In my job it is regarded as virtuous to leave the ivory tower in which we work, travel the world and interview real people. I am increasingly reluctant to do so, as experience has taught me that this is a dangerous practice.
The biggest risk is that you waste time interviewing somebody who contrives to say nothing – literally, sometimes. I once interviewed a top dog at Nokia during its glory days, and was so disconcerted by his long silences that I gabbled incessantly – not only answering my own questions but also effusively thanking the Finnish Trappist for his help.
I was once offered an exclusive interview with Steven Spielberg about a new venture. A flunkey kept phoning to delay the interview. I pressed him with increasing desperation as my deadline was thundering towards me. Finally, he called to say that Steven was busy but I could quote him saying that “the company was going to be fantastic”.
Another risk is that you become a pawn in a game of one-upmanship. Before Michael Milken’s downfall, I was invited to breakfast with him at 7am – which required me to get up at 6am to negotiate the Santa Monica freeway. Noticing that the great financial wizard was not eating, I nervously assumed the role of host and offered him a sticky bun. Demurring, he explained his abstemiousness – “I’ve already had a pre-breakfast breakfast with a Nobel prize-winner.”
Then there are more complicated psychological games. I once interviewed Vladimir Yakunin, the head of the Russian railroads. He was the perfect host. He took me on a tour of his office, the biggest I have ever seen. He showed me the vast selection of phones on his desk – colour-coded for different bits of the Kremlin – before brandishing a mobile, saying “this is for Vladimir”. He let me play with his electronic map of the Russian railway system. He showed me his collection of chess sets. He explained that the West was doomed to irrelevance by its market fundamentalism. As I was leaving he crushed me in a bear-hug and explained that although he personally didn’t mind what I wrote, his 1m employees loved the company so much that, should my praises be muted, they might take offence and visit The Economist’s offices to put me right.
The most terrifying interview I have ever conducted was in China. I was interested in the subject of Asian management methods and I had tracked down a CEO who was reputed to use a combination of Buddhist and Maoist principles to motivate his employees. He sent a shining new Mercedes to ferry me from the city centre to a factory in the middle of nowhere. Its walls were plastered with slogans ripped from the Buddha or the Chairman – “work harder!”, “observe the golden rule!”, “slay the running dogs of capitalism!” Loudspeakers blared out the same phrases.
I was finally ushered into the presence of the CEO. He explained to me how, far from being representatives of rival traditions, as so many people imagined, the Buddha and the Chairman were both great management gurus. All new recruits were expected to learn selected passages of these two great luminaries. Slackers were forced to prostrate themselves for up to half a day before a great statue of Buddha to meditate on the errors of their ways.
I listened happily for a couple of hours: this was manna from heaven for a journalist and I found myself pre-drafting my article as he spoke. But then two hours became three, three became four and four became five. The more my host spoke the more enthusiastic he became – stopping only to spit into a nearby bin.
Six hours into the interview it suddenly dawned on me: I was in the hands of a madman and I had no way of escaping! I had no idea where I was! I had no access to transport! My mind kept replaying the scene in “Apocalypse Now” where Martin Sheen slays Marlon Brando with a machete, and Brando dies whispering “the horror…the horror”. But there was no end to my particular horror. From the factory we decamped to a restaurant and thence to his mansion. The more he ate and drank the more effusive he became. At 4am I finally managed to persuade him to provide me with a lift back to the quiet of my hotel room, where I lay exhausted, swearing never to leave the safety of my tower again.