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Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Interview of the Year 2008

Since the twelfth month of 2008 has arrived, I can announce my Interview of the Year!

Before I do that, I should say that each interview I conduct brings me joy, for I discover aspects and material about a person and his or her world which I might never learn over an ordinary conversation, a meal, or even in a relationship.
Interviews give me the chance to explore my insatiable curiosity, within professional boundaries.

My Interview of 2008 has to be the world exclusive with Secretary -General of the Organisation of Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), Angel Gurria.

With Davos 2008 on the horizon, I started bidding for Mr Gurria a few weeks in advance. I was carefully checked by his excellent Head of Directorate of Communications, a Wall Street Journal alumni -Nick Bray. To reach interviewees sometimes mean establishing relationships with such persons and getting them on side is very important.

I was quite surprised when Nick emailed me to say that he was granting me a sit down interview at OECD HQ in Paris for the eve of Davos, and my editor at the Spectator was delighted until he found out that I wasn't actually in Paris and would need to be sent there post-haste. I began frantically hunting down flights and accomodation while prepping my meeting.

Nick told me that I was the only journalist being admitted to the OECD and the only one being granted a full interview with the Secretary-General through the Davos season, which meant I had the international exclusive. That's the kind of thing I like. The world's editors-in-chief and their teams would be at Davos, the annual World Economic Forum fest, and they would only be able to get soundbites and passing comments from panel meetings. Nick told me he would meet me for lunch on the Monday, before the interview which was scheduled for 6.30pm, just before Mr Gurria was due to board his flight for Switzerland.

My son Jai drove me to the airport, and I flew off to Paris 6.am Monday, arriving at a comfy bijoux hotel 15 mins from the OECD in Paris Cedex 16. Nick told me that he had double booked lunch having forgotten that he had to dine with a visiting Saudi diplomat but he said he would catch me afterwards and identified a rendezvous.

It was exciting and a bit like being in a film, waiting for Mr Bray in a typically busy but genteel restaurant on a cobble- stoned Parisian street corner. After being flown out to work in Montreal a few months previously, and speaking Quebecois French, it was good to be back in Paris speaking....Parisian French. In France. With French people. You know what I mean.

Nick swept in, wearing a large dark blue overcoat, and calmly sized me up over a pot of tea and some further questioning. He had a dry, amusing wit. When he described various countries' relationships with and attitude towards the OECD, he commented casually, 'The British don't like Foreign.'

We arranged to meet later for the interview, and I ran back to my hotel to get everything ready.
Walking up to the Rue Andre Pascal, where the spacious OECD HQ is located, I was only a little bit nervous. Nick showed me round the building which was being renovated, and I saw the huge meeting rooms with many mics on semicircular tables in which different experts from different countries converge with different departments of different OECD Directorates -its a big organisation- right through the year.

Then we walked to the orginal OECD offices, which are very grand and ornate. Nick went through some final points with me before leading me up to the Secretary-General's office. Outside were two bright paintings - chosen, I was told, by the latter. Inside, I was met warmly by Mexican Angel Gurria, who shook my hand and sat me down at a long table next to his desk.

He was voluble, articulate and entertaining, and gave me one and a half hours instead of the scheduled 40 mins. At one point he broke off to answer a phone call from Brazil from his wife, and then politely explained to me why she was calling and what the conversation was about. These are the kind of thoughtful inclusive gestures which stay in the memory, along with the interview itself.
There was one question which I wanted an answer to which I had to ask at least four or five times before I was satisfied. Nick told me afterwards that Angel knew exactly what I was doing and wasn't going to roll over too easily for me. I got a publishable answer in the end. I am patient.

Interview over, Angel Gurria said he had to dash for his flight. I shook hands with them both and dashed back down the cobble stones to my bijoux hotel room which was cosy and warm after the cold Paris air. Across the street was a patisserie whence I bought some goodies including chocolate cake - to see me through a long night- my deadline was midday Tuesday.

I transcribed faster than I have in my whole life, then selected my quotes and started writing. My return flight to London was at 8am and Jai picked me up, driving home through rush hour traffic. I was rewriting in the car. Then, straight to my office, a final rewrite and I filed.

The full article can be read here:


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