How not to interview: CBC host gives another lesson

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Don Connolly

Listeners to CBC Radio’s Information Morning in Nova Scotia are getting a well-deserved break as veteran host Don Connolly begins his summer vacation. Connolly is notable in the interviewing trade for shining the spotlight on himself and for his habit of making rambling statements instead of asking questions. During his last show on Friday, June 28, Connolly outdid himself, conducting one of his worst interviews ever — one that focused on his own opinions and impressions and ignored his guest’s experiences and observations almost completely.  The intro, read by co-host Louise Renault, went like this:

Well, the eyes of the world are on South Africa where Nelson Mandela remains in critical condition in a Pretoria hospital.  Mandela is on a life-support machine, which may indicate the end is near for one of the world’s most revered leaders. Ben John was born in South Africa and while he was working in neighbouring Botswana, he met Nelson Mandela in 1994. He also attended Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday party in a stadium in Johannesburg. Ben John is now a Canadian citizen and he lives here in Halifax.

During his nine minute interview with Ben John, Connolly asked only one real question. After that, he made a series of long-winded statements inviting his hapless interviewee to confirm his (yes, Connolly’s) impressions of Nelson Mandela. True, this behaviour is typical of Connolly, but Friday’s interview was especially bad.

You can read the full transcript below, but first, I’ll highlight key parts of it to illustrate why I think CBC management should finally pry Connolly out of the Information Morning interviewing chair where he has been so comfortably ensconced for more than 37 years.

Poor Ben John

Although the intro says Ben John met Nelson Mandela in 1994 while he was working in Botswana, listeners never get to hear what happened during that meeting or how John felt about it. Here’s how Connolly manages to sidestep John’s experience to focus on his own:

ConnollyDid you have a sense of the kind of the palpable magic, you see him on television right from the beginning since he came off Robbens Island [Robben Island] and every time you saw him in public whether it was at home or elsewhere, you just had a sense that somehow or other, he transformed himself in a prison cell into something kind of magic.

Connolly’s question, which is really a statement, leaves John no room at all to talk about his meeting with Mandela.  Instead, John tries hard to articulate his own assessment of Mandela’s strengths after agreeing with Connolly about the man’s “palpable magic”:

JohnAbsolutely. For me, Nelson Mandela epitomizes freedom, forgiveness, resilience, endurance and, and, you know, being marginalized myself, it’s never been an easy task to have to forgive, but that’s what Nelson Mandela epitomizes. And just a man to come out of the 27 years being in prison in a four-feet by four-feet prison cell, to come out and forgive, I’ve actually visited his prison in Robben Island and now it’s closed to the public, but at that time when they opened it, you could go right in, so it was amazing and 27 years to come out, so it just shows the resilience of a man who was very particular and very passionate about his country. Nelson Mandela, madiba as he’s known as the father, the grandfather of many nations, he was a people’s man for the people.

Connolly ignores John’s experience of being “marginalized” as well as what his visit to Robben Island meant to him. Instead, he talks about his own view of Mandela’s ability to forgive:

ConnollyBut you mentioned forgiveness, when he championed the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I remember going, “That can’t work, not after all that’s happened in South Africa, the oppressed can’t possibly buy into that, there would have to be too much hatred and resentment and desire to get revenge.” There probably, between he and Archbishop Tutu, if they weren’t there, you can never make that idea fly without some kind of incredible moral leadership.

John takes a deep breath and, after a pause, struggles to collect his thoughts:

JohnUm, yeah. Just, just for the fact that when Nelson Mandela was released out of prison, and his theory and his idea of, of uniting the nation and of course, you know he spent 27 years in prison and I’m sure he had an idea one day that he would be released and that’s what kept him going, you know, he finished his law degree in prison and, and, moving the country forward, and of course, divine intervention through Archbishop, what I think is you know through Archbishop Desmond Tutu, brought people together and many, many millions of people that came together and wanted to have this done and to meet their accusers, to meet their offenders in face and reconcile. Even the churches have done that.

 Connolly talks sports

As the interview continues to slide downhill, Connolly tries to demonstrate his knowledge of international sports, referring to how he watched “Louis Oosthuizen win the British Open a couple of years ago.” He adds, “a name like Oosthuizen, clearly not a cousin of yours from South Africa,” at which point, having nothing else to do, John laughs. Connolly goes on to say that he found himself wondering about Oosthuizen’s politics “and the first thing he said when he was handed the Claret Jug was ‘I want to thank Nelson Mandela.’”

Connolly adds that Mandela “sort of reintegrated that whole country back into the community for the white South Africans you know who had during the apartheid area [era] been felt that they were excluded from the world congress in a sense.” Not surprisingly, John again struggles to respond to Connolly’s rambling statement.

Later, without explaining anything about the teams, Connolly observes: “I remember for a lot of people when they saw him go to the rugby game between the All Blacks and the Springboks and he put the Springboks sweater on, with all that symbolized for black and white South Africans, it was one of the most chilling moments of politics and/or sports that I experienced in my entire life. For him to understand how the power of that potential symbol, just remarkable.”

JohnYeah. You know he took the passion of the people and then he formed a way and found a way of uniting people…

Connolly: For good

John: For good.

Connolly: He used the power for good (inaudible)

John: Absolutely. Absolutely…

And so it went, Connolly spinning his theories and observations and John agreeing, then struggling to add a few thoughts of his own. In the end, we learned a lot about Connolly and how he felt about Nelson Mandela, but very little about Ben John and his experiences as a South African meeting Mandela.

The celebrated CBC host Barbara Frum once remarked that “a lot of interviewing is actually just releasing someone to speak, just making it possible for them to speak.” She also said that the interviewer is there all the time, but the guest, only once. “Let’s hear what they’ve got to say.”

Connolly should take Frum’s words to heart, but after 37 years, I’d say it’s too late.

Transcript

CBC Radio Information Morning (Halifax), Friday June 28, 2013

Intro read by Louise Renault: Well, the eyes of the world are on South Africa where Nelson Mandela remains in critical condition in a Pretoria hospital. Mandela is on a life-support machine which may indicate the end is near for one of the world’s most revered leaders. Ben John was born in South Africa and while he was working in neighbouring Botswana, he met Nelson Mandela in 1994. He also attended Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday party in a stadium in Johannesburg. Ben John is now a Canadian citizen and he lives here in Halifax.

Connolly: Morning Ben.

John: Good morning.

Connolly: You first meet Mr. Mandela in Botswana.

John: That’s correct yes.

Connolly: How? How did that come to be?

John: I was a resident there at that time. I was working in Botswana and I was invited by the South African High Commissioner to come out and meet him and being an activist myself in previous years, uh, many other South Africans were invited and it’s an honour to meet a well-renowned and established man.

Connolly: Because in a sense Mr. Mandela was visiting Botswana because the importance of Botswana to the ANC and the capacity to fight apartheid, the support in the sense of Botswana against the apartheid regime during the period before apartheid came apart.

John: That’s correct, yeah. Botswana was very instrumental in assisting South Africa particularly refugees and Nelson Mandela came out to just thank the Botswana people and the Botswana government for their input and their assistance with South Africa during the apartheid years particularly with many of, many areas in Botswana that had been bombed by the former regime, by the South Africans, accusations of military training camps, but they were nonexistent and lots of Botwanans have lost their lives through that and Nelson Mandela wanted to just come out and thank them for what they have done for South Africa.

Connolly: Did you have a sense of the kind of the palpable magic, you see him on television right from the beginning since he came off Robbens Island [Robben Island] and every time you saw him in public whether it was at home or elsewhere, you just had a sense that somehow or other he transformed himself in a prison cell into something kind of magic.

John: Absolutely. For me, Nelson Mandela epitomizes freedom, forgiveness, resilience, endurance and, and, you know, being marginalized myself, it’s never been an easy task to have to forgive but that’s what Nelson Mandela epitomizes. And just a man to come out of the 27 years being in prison in a four feet by four feet prison cell, to come out and forgive, I’ve actually visited his prison in Robben Island and now it’s closed to the public, but at that time when they opened it, you could go right in, so it was amazing and 27 years to come out, so it just shows the resilience of a man who was very particular and very passionate about his country. Nelson Mandela, madiba as he’s known as the father, the grandfather of many nations, he was a people’s man for the people.

Connolly: But you mentioned forgiveness, when he championed the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I remember going, “That can’t work, not after all that’s happened in South Africa, the oppressed can’t possibly buy into that, there would have to be too much hatred and resentment and desire to get revenge.” There probably between he and Archbishop Tutu, if they weren’t there, you can never make that idea fly without some kind of incredible moral leadership.

John: Um, yeah. Just for the fact that when Nelson Mandela was released out of prison, and his theory and his idea of, of uniting the nation and of course, you know he spent 27 years in prison and I’m sure he had an idea one day that he would be released and that’s what kept him going, you know, he finished his law degree in prison and, and, moving the country forward and of course, divine intervention through Archbishop, what I think is you know through Archbishop Desmond Tutu, brought people together and many, many millions of people that came together and wanted to have this done and to meet their accusers, to meet their offenders in face and reconcile. Even the churches have done that.

Connolly: Very interesting too because I realize this is kind of weird, but watching Louis Oosthuizen win the British Open a couple of years ago, a name like Oosthuizen clearly not a cousin of yours from South Africa, [John laughs] he’s on the other side of the whole issue and I’m watching him (I’m) going, “He seems like a very nice man, but I wonder you know what are his sort of personal politics” and the first thing he said when he was handed the Claret Jug was “I want to thank Nelson Mandela.” You know for those people, even white South Africans, not all of them obviously, but for some white South Africans, he sort of reintegrated that whole country back into the community for the white South Africans you know who had during the apartheid area [era] been felt that they were excluded from the world congress in a sense.

John: Yeah. Um, he had the ability, to like I said you know to reunite, to unite people from all walks of life, from all races, from all cultures and I think when he became the president, there was a freedom for the black South Africans and those had been marginalized for many years, but also for the white South Africans to freedom because they were afraid you know that the country was going to turn into anarchy and there was going to be a civil war. As you know, at that time, the Rwanda genocide was taking place and the whole eyes was actually focussed on South Africa and not on the genocide. So, people round the world expected there was going to be something more, but I think in that sense there was a sense of freedom where here’s a man that has been 27 years in prison and yet to come out and say, “We need to unite, together we stand, divided we fall.”

Connolly: It must be an incredible weight, I mean, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that in the last couple of decades, he would be the consensus most admired human being, man or woman on the planet. Wouldn’t you think that’s true?

John: Absolutely.

Connolly: What a weight that must be.

John: Oh absolutely. I think you know he hasn’t died yet, but if he dies in the next few days or so, however long it takes, the world is going to lose a great man, the continent of Africa and particularly South Africans. Everybody knows it. You know when I tell people here that I’m from South Africa and they ask me which country, no South Africa, do you know Nelson Mandela? “Oh yeah.” So, you know, he’s a man that everybody knows of and you put name to the country, you know, it’s just and he has a certain aura about him whenever he walks around or whenever he speaks. He’s a well, well respected man throughout the world.

Connolly: I remember for a lot of people when they saw him go to the rugby game between the All Blacks and the Springboks and he put the Springboks sweater on, with all that symbolized for black and white South Africans, it was one of the most chilling moments of politics and/or sports that I experienced in my entire life. For him to understand how the power of that potential symbol, just remarkable.

John: Yeah. You know he took the passion of the people and then he formed a way and found a way of uniting people…

Connolly: For good

John: For good.

Connolly: He used the power for good (inaudible)

John: Absolutely. Absolutely. And he has, he had this ability, he’s a very wise man and that’s why he’s revered throughout Africa because all the people, all the Africans have always known as to be have wisdom and be very wise and people can turn to him for wisdom. You know there was an incident yesterday, I think one of his family members was very irate about people coming in and…

Connolly: Foreign journalists in particular?

John: (Chuckles) Exactly.

Connolly: (laughter)

John: But I think people are just concerned about him because he’s the father of people that he hasn’t met and that’s an amazing, amazing thing, an amazing trait for South Africans to feel the same way black or white.

Connolly: Ben, it’s great to see you. Thank you very much for coming in.

John: Thank you very much…

Connolly: It was a pleasure to see you.

John: Yeah and one last thing, you know they say in Africa “Nkosi Sikelel’”, God Bless Africa.

Connolly: Right on. Thanks Ben.

EXTRO read by Louise Renault: Ben John lives in Halifax and he met Nelson Mandela in 1994.

About Bruce Wark

Bruce Wark is a freelance journalist and retired journalism professor who lives in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, Canada. He taught the history and ethics of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia for 15 years. Before that, he worked for 19 years at CBC Radio news serving as a producer in charge of such network programs as World at Six, World Report and The House. He also produced Media File, a national program that looked critically at the performance of the news media. Along the way, Wark also worked as CBC Radio's legislative reporter in Ontario and as its National Reporter in Canada's Maritime provinces.
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One Response to

How not to interview: CBC host gives another lesson

  1. Claudia Mannion says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head Mr. Wark. I didn’t hear this interview but it so obviously follows the predictable Connolly (what about me?”) pattern that we’ve endured for years. Let’s all enjoy Connolly’s vacation!

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