Pashinyan’s “HARDtalk” Stumble: Back to the Drawing Board
By Taline Voskeritchian
In less than a year, the BBC interview program “HARDtalk" has twice turned its focus on Armenia.
Ten months after its interview with Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan in October 2019, “HARDtalk” has just broadcast a second interview with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Conducted in English, the August 14 program raises some of the same issues; demonstrates a similar posture and attitude on the part of the interviewer, Stephen Sackur; and is sure to generate some of the same reactions in the Armenian community.
The “HARDtalk" format is really an interrogation, not an interview, certainly not a conversation, especially when the interviewee is a lesser known public figure whose English is passable but not sufficient for the formulation of complex, quick arguments. Hugo Chavez, for instance, answered the questions directed at him in Spanish. Sackur was more restrained in his interrogation of Sergei Lavrov.
Despite these variations “HARDtalk” ’s structure is hierarchical, and this is made clear from the get-go.
The hosts are “hard-hitting” and ask “tough questions,” which means their language is often one-dimensional, their pose politely domineering, and their persistence often arbitrary. These days, hard-hitting is a buzzword of sorts for a kind of journalism that is aggressive without being courageous, clever without being thoughtful.
“HARDtalk” often seeks yes-or-no answers; it likes admissions. It goes for provocation rather than depth, expecting strong, sometimes emotional reactions from the interviewees. Because of these qualities, it is often predictable, dull even, and certainly not very stimulating.
None of this, though, is meant to suggest that Pashinyan or his foreign minister was a victim of anti-Armenian bias, or that “HARDtalk” is in the pocket of the Azerbaijanis. The program approaches all its guests with a Thatcher-like swagger, and it offers equal opportunity in the small mounds of rubble it leaves behind. From Pashinyan to Lavrov to Gwyneth Paltrow, “HARDtalk” is just that—hard and talk, rather, hardly talk and more interruption! If by some miracle, “HARDtalk” managed to get Ilham Aliyev on the show, the end result would be the same--Azerbaijanis would claim that Sackur is pro-Armenian.
We Armenians will scream till we turn blue in the face that “HARDtalk” is pro-Azerbaijani, but in doing so we are perpetuating self-deception and encouraging media illiteracy. More: we are saying, again, that we want to be comforted by the allure of international exposure via shows like “HARDtalk"” without doing the dogged work of reading such shows in terms of power and form and language. We want the attention, and we want it on our terms, and in ways that we find acceptable. It’s us against the world, one more time!
The prime minister had a choice, as did Mnatsakanyan before him: They could have declined. Neither did; neither shone, either. At best, they were lackluster. Pashinyan had moments of clarity and quick retort, but for the most part he was reactive, repetitious, and a bit long-winded. This is puzzling because the questions Sackur asked in the two interviews, in terms of content, tone and approach, were not substantially different though the world has changed in significant ways regionally and locally in the interim. Pashinyan was at an advantage, too, in having the Mnatsakanyan prototype to rely on so he could avert missteps, but he did not. Moreover, Pashinyan could have chosen to speak in Armenian and say what he wanted to say with more depth, rather than use the occasion to “show off” his knowledge of English, and that, at best at a basic conversational level rather than with a diplomatic lexicon.
Many reasons account for this lack of attention on the part of the Prime Minister, but one stands out: After Mnatsakanyan’s interview, there was hardly any serious, sustained and critical discussion in Armenia or the diaspora of his performance on “HARDtalk.” The reaction was either to praise to heaven or to trash into the earth. Mnatsakanyan’s mastery of English is not a benchmark for a successful interview, nor is Pashinyan’s ability to interrupt Sackur while the latter was interrupting him. Public officials don’t learn much from such polarized approaches. The absence of a critical context in our public life stretches far beyond media performances, and is endemic to the cultural, educational, and religious realms. We simply are incapable, it seems, of creating—through discussion, debate, conversation— pockets of critical, participatory public opinion, without which democratic aspirations in Armenia and the diaspora face huge hurdles.
Pashinyan, like his foreign minister, chose to accept the invitation. His task was to answer the interrogator clearly, concisely, and in the language and the politics of the day. He had to do two other things: He had to find ways of re-framing the interview in such a way as to avoid sounding defensive, which is the intent of the show: to provoke and see how the interviewees defends themselves. Second, he had to avoid the historical slide, which gets him mileage at home and in diaspora communities, but which is a stumbling path in an international setting. In short, he had to speak less and say more, and say it from someplace at the edge of the “HARDtalk” sphere or outside its narrow, often stifling parameters.
In diplomacy, not every overture must be reciprocated, not every media offer must be seized. Restraint or silence is as significant as the rush to be visible, to prove a point, to be in the kind of media spotlight—exhilarating but also transient—that journalism of the “HARDtalk” sort offers. What is most important, though, is the choice a diplomat makes: to refuse or accept the lure, and on the basis of that decision, plan, prepare, and act. And to do all this, knowing full well that in the end, with some notable exceptions, the international media’s primary function these days is to perpetuate themselves rather than point to new, informed paths of action, reflection, and possible change.
It’s a tall order.
(Taline Voskeritchian teaches at Boston University’s College of Communication. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Nation, London Review of Books, Journal of Palestine Studies and other on-line and print publications.)