in HARDtalk we push guests closer to their limits than perhaps we realise.

Memorable image

HARDtalk sees encounters with presidents and prime ministers every year, but it is often the more unexpected interviews which prompt the biggest viewer response. And this year was no exception.

Vivienne Westwood described collecting a royal honour... wearing no knickers!

My exchange with Noam Chomsky about the Obama presidency and American foreign policy drew much comment - much of it highly critical of my "aggressive and arrogant" questioning of the 81-year-old professor.

Another huge response greeted the interview with Latif Yahia, the Iraqi man co-opted to be Uday Hussein's body double in the darkest days of the Saddam dictatorship.

How could such an experience leave Yahia defending Saddam and wishing his rule had never ended? Classic HARDtalk territory…

And finally I'll leave you with an image which has stayed with me since I interviewed the wonderfully idiosyncratic British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood last year.

She confessed to me that when she went to Buckingham Palace to receive an honour from the Queen she had neglected to put on any knickers.

She only remembered when she was surrounded by photographers when the ceremony was over. "I couldn't understand why they were taking their pictures from such a low angle," she told me.

And then she remembered. And now so will I.