With its foreboding lighting effects that appear to have been plucked straight out of Dante's dark epic Inferno-and cleverly devised one suspects to reduce its willing, and oftentimes unsuspecting, "victims" to submission-the BBC's HARDtalk program has attained a universal reputation (or should that be notoriety?) for tough and bruising interviews that border on intimidation.
Why, in its trailer for the widely popular program the BBC has fierce animals from the wild locking horns in deadly tussles, while HARDtalk inquisitor-in-chief Stephen Sackur looks on arms folded barely able to disguise the smirk on his face.
Last week HARDtalk was "on the road" in Sri Lanka with the sole purpose it seemed to derail the widely held perception that this jewel of an island-blessed with every imaginable treasure that nature could bestow -was finally at peace after a crippling secessionist war that lasted for three decades and ended a year ago with the humiliating defeat of the Tamil Tigers terrorist outfit, and at the needless cost of countless lives.
Any independent visitor to Sri Lanka these days cannot fail to be both surprised and exhilarated at the remarkably swift transformation that has come about in this once war-ridden nation.
One can freely enjoy the spectacular beaches (some of the most breathtaking of which cling to the north east coast which was at the heart of the conflict but are now once again open for leisurely business), savor the easily activated smiles of young and old from every ethnic mix, admire an economy that has been rejuvenated and get a real feel of the people's faith in a government given an overwhelming mandate in just concluded elections to sow the dividends of peace and prosperity.
All that, however, appeared to have been lost on the BBC and its rabid attack dog Sackur. He seemed hell-bent on using his platform to paint-with the aid of a handful of accommodating interviewees-a sinister picture of the country that belied any semblance to the harmonious reality that is post-war Sri Lanka.
To give just one glaring example. Sackur kept harking on about alledged state sponsored media persecution even while he was traversing the length and breadth of the island talking on camera to whoever he cared to choose-including even a telephone chat with detained former Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka who is the most vociferous critic of the government.
But then came his interview with powerful Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa-a tough no-nonsense tolerating retired Sri Lankan Army Colonel who (invited back in 2005 by President Mahinda Rajapaksa-his elder brother-to Sri Lanka from the US where he was domiciled with his family to lead the faltering war effort) is credited both at home and abroad with having marshalled the decisive phase of the war that saw final victory.
Now spearheading the vital task of restoring and maintaining law and order in a country that has been on a war footing for so long, Rajapaksa is totally driven to ensuring post-war stability in his homeland.
In a recent interview in Colombo with The Manila Times he was passionate in his hopes and plans for his country's future. "While it is true that the government has been able to regain control of each and every inch of land in Sri Lanka and restore peace, we have to keep in mind that we are emerging from a 30 year long conflict that, apart from its local impact, had international connotations too," said he.
Despite the military success, Rajapaksa is not given to complacency. He explains:
"Although the Tamil Tigers have been militarily defeated in Sri Lanka, a lot of pro-separatist activity is taking place internationally, aided and abetted by former Tamil Tigers cadres and activists among the Tamil Dias-pora. So it is imperative that we remain vigilant.
"And while the government is committed to relaxing the emergency regulations and restoring normalcy and giving the people the full benefits of peace, we have to take whatever steps necessary to ensure that terrorism does not raise its ugly head in Sri Lanka ever again."
So, with a reputation as a guy who doesn't mince his words, Rajapaksa's characteristic hard talking style made him the ideal guest for a TV program which prides itself in being called HARDtalk.
But. alas, it turned out to be more than Sackur could handle. Every verbal punch that he threw at Rajapaksa the combative Defense Secretary returned with crushing effect, jolting the normally self-controlled Sackur off balance.
Fixing Sackur with a steely glare and reminding him "that Sri Lanka was a sovereign nation," Rajapaksa tore apart the BBC talking head's argument that Sri Lanka should submit itself to a United Nations brokered inquiry into accusations of atrocities allegedly committed by both sides in the closing stages of the war.
When Sackur pulled out what he thought was his trump card and accosted Rajapaksa with the charge leveled at him by General Fonseka (who, incidentally, has built himself a post-military political career out of making wild accusations against the Defense Secretary) that during the final battle he ordered that even those people waving white flags of surrender should be shot, the Defense Secretary's rage was palpable.
"He is a liar," bristled Rajapaksa, "and if he continues to say that, he should be hanged because that is treason." Sackur, unaccustomed to hearing such hard talking on his show was visibly taken aback, "You mean to say you would execute him?" asked Sacker his voice rising. "Yes, that's the punishment for treason against your country," countered Gotabaya.
And so the interview went on, with the by now emotionally charged Rajapaksa giving back twice as hard as he was getting from Sackur, and making it clear to the BBC frontman that he doesn't have a monopoly on the truth.
So much so that Sackur brought the interview-that by this stage was turning into an absorbing mis-match-to an abrupt end.
Normally the show ends with Sackur shaking hands cordially with his guest. And we hazard a guess his trip is clasping the hand offered by the guest sitting across him and getting a triumphant feel of the sweaty and clammy level he had been able to reduce the often cowering interviewee.
But this time around, in a first-ever for this globally televised talk show, it ended with the Sri Lankan Defense Secretary allowing himself a hearty chuckle in the knowledge that in this particular edition of HARDtalk it was undoubtedly game, set and match to him. And TV viewers worldwide could attest to that! Courtesy: www.defence.lk