[Obituary] Frost over the world

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David_Frost“Could you just say, with conviction, that you did do some covering up?”

David Frost’s question to former US President Richard Nixon in 1977 led Nixon to apologise for the Watergate scandal and his involvement in its cover-up and is now the stuff of legend. It instantly catapulted Frost to international fame as one of the best known journalists and TV interviewers in the world.

But there is one word that sums up the world’s best known broadcaster and interviewer who died of a heart attack on Sunday. That word is poise. It’s an adjective sadly, that is seldom associated with journalists and broadcasters today. To fully understand its power, you have to watch Frost in action, especially the Nixon interview. If you’d like to ‘YouTube’ it and you’re pressed for time, then just go to part 7 and 8 of the David Frost interview with Richard Nixon. And you will see that word play itself out in all its glory. A powerful, arrogant and in control Richard Nixon speaks to David Frost like all people in his chair do – how there were conspiracies to bring him down and how Watergate wasn’t really his doing. In today’s time, journalists like me, given half a chance would be tempted to intervene. To insist on what we know is true because we are aware that the viewer wants that moment of catharsis. In so doing, we can let that one infinitesimal moment slip right out of our hands, which if we learned to lean back and let the person speak, may lead to his or her undoing. Which; in the Frost on Nixon interview, it did.

In the Hollywood film on this interview  – Frost/Nixon; the actor Michael Sheen who plays David Frost is edgy, young and slightly nervous as he asks the question.  The real interview, however, plays out quite differently. David Frost as the seasoned anchor of ‘The Week That Was,’ is relaxed, in control and talking to the former US President Richard Nixon carefully and politely, without the need to be obviously irreverent. His demand of an apology is matter of fact, not pleading or insistent.  31 years later, David Frost, by now a cult figure to journalists all over the world, spoke to the Guardian about his particular and considered style of interviewing.

“I think there’s a danger when you adopt an immediately hostile position without having the goods, without having the smoking gun,” said Sir David Frost. “You shut people up instead of opening them up. You can ask just as tough a question in a softly spoken way.”

And so it will be how the 74 year old veteran is revered and remembered. People will also talk of his interviews with 7 successive US Presidents including George Bush; and 6 British Prime Ministers. Of his riveting interviews with Russian President Vladimir Putin and boxing legend Mohammad Ali. I remember very fondly, an interview Frost did with Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, for Al Jazeera English in December 2009.  It was fun watching two legends chat about politics and music without too much fuss. To hear a relaxed, groovy, grey haired Roger Waters tell David Frost about the high point of Pink Floyd’s creativity with their album -‘The Dark Side Of The Moon.’  It’s where Roger Waters spoke of how the band had, “achieved one of the major ends which was to become very rich and very famous to be able to attract women and buy sports cars.”  It is this effortlessness with which people of every stripe opened up to Frost that every working journalist aspires to. If you look carefully at any of his interviews, you will see why he was coveted by and worked with almost every network in television from the BBC to a host of American networks, and most recently for Al Jazeera. His meticulous research and quiet confidence made every interviewee feel they were speaking with someone who really understood.

It’s why one of India’s best known and possibly most loved TV faces – Prannoy Roy tweeted this morning, moments from his interview with David Frost. “Moments –  1. He never votes – as a journalist he doesn’t commit to any party. 2. He always wears red socks,” and then added on – “Guess what, me too!”

It’s the power of David Frost. He makes everyone who interacted with him feel like owning their part.

With him gone, to borrow from the title of his most recent show; there will most definitely be a Frost Over The World.

The Nixon Interviews

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Revati Laul has been a television journalist and documentary film maker for most of her 16 year career. Ten of those were spent in NDTV where her reports included everything from the aftermath of the Gujarat riots to following truck drivers into ULFA infested Assam. Then about a year and a half ago, she decided to tell her stories in indelible ink instead. Most people said she made an upside down decision but she firmly believes she’s found food for the soul. She was hired by Tehelka to write on politics. For her this does not mean tracking the big fish but looking closely at how the tiny fish are getting swallowed and by whom. On most days though, she can be found conversing on her other two favourite subjects – fornication and food. Fiction is another friend of hers. A short story she wrote called `Drool’ was published in an anthology of young fiction by Zubaan. She is also founder member of the NGO ‘Tara’ that looks after underpriviledged children.

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