‘I was expecting someone more important.’ Journalistic encounters with world leaders don’t always go to plan.21 June 2022
As I walked in to a hotel to interview Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s prime minister from 1959 to 1990), I should perhaps have read the signals. The Singaporean leader looked at me, then at his wrist-watch, in quick succession. He pointed to a chair I was to sit on. “I was expecting someone, er, more important,” he said, “not you.” Instead of ‘someone important’, the BBC World Service had sent me, a 23-year-old wet-behind-the ears producer-reporter. A mere kid. “Ask,” he demanded.
I felt well prepared for my first interview with a head of government. I had eagerly done my research that morning in what was known in BBC-speak as ‘News Inf ‘, the abbreviation for News Information – a set of well-structured newspaper and magazine articles sorted by the BBC librarian in big brown files. I suppose the precursor of what we now take for granted – information on the internet. No such technology existed in 1977.
He answered my first question, but very briefly. Next question: an equally brief, even curt, answer. The hotel was alongside Heathrow Airport, and he was staring out the window at the nearby planes taxiing along the runway. I asked my third question – I think about the degree of democracy in his home country.
“Young man,” he said. “I have a plane to catch. It’s one of my own planes – Singapore Airlines. But I never keep my pilots or the other passengers waiting.” And with that he got up, no handshake, and ushered me out. I scuttled back to Bush House, home of the BBC World Service. I told my editor – stretching the deeply embarrassing truth just a little – “Lee Kuan Yew declined to do the interview”.
It was a low point of my, at that stage, very short career. But there were worse embarrassments to come. The next year, Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, was on an official trip to London. Working for a BBC Radio 4 programme, I took, as usual, an old-fashioned German-made tape recorder called a Uher to interview him in his hotel. Halfway through the interview he got a phone call. I pressed the pause lever on the recording machine. After he had finished his phonecall, we continued the interview, which I thought had gone rather well. Then, as I shook his hand and he said “G’day mate”, I looked down at my recorder, to find I had never released the pause button, so much of my interview had gone completely un-recorded. I summoned up my courage and said: “Mr Prime Minister, er, I’m sorry I did not record most of that.” “ Oh…” – he started, then uttered a most un-prime ministerial swearword.”Okay then,” he finally muttered, ”let’s just bloody start again.” Whew! A narrow escape for me. And the Prime Minister was even better the second time.
Later that year I set up an interview with President Idi Amin of Uganda, in Kampala, the capital city where the ruthless dictator had already murdered tens of thousands of his people. The interview was done by the BBC’s top reporter – not me, I was just the researcher on that job. The reporter was asking him tough questions about various murders and missing British citizens and so on, which made his guards fidget more and more menacingly with their semi-automatic Kalashnikov rifles.
There were long nerve-wracking pauses – when our cameraman had to change his reels of film, which each only lasted ten minutes. Yet after the interview was over, Amin – notorious for violent mood swings – was charm itself. This huge man, very tall and very plump, shook hands with the reporter, the producer and with me, and said: “It seems to me the people of Great Britain are getting shorter and shorter!”
What else could we say but: “Ha ha ha, Mr President”? He was on a roll. “It also seems to me that the people are Great Britain are getting hairier and hairier” – as he looked at the beard I fashionably sported in those days.
Later that day the mood changed again. His guards told our cameraman that my passport said I was born in Cape Town – capital of a country hated in the rest of Africa in the days of apartheid. “He’s a South African,” they said. “He will die, tonight.”
Not a threat to be taken lightly. That midnight the four of us slipped out of our hotel and rendezvous-ed with a pre-arranged light plane that had secretly landed from Kenya without lights at a remote former Ugandan airstrip. We made it to Nairobi. It turned out to be the last television interview Amin gave before being overthrown.
Then again, my interview with President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, a month before his assassination in 1981, also had a few difficult moments. At his home in the Nile Delta he was pontificating about a plan to persuade America to station advanced fighter and bomber aircraft in Egypt to “jointly defend the Gulf”.
I asked him what guarantees he could give that these planes would remain available to the United States if, one day, he were to retire and someone else took over the presidential job. He stared at me and smiled. “Well, you have been more clever,” he said, “than the reporter from the Washington Post. He asked me: ‘What is the difference between you and the Shah?’ ” – referring to the American-backed king of Iran who had recently been toppled from power by mass popular riots.
Sadat puffed at his pipe and continued: “I told the reporter…” He leaped up off his chair and pointed his pipe at me: “I told him: Go to Hell.” Startled, I ducked backwards in my chair, pulling the microphone and my tape-recorder towards my chest. “If you don’t understand the democracy in my country,” he continued, “go to Hell. I have no ‘guarantees’ to give you, except my word and the word of my people. You can take it – or leave it!” The president’s little rant would of course make great radio – but it was surely the end of my previously cordial relations with the Egyptian leader.
Or was it? As soon as I had switched off my tape-recorder he said to me: “Paul I want to tell you a secret: When we were at the Camp David talks between me and prime minister Menachem Begin and my good friend Jimmy Carter, King Hussein of Jordan phoned. He wanted to join the talks, but I said no, Jimmy, don’t let him come. He will ruin everything.” Good story, big scoop, I thought. King Hussein had wanted to break ranks with all the Arab leaders, who, without exception, had virulently condemned Egypt for even talking to the hated Israeli enemy, let alone making peace with it, and were boycotting Egypt as a result. “Ah Paul,” he said, “but please, this is OFF the record.” Of course I did not report that information, though I felt good that the President had trusted me with it.
A few days later, the New York Times headlined the exact same revelation about King Hussein – except this time, it seems, President Sadat had given them this scoop ON the record. So I’d had a world exclusive in my hands, but was beaten by another reporter. Sadat had shown me who was ‘more clever’. Yes, I was learning, first from Lee Kwan Yu, then from Anwar Sadat: in the battle of words between a young reporter and an experienced politician, the young reporter usually comes off second best.