I HAVE been watching BBC’s HARDtalk from way back when Tim Sebastian was still its host, and since Stephen Sackur took over the interview program in 2004. I thought and still think it is far and away the toughest interview show on television, daring to grill its titled subjects with tough questioning and pulling no punches.
Over the years, I have idly hoped that HARDtalk would get around to interviewing Filipino Presidents, so we could see them squirm and bluff their way through the ordeal. I deliciously imagined Noynoy Aquino on the hot seat, melting like butter.
So, it was disappointing that for HARDtalk’s first interview of a Filipino political figure, Stephen Sackur picked, of all people, Sen. Antonio Trillanes, the man who can’t be embarrassed by no matter how many pratfalls. If, as Konrad Adenauer said, “a thick skin is a gift from God,” Trillanes was given two hides.
BBC gave up, I surmise, on getting an interview with President Rodrigo Duterte, who measures up better with the program’s caliber of interviewees: Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez (who rarely granted interviews to Western media), Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf, South African President Thabo Mbeki, the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, Burmese President Thein Sein, who led Burma’s military junta (“the interview made headlines around the world”); and President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, who “rarely gives interviews” and whom Sackur subsequently described as “living in a parallel universe, a place where embarrassment does not exist.”
Trillanes as substitute
The HARDtalk team led by Stephen Sackur probably thought that with Trillanes, they would be getting a colorful and interesting substitute. They got deceived by the two coup attempts that went nowhere, and Trillanes’ election to the Senate in spite of them.
But what HARDtalk got instead may be the dullest interview it has ever done, with the interviewee repeatedly failing to understand the questions.
You can watch all 24 minutes of the interview on Youtube, Showbiz government, and Facebook, where netizens are gleefully sharing the piece with friends the world over.
Readers, be warned, this is not just hard talk, this is excruciating to watch.
No one does it like Duterte
The HARDtalk interview opens low-key with this introduction by Sackur: “When it comes to populist politics delivered with menace and robust action, no one does it quite like Rodrigo Duterte, elected President of the Philippines a year ago. Since he came to power, around 7,000 people have been killed in his war on drugs and crime. Human rights groups are aghast, but a majority of Filipinos seem to admire his iron fist policy. Is President Duterte taking the Philippines and the region in a new direction?”
Trillanes did not understand the question. He looked bewildered from the start.
Throughout his public life, Trillanes has been seeking the spotlight, especially on the global stage. Yet here he was, handed a megaphone by the BBC, the premier broadcast news media today, and he had no clue how to use the platform to amplify his message and advance his political program in the Philippines.
Sackur prepared, Trillanes not
As the conversation unfolded, it became plain that the conversation was uneven. Trillanes knew nothing about HARDtalk and Sackur. Sackur had taken time to do research on Trillanes and the Philippine situation.
Sackur is no mere broadcaster with a microphone. He knows his stuff. He was schooled at Cambridge and Harvard. He has been based in the Middle East and Washington, D. C. He was embedded with British forces in the Gulf War. And he has seen some of the toughest leaders rise and fall. He did his homework on Trillanes.
Describing Trillanes as one of the fiercest critics of DU30, Sackur remarked that now is a difficult time in the Philippines. He cited in some detail the situation in Mindanao. He suggested that as the President has said, it is time for Filipinos to unify behind the government in order to resolve the crisis in Marawi successfully.
He then placed the senator on the spot by asking whether he supports the President in this situation.
Trillanes adamantly parried the question by claiming that the President has created his own crisis. He agrees that the Mautes have created a crisis in Marawi, but he contends that martial law is not the answer. The AFP can effectively handle this kind of crisis, and its action is what is needed now.
Sackur quoted Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez to establish a link between the Maute rebellion and the drug war. He quoted PDEA on the drug situation. Trillanes sought to dispute this portrait of the drug situation by offering his own figures.
Sackur interrupted Trillanes’ spiel to ask: “Are you a democrat?” the senator did not understand the question. He answered that he is a member of the Nacionalista party in the Philippines, which of course is no definition of democracy.
When Sackur described how DU30 during the election campaign spoke of crushing the drug trade through the drug war, Trillanes dismissed government figures as just campaign rhetoric. The country’s real drug situation is far from what DU30 has described it.
The interview shifted to the subject of Arthur Lascañas and Trillanes’ efforts to get him to testify against DU30.
Sackur asked the senator directly, “Do you believe Lascañas’ story?” Trillanes readily said yes.
Sackur then observed how odd it is that the senator, with his experience, is placing so much faith in Lascañas, a confessed murderer.
This set up Sackur’s next point, as he turned the discussion to the subject of Trillanes’ role in two coup attempts, in 2003 and in2007, against the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. He described the failed coups as “pathetic.”
Sackur questioned Trillanes’ democratic faith: “Do you consider a coup a legitimate response to your country’s political situation?” No, Trillanes declared, he does not. Terrorism must be stopped. But martial law is not the answer. The armed forces are the remedy.
Sackur wondered about the senator’s many-sided effort to remove Duterte from the presidency, including impeachment, and the filing of a case at the International Criminal Court. Sackur dismissed the ICC plan as fruitless, saying the court may not even notice the complaint.
DU30 doing a decent job
The interview ended with Sackur telling Trillanes: “In spite of all your fears, President Duterte is doing a decent job: 7 percent growth rate, which the World Bank says will continue.”
As it was, the HARDtalk interview with Trillanes was more positive for the President, than it was for the senator. Had the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) set up the interview, they could not have wished for better.
For Trillanes, this interview was a disaster. For the opposition, it was a setback.
The event is over, but it is on record. And it is on the Internet.
Here was an opportunity to publicly make the case against Duterte on global TV, but Trillanes, the politician of ever uncertain loyalties, wound up boosting the President’s standing and tarnishing his own.
Post-HARDtalk press conference
Reviewing the interview, it’s hard not to conclude that Sackur was professional and focused throughout, while Trillanes appeared to be barking gibberish, not giving much thought to what he said.
Trillanes’ performance reeked of straining too hard to score, and missing his target altogether. There can be little doubt of where his project of unseating Duterte is tending.
It’s an indication of how badly Trillanes fared in HARDtalk that he immediately scheduled a press conference for himself after the broadcast. He appeared at the Kapihan sa Senado, where he addressed members of the Senate press corps. He tried to shift the discussion away from what was asked and what he said on BBC, toward a discussion of the cases of police officials accused of killing Mayor Espinosa.
At the press con, he did not say a word about HARDtalk. He has had enough.