Quest for facts
Be interested in the news, follow the story but do not fixate on what you believe is right or wrong. That’s Richard Quest’s take on journalism. CNN’s high-profile anchor was in Dubai for the Leaders in Dubai summit. Rajeev Nair met him
If you could take a little of Richard Quest with you, that would be his indefatigable enthusiasm. Come on, who else can you think of, who makes a weather bulletin interesting?
Perhaps that is one reason why Quest has as many blog-sites and on-line forums that befit a Hollywood star. People seem to love him… or hate him, in equal measure. From being voted the “funniest new man” to winning on-line love notes and marriage proposals, Quest elicits reactions.
And he can’t understand why. “I am nothing more than a face in a light in a box in the corner of the room.” So shut him off with your remote, if you hate him.
For every 50 emails that say he is brilliant, it is that one message that spews hatred that he remembers. “Half the people like me, and half hate me. If you do a web search on me… (your will discover) there are some horrible things people want to do to me. I’ve got a mother. My poor mother will have to read all that…”
Seriously though… the man who also hosts a monthly interview show Quest and a feature programme CNN Business Traveller, however, isn’t rattled. After all, he has a job to do, and that is to “leave your opinions with your hat and coat on the door,” and just follow the news.
He has been doing that for the last 20 years starting as BBC news trainee, moving on to become its North American business correspondent, and then joining CNN in 2001.
He has covered a vast range of topics — from anchoring CNN’s London coverage of the Iraq war in 2003 to reporting on the Queen Mother’s funeral and the launch of the Euro in Frankfurt. He covered the death and funeral of Yasser Arafat and travelled around the US speaking to voters in a run-up to the elections.
Hard business news to breaking general stories, interviews to weather takes, Quest, a law graduate from Leeds University, has done it all. Excerpts from an interview:
What is your evaluation of the journalistic standards in the UAE?
I would say that anyone reading the papers shall read between the lines. The stories are there, but you can tell when the punch has been pulled at the last minute. In the world of censorship, most of us would agree that, the worst form of censorship is self-censorship, where you know you can’t go too far, where you know the limits. But I have not come here to say this is right or wrong. Look at what is happening in my own country concerning the Official Secrets Act and the famous “memo” between Bush and Blair… I hear the prime minister using the pathetic excuse, “it is all subjudice” and can’t be discussed. I hope it is going to disappear. Journalists from the UK do not come here with clean hands but I think the worst form of censorship is self-censorship. When you start to self-censor, your opponents have you to do the work for them.
What is your take on the news report that US President George Bush had planned to bomb the Doha-headquarters of Al Jazeera television?
What would I like to know is what the memo (purportedly leaked by a Cabinet Office civil servant) said… If it was a joke, it was in extremely bad taste. If it wasn’t a joke, then I think there are questions to be answered. But I don’t think it can be swept under the carpet in some sort of a ‘we can’t talk about this’ fashion. The cat is out of the bag with this one, the horses are up and running, the dog has seen the rabbit — choose whichever metaphor you want to use… I do believe that questions are to be answered.
But with a predominantly pro-Bush Western press, do you think you get far?
I have heard this for a long time, about this supposed to be pro-Bush media. If the media was so Pro-Bush, as you claim, why is the president’s ratings amongst the lowest in his presidency? If the media is so pro-Bush why did it excoriate the administration over Hurricane Katrina? If the media is so pro-Bush why did it lead to the whole row over Judith Miller?
Yet, at the end of the day, Bush has his way…
Oh, oh, oh… remember that we, as journalists, are observers, not participants. I covered the last election. As you travel around, it may seem inconceivable to you that people could vote for the president or prime minister. But when you meet the voters, there are as many people out there who like the president as those who don’t. That is the beauty of the whole system. You meet both sides of the argument and the net effect is what makes politics such fun…
And journalism too…?
Yes. I always remember an old professor, my mentor, who said when you enter this profession, you must leave your opinions with your hat and your coat on the door. The very nature of what we do is to question authority, I have no problem with that. When it comes to BBC or CNN, governments of both left and right don’t like you. because you are constantly questioning what they do…
And yet you have different shades of journalism, the sort of embedded journalists still being obsequious to authorities?
No, no, no.. (it is that) you just don’t like the results. You don’t like the way the story has fallen. I speak to a lot of journalism students, and I say that it is not for us to tell the listener, the viewer, the reader, what to think. Here is our story, you make your line of judgment. (To give opinions), there are columnists and commentators. For the like of me, it is not to tell what is right or wrong.
From your interaction with others in Dubai, what did you read between the lines?
What fascinates me in Dubai is the way in which there is such phenomenal growth and yet there is open discussion whether it is the right growth. I find that very uplifting. There is a honest debate going on….
As some one who has travelled virtually the whole world, exploring business stories, what is your observation of Dubai?
I was out last night at a restaurant here that frankly could have been in any part of the world. It was lively, buzzing and happenings…, but it wasn’t Dubai. On that point, I question how the old going to mix with the new. It makes me question what the end-result will be. The end-result is to build an economy that is self-sustainable once oil revenues decrease. That is the goal. But will you reach it? I don’t know.
If you were to feature Dubai on the Quest show what would you look for?
I don’t know. I have to think about that. We did the Business Traveller here two years ago. Since then what has changed? More buildings? No, that is more of the same. But yes, property is more expensive, there is the issue of immigrant workers, and the question of nationality for those who have been here for 20 years… these are issues that Dubai must face. What I do see happening now and what I saw two years ago is the pressure of economic growth building fast. Dubai has to let the steam out, slowly. Otherwise there will be a societal explosion. Dubai’s big challenge is in managing its growth. And everybody I have met seems to realise that. They are not blind to the problem.
Do you feel that television makes news look frivolous?
Where it does or not, it makes no difference. We are here and we aren’t going anywhere. But (to answer the question), no, it doesn’t. Television brings a different dimension. People are going to use newspapers to find what has happened overnight and to read commentaries and articles. They are going to use television and web to keep up-to-date.
Five years down the line, what change do you foresee in television?
It will become interactive. It will have the ability for viewers to choose which story they want to see. We are already seeing that in many digital networks. I know we (CNN) are working on it.
What frustrates you as a journalist?
It makes you frustrated as a journalist when you can’t get to the story, when you hit the wall of bureaucracy and intransigence, you hit the wall with somebody saying, ‘We are not discussing that…’ But that is what people want to know. As a journalist, we will be doing a terrible disservice if we don’t report.
But do you feel journalists, the world over, are losing respect through many issues including tabloid-isation of news?
Yes, of course. But if you regard the high-point in journalism as Watergate, don’t forget that before it became obvious, the reporters working on it were pilloried and castigated by the other media and the administration.
Such high-points happen very rarely. Does that bother you?
That’s the nature of life. Look the majority of what we do is keeping the picture on screen, and what you do is putting black ink on white paper and in getting that out, every now and again, a day will come along when you feel ‘ah, that was good,’ but most days are ‘wasn’t bad…’
Who, according to you, is the toughest to interview?
Bill Clinton. Why? Because he is brilliant. While interviewing him, there is a feeling that this man is going to realise that you are an idiot. After all, he has negotiated with the best in the world…. Bill Gates too is hard to interview because he is so focused on Microsoft that it is very difficult to take him off the subject. Politicians are usually difficult because they know what you are asking and they know what you want them to say.
What has doing Business Traveller (with its tag ‘Doing Business in Different Cultures’) taught you?
That we all want to succeed. People make a lot of noise of how you have to shake hands with both hands in some cultures, you have to present your business card with both hands… it is all humbug. When money is to be made, every body will happily forget the cultural differences.
What would your advice be to budding journalists?
Well, that’s easy. Be interested in news and leave your opinion with your hat and coat on the front door. Go into the story and follow the story. Have an idea of what the story is about but do not fixate on what you believe is right or wrong.