An Interview with Tim Sebastian
The series finale's comedy special, "This house believes women are superior to men", was a fun way to end the Doha Debates' sixth series. Will we be seeing similar light-hearted debates and comedy specials?
There was a serious point to what we did. The aim was to get people to look at the way they behave, particularly the interaction between the two sexes, to look at it in a different way, a humorous way, and to be able to laugh at each other and themselves, and that requires a certain maturity. The feedback we had was very positive. I think that when you can laugh at yourself then it is a new level of self-awareness.
Do you think the Doha Debates has fulfilled what it was set up to do?
It's exceeded my expectations, in that so many young people have embraced the concept of debating who have had no experience of speaking about controversial issues, in a foreign language, on foreign TV, yet they do it with remarkable sophistication, and they put on a good performance; they really are the stars of the show. I have seen a progression throughout the six years we have been operating, so that has been very encouraging.
Has the Doha Debates actually resulted in changes in the way people, and the panelists, think?
I think people have been surprised by some of our speakers. Panelists have been surprised at the sophistication of our audience, at how much they know. I have been surprised at how self-critical some of our audiences are. We've had votes passed here that Muslims are not doing enough to combat extremism, which is remarkably self-critical. We have had an audience here voting that the Sudanese President should be handed over to the International War Crimes Tribunal. At the same time here, the government was saying he shouldn't. So our audience was voting directly against what the government here was recommending, and I think that takes guts. I think it's interesting. I believe it's a small step in the right direction.
How do you choose a motion?
We think about different subjects and then we road-test them amongst our alumni, throughout the region and throughout the world. We take a lot of soundings from people to see if the subject is relevant, if people are going to get excited about it, and if our audience is going to enjoy debating it, because if we don't get an audience, we don't get a show! At the end of the day, I make the decision.
Has the Doha Debates ever got into trouble with the government for being too controversial?
Media-yes, we get attacked. We got attacked by the press in Dubai over the debate we did saying that Dubai is a bad idea; even though they won the debate, they still attacked us. So we have got into trouble with the media, but with the authorities, no we haven't. The authorities leave us alone and that is the condition under which we operate, because I am not going to go to the world and say this is free speech if it isn't.
Are the Doha Debates really a step towards greater freedom of speech and a democratic society in Qatar, or just a showcase to put Qatar into media spotlight?
People can use the Doha debates for whatever they want to use it for. My intention is to give people the chance to see free speech in action and decide whether it is for them. If they like it, they'll practice it, if they see benefits from it. We have been here six years-frankly, I didn't expect it to last for six years, but the enthusiasm with which the young people approach this, and two-thirds of our audience are made up of young people, tells me that we are doing something that appeals to this generation. Do some people use it as a showcase? They may do; I don't know.
Don't you find it ironic that the Doha Debates is based in a country which is not an actual democracy, and where there are still some limits to freedom of press and speech?
I don't think it is ironic-I think they took a risk. We have practiced free speech and we have shown that far from being harmful it has actually produced good educational benefits. We actually put 2000 children through debate training with the Oxford Union, and they have set up debating teams in schools and universities, and they even have a national debating program called Qatar Debate, and a national team, and they have done pretty well. They like it, they are good at it and I am quite happy to carry on providing them with the platform that enables them to do it.
Who have been your favorite panelists on the Doha Debates?
We have had so many panelists it would be invidious to single out a particular panelist. We have has some special guests; we have had Bill Clinton, Mohammed El Baradei and Ayad Allawi. We have had some extraordinary people on the show and we have given people the chance to squeeze some of these extraordinary people and see what they can get out of them, and to ask the tough questions and insist on getting answers.
Who is on your wishlist for future panelists?
Like everybody else in the world we have invited President Obama and we have invited President Ahmedinijad. We have invited President Mubarak-we have invited all sorts of people. Yes, we have a long wishlist, and we'll keep a seat at the table for them when they finally decide to come!
The BBC has been accused in the past of being anti-American. Do you think the Doha Debates fuels this accusation?
No, I don't think we discriminate. I think we hold everything and everybody up to a critical light. We shine that light on them and we see what they're made of and we look at them from different angles. We don't take sides; I don't take sides. We have two well-matched panels, for and against, and we put them together. There is no bias in that whatsoever; nobody can accuse us of being biased.
What do you think about Al Jazeera? Are they doing a good job of providing an unbiased news service uncovering the truth, as they claim?
I can't judge Al Jazeera Arabic because I don't speak Arabic. But Al Jazeera English has got some very interesting stories and provides some very interesting material that other TV stations don't. Nobody has the map to the Holy Grail when it comes to journalism. I think AL Jazeera has opened a lot of people's eyes and has exceeded a lot of people's expectations. When you consider the region that it is coming from, I would say that its standards are remarkable. What I have seen from Al Jazeera English has impressed me.
If Al Jazeera offered you a position, would you take up their offer?
I've worked in the BBC for 35 years and I've enjoyed it; they've been good to me - I'm a BBC man!
Finally, what does the future have in store for the Doha Debates? Can we expect twists to the show in the next series?
We are going to surprise them - I can promise you that.
Tickets to attend the Debates are free, but seats are limited (there are 350 seats). Each episode takes place in the atrium of Qatar Foundation's headquarters building. The Doha Debates will be back for its seventh series in October 2010.
Movie: A Conversation with Tim Sebastian