Mr. Television opens a new chapter
David Frost, who has interviewed seven U.S. presidents, six British prime ministers and an identical number of Israeli prime ministers, is not only one of the most well-known interviewers on British and American television, he is an experienced interviewee as well.
David Frost, who has interviewed seven U.S. presidents, six British prime ministers and an identical number of Israeli prime ministers, is not only one of the most well-known interviewers on British and American television, he is an experienced interviewee as well. Like his own interviewees, he is rarely caught saying something he didn't want to say. He can smoothly and elegantly neutralizes traps laid for him, as befits a man who has been awarded a knighthood for his work in British television over the past 40 years.
But when he talks about the glamorous gallery of interviews he has accumulated, the barriers seem to come down. He enjoys recalling interviews with Yitzhak Rabin, Tennessee Williams, Moshe Dayan, Elton John, David Beckham, Bill Clinton, Golda Meir and the biggest fish of all - the interview with then-president Richard Nixon after Watergate, which is still considered the television interview with the largest audience ever.
Frost, 66, began his career in the 1960s on the current events satire program, "That Was the Week That Was," a trailblazer in its time. Over the years, he has become one of the few interviewers broadcast both in Britain and in the United States, the author of 15 books and a movie producer.
"Now there are two forms of silences. One form of silence is the sort of silence where you reckon that if you stay quiet, if you shut up, the person is going to go on and say more. That's a really productive silence. And then there's the absolutely unproductive silence, which is when you sense they've entirely forgotten what the bloody hell they were saying. That's an embarrassing silence that you've got to fill as soon as possible. You have to work out which sort of silence it is."
Apparently there is another type of silence that emerges between the words, brief but frequent, and testifies to the interviewer's careful choice of words. Frost, who arrived on Sunday for a brief visit to Israel, apparently had this in mind when discussing the next stage in his varied career - presenting an interview program on Al Jazeera's English-language channel. The Arab network, which is based in Qatar, is planning to start airing the program in March.
A change of image
Only two months after his BBC interview program, "Breakfast With Frost," was discontinued after 12 years on the air, it become known that Frost had signed a contract with the new news channel, which is supposed to upgrade the status of the Qatar-based network, and to turn it into competition for BBC and CNN in the international arena. At the same time, Frost will continue to do special programs and interviews for BBC.
Frost is the first Western personality Al Jazeera has succeeded in enlisting in its attempt to change its image as an anti-American and anti-Israeli network and gain greater international legitimacy. Frost's consent seems even more surprising in light of his current visit to Israel. He is here at the invitation of the Israel Britain Commonwealth Association to mark the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, which for the first time recognized the Jews' right to a national home in Palestine. Frost was invited to give a speech at the gala dinner that took place this week in honor of the event.
In Britain, it seems, his decision to move over to the controversial Arab network did not arouse a particularly lively public debate. All the newspapers reported the story and were interested in whether Frost will enjoy editorial independence. Frost testifies that among all the press clippings collected for him, from Britain and form other countries, "There wasn't a single negative word about it, not a single negative report."
When Frost speaks about his new job, he repeatedly emphasizes that the channel will be unbiased and neutral, in the tradition of the BBC. He says that it was actually the people from Al Jazeera who initiated the clause in his contract that promises him full editorial independence, without any censorship. Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore the anticipated dilemmas that will face the famous British interviewer at his new place of employment.
Fair or biased
Imagine a possible scenario in which, God forbid, a terror attack takes place in the Tel Aviv market and 25 people who were shopping there are killed. Your program on international Al Jazeera is aired the next day. What terms will you use to describe what happened?
"In my program, just as with `Breakfast with Frost,' I have complete editorial control. Al Jazeera wanted to put in the contract, which is very positive, the fact that there would be absolutely no censorship, so in terms of what I would say about the Middle East or about Israel, it would be no different than what I did on the morning after general Rabin was assassinated or on other occasions when I dealt with the Middle East."
In that case, that will be a different policy from the present practice of Arabic-language Al Jazeera. There a suicide attack is usually described as "an act of self-sacrifice," and there is no use of the word "terrorists," but rather "freedom fighters" or "shaheeds."
"I would call them whatever I would call them before. I would call terrorists, `terrorists' and freedom fighters, `freedom fighters.' That particular example obviously hasn't happened yet, so that's difficult to say, but the news is that I would cover them just as I would have covered them at the BBC last year or at the BBC in five years' time. What they want with this channel is for it to be an English-language channel. Not particularly specializing at all in the Middle East, but a worldwide channel with studios in London, Washington, Kuala Lumpur and Doha."
You speak of the lack of bias at the BBC, but as you know, the network has had tense relations with Israel, to the point of breaking ties, and is frequently accused by Israel or by the Jewish community of pro-Palestinian bias. Do you think that such bias exists?
"No one's ever said that about the programs that I've done, so, I mean, I stand by that. I haven't seen all these other programs that people talk about. In order to answer the question about the BBC, one would need to view all these alleged mistakes, which obviously I haven't done. I certainly don't think there is a planned or concerted or deliberate bias by the BBC against Israel. Whether there're individual mistakes, I don't know. It's possible, obviously, but over all, I'm absolutely clear the BBC try in every way they can to make sure that they are fair and unbiased toward Israel."
And whom would you choose to invite to your program after such an incident?
"In the event of a fatality in Israel in the past, on `Breakfast with Frost,' one of the first people we always contacted was the Israeli ambassador. So that is what we will do again, I'm sure."
Would you, for example, invite Benjamin Netanyahu to your program on Al Jazeera?
"Yes, of course."
This is how Frost explains his decision to accept the proposal of Al Jazeera:
"This is probably the last worldwide 24-hour news station that will be built, network that will be built. And in that sense, it's a very exciting new challenge."
However, Frost does not totally ignore the criticism that has been leveled at the channel regarding its alleged anti-American bias, and the hints of a possible connection with Al-Qaida.
The Arabic channel is the first to broadcast the videotapes sent by the organization, and in effect it has become its communications pipeline with the world. The U.S. administration has repeatedly accused the station of encouraging terrorism, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said that Al Jazeera aired photos of beheadings carried out by Iraqi rebels. The Americans boycott the network's reporters in Iraq, and only recently a former Al Jazeera reporter, Taysir Alouni, was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in Spain for cooperating with Al-Qaida.
Frost says that the claim regarding the broadcast of executions is incorrect. "Before I said yes, the key thing for me, obviously, was just to check out Al Jazeera with senior people in the government in London and Washington and senior Jewish friends, and seeing if in particular there was no link between Al Jazeera and Al-Qaida.
"They all said that as far as links to Al-Qaida were concerned, Al-Jazeera was clean, that it was in the clear. And that obviously was essential, that was the first thing I did. I'm not surprised really, because obviously Qatar is America and Britain's closest ally in the Arab world, so it would be illogical if they also had links to Al-Qaida, because one would have canceled out the other."
Do they know in your new place of work that you were invited to a dinner to commemorate the Balfour Declaration?
"Well there's no problem, because you see there's no conflict. I've always done a great many things as a friend of Israel over the years, as people can tell you. I first met Ariel Sharon at Rehovot at the Weizmann Institute, which I was a governor of for many years, I've always done a lot of work for Jewish charities in London, and so that is quite natural for me to do this, because the Balfour Declaration is a good thing to celebrate."
Rabin, Kennedy and Dayan
Even today, Frost can quote verbatim passages from interviews he conducted, and he recalls with amazement things said to him by some of his Israeli interviewees. Rabin arouses a particularly warm feeling in him. He interviewed Rabin in 1993, two months after the signing of the Oslo Accords.
"He said to me, the reason he wanted to become prime minister was that he decided that politics was too serious to be left to the politicians. Robert Kennedy used the phrase to me that one man can make a difference, and I think that in terms of peace back in 1993 and onwards, Prime Minister Rabin was one person who could have made a difference."
Frost also recalls an interview with Moshe Dayan, the first that Dayan gave after the Six-Day War. "I asked him how he'd like to be remembered and what he would like people to say about him after he's dead, and he replied, `Say about me after I'm dead? But that's what I'm dead for, not to care what people say about me.' A great reply."
What makes a person a good interviewer?
"First of all, homework, knowing the subject matter of the person you're interviewing. The point about homework is, the more briefed you are about somebody, the more free you are to go about whatever catches fire in the conversation. If you only know about one narrow area, you have to keep the interview in that one narrow area. Homework is vital also in terms of making the person interested, so that you ask some questions they haven't been asked before.
"Listening is the second. When I first went to America, people would review my interviewing and they would say, `well, the great thing is that he listens!' Well, why wouldn't you listen? That's the fun of it.
"The third thing is to establish some form of physical or maybe metaphysical contact with the person you're interviewing. Eye contact, for instance, so that the person you're interviewing wants to persuade you about what they're saying, wants to get across to you his answer.
"The fourth thing is, a lot of interviewing is instinct. Take for example, silences. I remember when I interviewed Tennessee Williams. He would pause quite often, but you knew every time he had more to say and you waited for that to come, and the result was rewarding, because whatever he said was fascinating or strange or unusual. His silences were really productive silences.
"There was one silence that was different. I asked Michael Dukakis when he was the presidential candidate in 1988, `What's the best advice that you've ever received in your life,' and he paused for 26 seconds. It was fascinating television, that was in a separate category really. It was extraordinarily interesting, although it was an unproductive silence in a way, but it was so interesting because it went on for so long. I just waited, and then he answered. Twenty-six seconds later. I still don't know quite how I waited that long. Three seconds on television can be an eternity, so 26 is eight eternities."
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