One of the great privileges of being a journalist is that you meet some truly remarkable people. In the age of the selfie it is popular to have a photo with someone famous; but such encounters rarely go beyond a few words such as ‘all the best!’ But the journalist holds conversations with people which often touch on matters of personal or even international significance. These conversations are often termed ‘interviews’; but for any interview to succeed it must be a conversation.
If the journalist simply sticks rigidly to a list of prepared questions he or she risks not responding to some key point which the interviewee may make, and which may take the conversation in an unexpected and much more interesting direction. Weak politicians (it tends to be politicians) sometimes ask for a list of questions in advance. They’re weak, because it shows that they feel incapable of moving outside their comfort zone. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask what will be the topic of the interview, but if you have to give a list of questions in advance then you might as well not bother. You want a conversation with another human being, not a pre-programmed response from a robot.
|The Author interviewing Mikhail Gorbachev in 1992|
Because the main focus of my work over the years has been Russia, many of the remarkable people I’ve interviewed have been Russians, and many of them politicians. In terms of well-known politicians those who particularly stand out are the only man ever to hold the title of President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev (whom I interviewed three times) and the one-time Soviet Foreign Minister and later President of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze. It took until the third interview with Gorbachev before I truly felt that we had a conversation (initially it felt as if I was being lectured, including one answer to a question which went on for 43 minutes). But the first time I met Shevardnadze the recorded interview lasted 20 minutes, but we sat and chatted for a further hour and a half!
|Shaking hands with Eduard Shevardnadze after a|
fascinating meeting in 1991
But remarkable people are not just politicians (in fact, I can think of many unremarkable politicians of various nationalities). And the most remarkable Russian I ever interviewed was Dr Andrei Gnezdilov, the co-founder in 1990 of the first Russian hospice. When I first met him in England in 2001 I was so stunned by what he was telling me that I stopped recording and told him that I would visit his hospice just outside St Petersburg and make a feature-length radio programme, which I did later that year.
Of British politicians I interviewed, Geoffrey Howe (later Lord Howe) was a classic ‘send me the questions in advance’, even though I had made it clear that I wanted to speak to him about Britain’s relations with Russia. The liveliest and most interesting conversation, despite my not agreeing with much of what he said, was with Tony Benn. Perhaps that was because he liked nothing more than a good argument!
As a freelancer it is my intention now to speak to genuinely Remarkable People, which means that there may be few politicians in this column! The first Remarkable Person, Irina Margareta Nistor, is not only not a politician, but is neither Russian nor British; but she has a fascinating tale to tell of life in and after the Romania ruled by the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.