Meet Stephen Sackur – the world famous interviewer who’s tougher than Paxman

Hardtalk is probably the world’s most popular interview show, but one that few people in its native Britain have ever seen or heard of

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Had the interview been a boxing match it would have been cut short. For 25 minutes Joice Mujuru, the former Zimbabwean vice-president who fell out with Robert Mugabe in 2015 and now leads a rival party, was verbally pummelled.

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How could she claim to champion freedom and democracy when she had been Mugabe’s cabinet ally most of her adult life? How could she avoid responsibility for Zimbabwe’s economic collapse, or the Gukurahundi massacre of 20,000 civilians, or the destruction of hundreds of thousands of slum dwellers’ homes. 

How many white farms had she acquired? Why was part of Zimbabwe’s biggest diamond field known as “Mrs Mujuru’s anthill”? How could she possibly have remained in Mugabe’s cabinet for three years after his thugs murdered her husband? “It’s hard to understand how your political career makes any sense at all if you have morals, ethics and principles,” the interviewer concluded.

Welcome to what is probably the world’s most popular interview show, but one that few people in its native Britain have ever seen or heard of. It’s called Hardtalk, and on 3 April it will celebrate its 20th birthday.

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Joice Mujuru

Stephen Sackur, Hardtalk’s presenter, interviews three or four luminaries a week – British and foreign. Those interviews are screened several times a day on BBC World News, which reaches 85 million viewers a week in nearly 200 countries. They are also broadcast on BBC World Service radio, which reaches 66 million listeners. At any one time someone somewhere on the planet, in homes, hotel rooms or airport lounges, will almost certainly be watching or listening to one of Sackur’s inquisitions. “The sun never sets on Hardtalk,” jokes Carey Clark, the programme’s editor.

As a result, Sackur enjoys an international celebrity that interviewers like Andrew Marr and Robert Peston can only dream of – Britain’s three Sunday-morning chat shows combined attract scarcely two million viewers.

Sackur is arguably the world’s best-known British television personality after Jeremy Clarkson. He receives fan mail from around the globe. He is mobbed in Malta, fêted in Singapore and revered in Ethiopia, where he once subjected the authoritarian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, to the toughest questioning of his life. “Sometimes when you go abroad with Stephen it’s like going around with royalty, especially in India and Africa,” says Clark. “His profile internationally is enormous.”

In Britain, though, Sackur’s following is more select. Because Hardtalk is broadcast only by the BBC News channel, and only in the small hours, it consists largely of night owls and insomniacs. “The people who recognise me man Tube stations very early in the mornings,” says Sackur with a self-deprecating chuckle. “My postman, when I first opened the door to him, was thrilled because he watches Hardtalk at the start of his shift. I do have a fan base in the UK – they’re just quite nocturnal.”

Hardtalk is an improbable success story, not just because it has a shoe-string budget of barely £1 million a year but also because it breaks every rule of modern broadcasting.

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Donald Trump

Nothing about it is dumbed down. Each programme consists of a single 25-minute, face- to-face studio interview. Its guests are serious people, not airhead celebrities. It uses no video clips, pictures or gimmicks. It has little humour. Its format has barely changed in two decades, and it has had just two regular presenters in that time – Tim Sebastian and, since 2005, Sackur. It is a survivor from a bygone age of television, a throwback to the days of Brian Walden, David Frost and Robin Day.

Hardtalk works because it attracts interesting, topical interviewees. Three of its seven-strong team do nothing but cajole the global great and good to appear. The 4,500 guests since 1997 have included presidents, prime ministers and dictators, Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev and Donald Trump, Roger Federer, Robert Redford and Gwyneth Paltrow.

It works because three days of intense preparation go into each programme, with researchers presenting Sackur with a 20-page dossier of facts, quotes and statistics a day before the interview. As a former BBC correspondent in Brussels, Washington and the Middle East, Sackur adds his own wealth of knowledge and experience. “I go in heavily armed,” he says.

It works because so often it provides compelling, gladiatorial theatre. Interviewees cannot declare any topics off limits (which is why Tony Blair has never appeared), and Sackur insists he has never balked at asking a question. He asked Ethiopia’s Zenawi “questions he had clearly never been asked before about repression, about what happens inside his prisons and to opposition activists”. He asked Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, one of the world’s longest-serving dictators, about his family’s rampant corruption. “We have the privilege of asking people in power the questions that their own people and media would ask if they were only given the opportunity, but of course under repressive regimes they aren’t,” he says.

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Gwyneth Paltrow

Interviewees sometimes lose their tempers. Max Clifford, the publicist, stormed out when Sackur questioned the morality of making money from Jade Goody’s cancer. Former US vice president Al Gore accused Sackur of waging “a personal vendetta against those seeking to save the planet”. The former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, quizzed about corruption, shook Sackur’s hand with a fixed grin at the end of the interview while muttering, sotto voce: “You’ll be hearing from my lawyers”.

Clark is surprised that some guests agree to go on the show at all, and can only surmise that they consider it some kind of “badge of honour”. But for Sackur, Hardtalk is not just about confrontation. It also entails “taking people into territory they find hard to discuss and have sometimes never discussed before”.

An empathetic character with few airs and graces, he induced the novelist Patricia Cornwell to talk candidly of the pain caused to her by her mentor, Ruth Graham, the wife of evangelist Billy Graham, who refused to acknowledge her homosexuality. “Afterwards she said, ‘I’ve done hundreds of interviews but I’ve never done one like this before. Thank you,’” Sackur says.

In one particularly moving interview, Allen Ault, a prison official who had supervised scores of executions in the US state of Georgia, confessed that he had come to see those executions as premeditated, state-sponsored murders. “Afterwards he said, ‘I’ve been waiting to do this interview for an awfully long time.’”

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Christine Lagarde

Sackur has plenty of anecdotes. He forgot one interviewee’s name altogether, and had to halt the recording to find it out. When Christine Lagarde said that being head of the IMF required the hide of a rhinoceros, he found himself stroking her hand. Hugo Chavez, the former Venezuelan president, showed him Simón Bolívar’s sword during a tour of his palace and said: “Don’t tell anyone, but I took it from the museum.” Slobodan Milosevic’s wife refused to appear because she was sunburnt, so the programme dispatched several tubs of Greek yoghurt to her house to act as a balm.

Will Hardtalk survive another 20 years? Sackur earnestly hopes so. “There’s still a thirst for serious, inquiring journalism,” he argues. “In the context of fake news and social media platforms where everything is bite-sized and diced and sliced into 30-second chunks, the space we have to develop an argument and dig a little bit deeper really matters.”

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Hardtalk is on Monday to Friday at 12.30am and 4.30am on the BBC News Channel