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Learning to tell the truth: 37 years since the Frost-Nixon interviews
Abhirup Dam  22nd Mar 2014

A still from one of the interviews

hile concluding a now-famous speech delivered to the Radio and Television News Directors Association in 1958, acclaimed television broadcaster Edward R. Murrow said, "This instrument [television] can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it's nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful." Throughout the early 1950s, Murrow, along with his co-producer Fred Friendly, hosted a series of news programmes on CBS against the unethical and invasive tactics used by Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin with the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations relating to communist affiliations. Murrow and his team defied numerous corporate sponsorship pressures and took on Senator McCarthy head on. All of you who have watched George Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck (based on the Murrow-McCarthy affair) will be quite aware of the entire situation. And what better way to document television history than through another visual form — cinema.

On this day, 37 years ago, began another episode in the history of television's most remarkable moments. Incidentally, this historical happening has also been documented through cinema. On 23 March 1977, British broadcaster David Frost started his series of interviews with former US President Richard Nixon. After spending two years away from public life, following his resignation on the Watergate scandal row, Nixon was looking to make a public comeback. He was in the process of publishing his memoirs at the same time and intended to redeem his public image, which had suffered heavily after the corruptions of his government were discovered. On 17 June 1972, a major break-in was staged at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, DC. Nixon's government attempted to cover up the incident but instead lent itself to legal scrutiny, revealing numerous malpractices which ranged from the bugging of offices of political opponents to ordered harassment and manhandling of activist groups and political figures, using the FBI, CIA, and the Internal Revenue Service.

Nixon did not come prepared to say those words. That was the culmination of nearly four hours of interview. Why did he say it? He said it because David had him on the ropes so many times before you heard those words. — Lord Birt

At the time when the series of interviews were planned, Frost's New York based talk show had been cancelled and he was on the lookout for a project that would steer him back on track. Frost had agreed to pay Nixon for the interviews and as a consequence, drew a lot of flak from other agencies and organisations for indulging in "checkbook journalism". A total of 28 hours and 45 minutes of footage had been taped by the time the the four-week long stretch of interviews had concluded. In the initial set of interviews, we encounter Nixon as the familiar, always well-rehearsed, speaker. Frost's own trials and tribulations in order to get the former President to commit to the misdeeds of his government is perhaps best portrayed in the 2008 movie Frost /Nixon, resulting in the final mea culpa when Nixon said, "Yes [...] I let the American people down. And I'll have to carry the burden the rest of my life." Lord Birt, the former BBC director-general and producer of the interviews, recently observed in an interview with The Guardian, "Nixon did not come prepared to say those words. That was the culmination of nearly four hours of interview. Why did he say it? He said it because in the end David had him on the ropes so many times before you heard those words, he completely out-argued him... It was like being at a birth to be honest... In a sense it was the final denouement. America waited three years for its president. It was the end of Watergate episode. America then turned the page — what he said was considered enough."

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