Return to Transcripts main page
The Disappearance of a Saudi Journalist. Aired 11p-12m ET
Aired October 10, 2018 - 23:00:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
AMANPOUR: Hello, everyone, and welcome to Amanpour. Here's what's coming up.
The sudden resignation of U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley puts the unconventional Trump foreign policy squarely in the spotlight. We hear
from a veteran American diplomat who says he had no choice but to quit because he could no longer defend that policy, my exclusive interview with
the former U.S. ambassador to Estonia, James Melville.
Then, as new details emerge and fears mount that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been murdered, critics wonder has Trump's foreign policy
emboldened regimes to act with impunity. Plus, Hari Sreenivasan looks on the bright side with comedy great Eric Idle, founding member of Monty
Python's Flying Circus.
Welcome to the program, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour in London. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley's sudden departure throws a bright light on what may
be the major foreign policy challenge facing the Trump administration. The persistent concern over President Trump's tendency to denigrate America's
allies while praising adversaries or authoritarian leaders, that very issue compelled veteran diplomat Jim Melville who was serving as U.S. Ambassador
to Estonia to quit his post and walk away for more than 30 years as a career Foreign Service officer.
Melville says the President's admiration for Vladimir Putin and Russia's, quote, "corrupt authoritarian government" put him in untenable position
when he was asked to explain American's intentions. Last week, Jim Melville's former departure from the U.S. Foreign Service, now as a private
citizen, he is free to speak his mind and he's joining me for his first and exclusive interview from New York.
So, Ambassador Melville, welcome to the program.
MELVILLE: Thank you, Christiane. It's a pleasure to be with you.
AMANPOUR: I mean, it couldn't be a more opportune time to be speaking to you and we're very grateful to have you, because as I laid out, there's so
much to talk about right now. First, in context of your own resignation and your own professional reasons for doing so, what do you make of an even
more senior diplomat, a cabinet member, Nikki Haley's, U.S. U.N. Ambassador, sudden resignation, sudden departure. Of course, it's
effective at the end of this year.
MELVILLE: Right. Well, let me say first of all that as ambassador in Tallinn, when the Trump administration took office last January, for
diplomats, words are like our fuel. And the fact that Secretary of State Tillerson shows not to engage with the press and went many, many weeks
without doing the press briefings or talking to journalists, it was like being deprived of oxygen.
And in those days, I was very grateful that Ambassador Haley spoke eloquently and frequently about the best interests of the United States and
stood up for our institutions and values. I think she did a very credible job as U.N. Ambassador.
And so, I think it's a shame that somebody who is so talented and really has the President's confidence has left the administration. But I'm sure
that she hasn't left the public stage and perhaps she'll be able to engage a little bit more freely as a private citizen about her opinions and
sticking up for our institutions.
AMANPOUR: That's interesting. I see a sort of maybe a coded message that you think like many at the U.N. in fact that she was always eyeing a public
-- run for public office in the United States and this was an important vehicle that to all -- by all accounts, she acquitted herself well doing
this job. What impact on foreign policy do you think it will have, given your immediate concerns about the denigration as you put it of allies and
alliances, the praise and sort of -- yes, the praise of authoritarian regimes?
MELVILLE: Well, it's kind of a strange thing that most of the institutions, our Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, the
intelligence community, the law enforcement community still speaks for our institutions and our interests. And I think for the most part, the message
is consistent with what have been our policies for many, many decades.
What I came to really have a hard time with was the ahistorical rhetoric of the President himself and the disconnect between his words and what other
leaders were saying became more and more difficult for me to explain and understand.
AMANPOUR: OK. Just quickly, fill in those blanks there. What do you mean the disconnect between his words and what other leaders were saying? Just
fill in those blanks for me.
MELVILLE: Well, it started for me -- remember, I was the U.S. Ambassador in Estonia. Estonia -- in the last 300 years, Estonia has spent 250 of
them occupied by Russia. So, there is a great sensitivity to their neighbor to the east. And the solution to that geographic challenge that
they faced throughout their history was to embed themselves in the institutions of the west. These are the institutions that the United
States built and led for many decades and primarily that means NATO.
During the campaign when candidate Trump was saying that NATO was obsolete and in fact, one of his advisers, the former speaker of the House of
Representatives was on television saying that perhaps Estonia wasn't worth defending because it's a suburb of Saint Petersburg. It put me in a very
difficult position when they took office.
So, I was looking right from the start for the administration to reassure our allies and return to the traditional rhetoric and language of American
leadership regarding our fealty to NATO and the institutions that we belong to and lead, and our allies were looking for that. When -- so, that was
And there were many, many leaders of the U.S. institutions in government, in the legislative branch, in the executive branch, who came to Tallinn
with messages of reassurance and it was a very important part of my job to bring that message to the Estonians that the United States was true to our
institutions, that Article V was our commitment and we would continue to live by the promises that we've made to our allies.
AMANPOUR: Ambassador, you mentioned what President Trump or his campaign advisers said during the campaign, actually, the President himself around
the NATO summit this year made similar comments about Montenegro, "Why should I send my son or anybody's to fight -- to defend Montenegro." We're
going to get that -- to that in a moment.
But, I want to also ask you what you think should be the appropriate U.S. response to the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi who obviously
is a Saudi and as we all know, Saudi Arabia and the current crown prince is a firm ally of President Trump's. President Trump made his first visit as
President to Saudi Arabia. We are just getting word that the President has said that he is speaking and has spoken to the highest levels of the Saudi
government, but we don't know any more details. What should the United States do in this case with an ally so close?
MELVILLE: Well, first of all, we should insist on knowing the truth. Mr. Khashoggi was a prominent journalist and spoke for many in Saudi Arabia and
his opinions mattered. And for any government to assassinate, as has been alleged, a leading journalist is a tragedy and a serious threat to
international order and we need to know what the truth is and the Saudis owe us that truth.
AMANPOUR: Of course, we have to say that in each occasional, when we ask for the Saudis to comment publicly, they haven't come on television, but
they send their statements and the latest is that they continue to categorically, and I use that word because it's theirs, deny any
involvement in this and say that they're trying to work it out themselves.
Well, what I said at the beginning of the program was, do you believe having said what you just said that it's up to the U.S. to speak out very,
very vociferously to demand the truth, to demand accountability. Do you think given what you think about this president and his tendency towards
these strong men rulers, is there a sense of permission to act with impunity that they might subliminally take from their relationship with the
President and from he says in public?
MELVILLE: Well, one of the things that I find most horrifying is the idea that the press and the media are the enemy of the people. For those of us
who speak Russian and have served in that part of the world, those are particularly loaded terms. And I believe that the role of journalists such
as yourself is so important in defending our institutions and preserving our democratic order.
So, Mr. Khashoggi, being a journalist and a member of the profession, his fate is tied to why it is so important that we have freedom of the press
and we do value that promise in our Constitution, and I do not understand why facts and good journalism are perceived as being against the interests
of the United States or the institutions.
AMANPOUR: So, let me put this to you. There is a group now, a mounting group of American foreign policy experts, former ambassadors and others who
are beginning to write major books and scholarly works trying to figure out America's global role right now and they're coming down on the sort of
conclusion that America is abandoning its leadership role, particularly in the alliances and the moral imperative at human rights that you've been
Bob Kagan is one of those. He's more of a conservative thinker, but about this issue on Khashoggi he said -- he said, "Sometimes a particular event,
the fate of a particular individual, becomes a symbol of a global historical trend. The reported murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal
Khashoggi, a Post contributor is ,in a consulate in Istanbul is one of those moments. It symbolizes the departure of the United States as a
restraining force against evil actors in the world."
So, there is no U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia right now. That's one big issue that seems to be a gaping hole. But do you agree with what Kagan
says, that it symbolizes the departure of the United States as a restraining force against evil actors in the world?
MELVILLE: Christiane, Bob is an old friend and a very wise observer. I absolutely do agree with what he said. And it's very important for those
of us who have a platform to repeatedly stress the importance of our commitment to our values. And human rights, free journalism, these are the
things that should drive how the United States engages with the rest of the world, including Saudi leadership.
So, to hold them to account for what happened in that consulate in Istanbul is in keeping with the best interests of the United States.
AMANPOUR: So, again, all these things you're saying and all these recommendations that you're saying for this administration presumably add
up to the reason why you quit, why you resigned, not just your post, but from the Foreign Service.
MELVILLE: Well, I had a long career. I had, by most lights, a successful career. In fact, the administration had nominated some time before I left,
someone to replace me, his nomination was withdrawn at the end of May and I was given the option to stay on. But I had managed to get through the six
months that Estonia had the presidency of the E.U. which was very important to our ally and they did a wonderful job with those responsibilities, and
it was also a platform that I could use to engage with Washington at a little bit higher attention level because of Estonia's role.
And then, in February, Estonia celebrated its 100th anniversary of independence and there was a Baltic summit with the presidents of Latvia,
Lithuania, and Estonia in the White House on April 3rd. So, I had had almost three years in Tallinn when I was facing that decision of whether I
should stay or go. But it was increasingly difficult. As I said in my op- ed and in my Facebook post in June, to explain or understand the difference between the President's language and the language that was coming out of
the rest of the U.S. government.
AMANPOUR: So, let me -- yes.
MELVILLE: So, I decided to leave. I did not plan originally to be quite so public, but it was -- when the President went on the attack against NATO
directly and the E.U. that I felt the better choice for me was to leave so that I could have conversations with people like you about how we can do
better, and I want the President to succeed. It's in every American's interest that we have a successful administration and a president who can
do the job well.
AMANPOUR: I'm going to get to that in a moment. But first, I want to ask you this because again, it's being raised by some more conservative
thinkers and activists in the United States in the wake of Nikki Haley's resignation, that there needs to be a robust America First candidate who
gets the job of the next U.N. ambassador.
But you have written that, in this op-ed that you described, that America First is a sham. And you talked about what you've just been talking about,
the rhetoric that's coming out of the White House on NATO and other such alliances. When you say America First is a sham and the President is busy
saying that he's racking up all sorts of victories that make America first and as you heard Nikki Haley said, "In the two years that I've been here,
the two years of the Trump administration, the world may not like us so much, but they certainly respect us." Why do you say it's a sham?
MELVILLE: Well, first of all, I'd say that the United States is and has always been respected by our allies and adversaries, and that does not
change from one administration to the other. I have spent better than 30 years as a nonpartisan apolitical diplomat. And when it comes to relations
in the world, international affairs, how we face the global challenges, it seems to me that as Senator Vandenberg said a long time ago, "Politics stop
at the water's edge."
And whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, when it comes to the rest of the world, you're not adversaries. You're teammates and your rhetoric
should reflect a commitment to our Constitution, our institutions, our values. And I just think that we have a president who for some reason has
an agenda that is in at least in terms of the language that's in opposition to the role of a president of the United States as I have understood it to
AMANPOUR: You know, it's really -- yes.
Male: My model for -- I mean, in my 33 years, I think you could make a very strong argument for George H. W. Bush as being the model leader in
terms of how to engage with our allies and our adversaries and the global community. You want people who -- and listen, we're all human beings.
Every political leader in every country is a human being and when they are disrespected and their role is denigrated, it makes it harder for them in
their own political world to stand by our side and you want to make it easy for them to say, "Yes. You're right. The United States has a point. I'm
happy to stand with my ally."
But when you throw candy at the chancellor of Germany or use hostile rhetoric against, good Lord, the Prime Minister of Canada, it's very hard
to understand and explain.
AMANPOUR: But what about when you make up or make nice with the leader of North Korea which was testing nuclear weapons and intercontinental
ballistic missiles? I mean, what about that? He claims the whole tone and the temperature has been dramatically reduced because of his style and his
MELVILLE: Well, I think it's absolutely true that the hostility and the temperature has been turned down. And so, in that regard, I can't argue
with the President that his personal engagement with the North Korean leader has brought about good results. But that's an example of what I'm
In that regard, the President's rhetoric tracks more traditionally with the approach that I think a successful president should have regarding leaders
of other countries, and much better for them to be talking than for him to be calling him little rocket man.
AMANPOUR: Just of a very final question, you came -- you talked about Tillerson of course now it's the Pompeo era at the State Department. There
have been a lot of high profile departures on matters of policy and principle and there are still a lot of ambassadorships and other key
positions unfilled. They are being filled more rapidly now. Do you see a change for the better in terms of pursuing American global leadership
around the world in the Pompeo State Department?
MELVILLE: Yes, Christiane, I do. I think Secretary of State Pompeo is doing a good job and I think by returning to a more traditional approach to
the vacancies and our responsibilities, it's very much tracking with what our best interests are. And I wish my colleagues who are still in the
State Department all the best. Their success is important for America.
AMANPOUR: Well, we are very much appreciative of your insights. Thank you very much for giving us this your first interview on a really important day
as we try to really sink our teeth into all these foreign policy challenges. Ambassador James Melville, thanks for joining us.
So, now, we're going to dig more on the troubling disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. So, we know that after a visit to the Istanbul
consulate more than a week ago, he has not been seen since. And today, we learned that U.S. intelligence is monitoring communications intercepts
trying to determine whether it happened under the direction or with the knowledge of the highest levels of the Saudi government, including Crown
Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Khashoggi is a well-known journalist and a Washington Post columnist. He was once an adviser to Saudi officials. He has become a prominent critic
of the Saudi government and an advocate for reform. With Turkish security and intelligence officials telling journalists on background that Khashoggi
is dead and the Saudis categorically denying any involvement, still claiming he left the consulate through a back entrance, all we know for
sure is that he hasn't been seen since he entered the building on October 2nd.
We have asked both Turkish and Saudi officials to come on our program every day since this story broke and they have yet to agree. And we've had
direct word from Khashoggi's fiance Hatice Cengiz, who tells us that she's had no news of him and that she has yet to be contacted by Saudi
authorities. Cengiz told us that she is in a state of deep confusion and sadness, and she added that "I have this strange feeling like I failed to
look after something so dear."
Speaking in the halls of Congress today, Senator Lindsey Graham who sits on the Armed Services Committee said that this could be a game-changer.
Listen to what he said.
GRAHAM: I've never been more disturbed than I am right now. If this did in fact happened, if this man was murdered in the Saudi consulate in
Istanbul, that would cross every line of normality in the international community. If it did happen, they would be held accountable.
AMANPOUR: Now, international correspondent David Kirkpatrick has been reporting on the story for the New York Times and he's joining me now from
Ankara. David, welcome back to our program. We laid out some of the broad brushstrokes that we know and some of the new developments. Just tell us
what is your latest reporting.
KIRKPATRICK: Well, it's not for the squeamish. Turkish government sources, government officials have concluded that Mr. Khashoggi, Jamal
Khashoggi, we both knew, was killed in the consulate -- not only killed in the consulate, he was killed within two hours after arriving in the
consulate by a team of 15 Saudi agents who arrived on two different airplanes that day for the purpose of killing him.
The Turks believe they know the crew arrived for the purpose of killing him in part because it happened so fast, but also because they brought with
them an autopsies expert and a bone saw to dismember the body. So, Jamal Khashoggi was not only killed in the consulate, according to the Turkish
government and its intelligence sources, his body was also dismembered in order to remove it from the consulate. So, it's horrific in many respects.
AMANPOUR: David, it is horrific and I had not heard that detail about a bone saw and an autopsy expert. I mean, who is telling you this stuff? I
obviously don't want you to give me names of your sources, of course, I'd love them. But, why haven't the Turks come out and publicly made a
conclusion and how are you getting this level of detail?
KIRKPATRICK: The President of Turkey, Erdogan, was briefed on these conclusions on Saturday, and that is when the leaks first began to appear
in the western press and also in the New York Times. So, the Turkish government at the highest level has known this, has had this picture for
several days now.
What the people in the government are telling me is that this information was collected through intelligence sources, and like every intelligence
agency in the world, they are reluctant to disclose information in a way that will expose their sources. So, I'm guessing that we're talking here
about a combination of human informants and also signals intelligence that leads them to this conclusion. But they're certainly sticking by it and
they're sticking by it in a case where there's no upside for them, right?
Turkey really does not need a rupture with Saudi Arabia, an important trading partner and another regional power. That's the last thing that
Turkey especially with its economy in its current state needs right now. So, they have no reason to be trying to make up lurid stories like this in
order to inflame the tensions.
AMANPOUR: So, what do you think is the reason for if they have this amount of detail, where is the surveillance video that presumably every consulate
and official embassy has and what will it take for the Turkish authorities to make their conclusions public?
KIRKPATRICK: All right. Well, so now, we know that there is a surveillance video. There's security camera footage of Jamal Khashoggi
going into the consulate. None has surfaced yet of him coming out. Your question is a good one. Why are the Turks leaking in so many directions
and letting more and more details -- damning details come out including the names and the identities of the alleged assassins?
And yet, on the record, in public, Erdogan and those around him have not yet publicly made this accusation of Saudi Arabia. I have to believe --
I'm told that they're still hoping for some kind of a face saving resolution for both sides. At the same time, both of these two men, Crown
Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the one hand and President Erdogan on the other, have very robust egos. And as the Saudis go further and further to
say, "We don't know what happened here. We have no idea what's happened to Jamal. We're as concerned as everyone." And at the same time, the Turks
keep leaking more and more damning details about the alleged assassination, it becomes much harder for each side to back down. I mean, I hear
speculation about a scenario where the Saudis might somewhat say, "He was killed, but it was by rogue actors or some third party," and the Turks will
perhaps accept that and everyone could move on. But, as I say, as each side digs in to its respective and totally contradictory position, it's
very, very hard to see how that would be worked out right now.
AMANPOUR: So, David, I want to tell you the latest we've heard from President Trump who today has given his most detailed comments yet and we
have reported that he spoken to the highest levels of the Saudi government and that -- this is what he said.
TRUMP: We're demanding everything and we want to see what's going on here. That's a bad situation. And frankly, the fact that it's a reporter, you
could say in many respects it brings it to a level, it's a very serious situation for us and for this White House. We do not like seeing this
Now, as you know, they're saying "We had nothing to do with it," but so far, everyone is saying they had nothing to do with it and it's inside of
Turkey. And the Turkish government is working very strongly so far. So, we'll see what happens.
AMANPOUR: Well, David, you just saw what the President said. I don't know how much you can add to that. There has been reporting from the Washington
Post that the United States intercepted communications suggested that the Saudis were in fact discussing a plan to capture Khashoggi. You heard what
Senator Lindsey Graham said, that if indeed the worst is discovered, it would be for him, he said a game-changer regarding Saudi Arabia.
At this point, I also have to read out what the Saudi Arabians have said to us, Ambassador Prince Khalid bin Salman who is the ambassador in the United
States and the brother of the crown prince, "We have seen over the last few days various malicious leaks and grim rumors flying around about Jamal's
whereabouts and fate. I assure you that the reports that suggest that Jamal Khashoggi went missing in the consulate in Istanbul or that the
kingdom's authorities have detained him or killed him are absolutely false and baseless."
This is what they've been saying now every day and again today as you come out with this, more of this kind of reporting. Are you getting through to
any Saudi sources, David? What are they saying?
KIRKPATRICK: We're hearing the same blanket denials that you are right now. And as I say, as each side digs in, it becomes harder and harder to
see how this gets resolved. The Turkish government is hoping that President Trump will step in. I don't think they're hoping that Trump will
in some way punish or ostracize Saudi Arabia. That's not in the cards.
But to try to work out some kind of a face saving compromise, I think the Turkish government would very much like to be standing behind their
American ally as they try to work this out. You get the feeling that the Turkish government would accept some kind of a compromise. But as yet,
it's very hard to see how President Trump would accomplish tha,t or given his substantial commitment to Saudi Arabia and to Crown Prince Muhammad bin
Salman Salman personally who he's often praised, expresses confidence in, it's very hard to see his motivation to try to weigh in heavily here.
AMANPOUR: Well, yes. And the idea of coming out with a face-saving compromise and trying to get the United States to play into that would be
incredibly controversial for the leader of the free world and not to mention, you know, human rights, and First Amendment, and freedom and
safety of the press, and all the rest of it. It is actually quite extraordinary the situation the way it's developing.
I want to play -- we've all talked to Jamal over the years. He's been a good source for all of us. And before, when he was an advisor working with
the Saudi officials in embassies and in also Saudi Arabia itself, and even afterwards, when he came out and started to talk against what he considered
an overbearing crackdown on political activity at home, he said several times that there was fear about what could happen to people who spoke out
like him. this is what he said to CNN just a year ago
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAMAL KHASHOGGI, MISSING JOURNALIST: I received a phone call order ordering me to go silent. With no court decree. With just someone from
the royal court, an official from the Royal Court who was close to the leadership and ordered me to be silent. That offended me. And what every
other can go through. I know others before they were arrested, they had to go through security and signed pledges, not to contradict the government.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So there we are, David. I mean he lays out what he was told, what others were told. And, you know, because he has told us before that
he himself was told to be silent. He was silent on Twitter for about six months and then he decided he needed to leave because he couldn't be silent
anymore. Describe for us a little bit the man, the reporter, you know, the reformist who you knew.
KIRKPATRICK: Well, so the thing about Jamal, surely he's not your classic dissident. I mean he was for a long period of time the consummate insider
in Saudi Arabia. But he had been a journalist for Saudi Arabia, he had been in Afghanistan and interviewed Osama bin Laden as capacity journalist.
But he had also worked inside the Saudi embassy in Washington and inside the Saudi embassy in London and was an advisor to the royal family.
So he was someone who western diplomats, as well as western journalists, would turn to for a long period of time for the royal family's perspective.
He was someone who could lay out in cogent, intelligent, reasonable terms how the royal family saw things. And so this turn over the last three
years where he has felt there is no room for him in Saudi Arabia and has gone abroad is really remarkable.
And even during that period when he left and I become a columnist for "The Washington Post" and a critic of the current Saudi government, he would
often say, "You know, I'm not against the monarchy." You know, he was a Saudi patriot and by no means a radical. His differences were all only
with the specific Saudi leadership and his policies of the moment.
But if I can go back to it, again I can't emphasize enough how widely known and really well-liked he was among western diplomats and journalists
because he was reliable, he was intelligent, he was lucid, and he was impossible not to like really.
AMANPOUR: So David, why do you think -- this is -- if this has happened, it would be unprecedented reach by Saudi Arabia. It has had problems with
dissidents and others before but there's been nothing that we've heard out about that comes close to this allegation. What is going on inside the
And you write a lot about that part of the world. You've written a whole new book about the Arab Spring and looking back at the political dynamics
in that part of the world. What's happening there right now?
KIRKPATRICK: Well, if you're talking about the region, there's --
AMANPOUR: Saudi Arabia.
KIRKPATRICK: -- been a turned back towards authoritarianism since 2013. In Saudi Arabia, you have to look at the personality of crowned prince
Mohammed bin Salman. Here is a 33-year-old prince who has amassed a degree of power that is unprecedented in more than half a century in Saudi Arabia.
You know it's a system where power was distributed among different branches of the royal family in part in the interest stability. He's changed all
that in a big rush and really brought it all into his own hands. And having done that, he's made a number of previous steps which have shocked
the west and even alarm the west.
[23:35:00] I'm talking about detaining 200 of the Kingdom's richest businessmen and even members of his own family in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel
without any judicial process. Leading the 3-year-old war in Yemen that many in the west call a humanitarian catastrophe. And for a few days,
appearing to kidnap the prime minister of Lebanon and detain him against his will.
So those are three things that you would think would have lost him the confidence of the west. And yet until now, he has appeared to be in good
standing. He had a tour of the U.S. He met with many primary executives. You know, he's welcomed at the White House.
So, you know, perhaps -- I don't know what's going through his head. Perhaps, he feels that nothing can stop him, that he can get away with it.
AMANPOUR: OK. So we have --
KIRKPATRICK: On the other hand, he feels that all of the criticism is stinging him and he needs to silence Mr. Khashoggi for that reason.
AMANPOUR: We have 30 seconds left. Might this change the perception because everybody was looking? There were even columnists in the United
States writing about a new Saudi Arabia, reform Saudi Arabia. He's got his 2020 reform plan that all sorts of internationals were engaged with. Could
this flip that switch?
KIRKPATRICK: You know it's very hard to know whether it will. I mean the argument that he was making for reform of the Saudi economy I think remains
a valid one. And so it's too soon I think to tell what the final conclusion of international public opinion will be about what happened to
Jamal Khashoggi and also what it will mean for perceptions of Mohammed bin Salman.
AMANPOUR: It's a really dramatic story, not least because it involves our colleague and friend and we still want to know the truth about what
happened to him.
David Kirkpatrick, thank you so much indeed for joining us from Ankara in Turkey.
So we're going to switch tone a little bit, none the less freedom of speech has long been a topic of debate even within the world of comedy. For their
time, few faced more controversy over this than British comedian's Monty Python.
Eric Idle was a founding python. He has been clapping his coconuts for five decades, reminding us to always look on the bright side of life. In
his new sortabiography, Eric finds his voice in the 60's cultural revolution and recounts the famous faces and the knights of me that he met
along the way. Eric Idle took our Hari Sreenivasan on a laugh down memory lane.
HARI SREENIVASAN, CONTRIBUTOR, CNN: You decided on a memoir. Why?
ERIC IDLE, AUTHOR, ALWAYS LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LIFE: Well, our 50th anniversary of Monty Python is coming up next year and I thought we're
going to have to answer questions. So let me see what I can remember and write it down before I forget it.
SREENIVASAN: Because someone else is going to write it if you don't.
IDLE: That's the other thing, yes. I mean that was what Winston Churchill said, "History will be kind to me because I intend to write it."
SREENIVASAN: Why do you think Monty Python has lasted 50 years or at least that it's still funny?
IDLE: That is, to me, kind of a wonderful mystery. And I think partly -- so there was the fact that it's not rooted in time but the comedy is
generic, their characters but they're not like this particular president or like "Saturday Night Live". When you look at old ones, you think, "Oh,
your Gerald Ford fell over a lot." So you have to remember all that to begin to love, whereas Python's after satire and the characters are just so
silly or generic people.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MAN: Your wife interested in photographs?
MAN: Snap, snap, grin, grin, wink, wink, say no more?
SQUIRE: Holiday snaps?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SREENIVASAN: You know you're known for being a funny man but when you -- as you start out in the book, you talk about kind of difficult childhood,
at least the boarding school phase and even before that losing your father at an early age but all of that helped you become the funny man that you
are now. How was that?
IDLE: Well, I think that people who are comedians are very weird people. They have been damaged early because they have things to do, to stand on
stage and ask people to laugh at you, you know. And then they become sort of addicted to that bark that humans make, the laugh. And that becomes a
kind of thing you seek out as you pursue it professionally.
I remember going to my daughter's school and going into pre-K and knowing exactly who were the funny kids. They're right there. They're funny right
from that time.
SREENIVASAN: Well, how do you tell? How can you tell?
IDLE: There's just an attitude. And a lot of it is attitude because comedy is a sort of, I think, it's a way of thinking. So when you look at
a news event, you immediately interpret it as funny and looking for what is interesting or wrong about it. [23:40:00] And I think that's a way of
thinking that makes comedy or comedy writers -- that's how they do it.
SREENIVASAN: Did this early boarding school period kind of teach you a healthy disrespect for authority?
IDLE: Very much so. Yes, because you could only have fun by disobeying the school rules. So on -- it's like being in the military or in a prison.
You're on the surface, you're behaving properly like this but really are going over the wall to meet goals or get there or, you know, get cigarettes
and things like that. So I think that that was one of those things.
And the other thing is you're seriously mocking some of the things they say to you. Although you don't ever tell them that, you know because we were
beaten with canes. And then they would say, "Oh, it's for your own good." You know, well, if it's for my own good, why don't I beat you and it will
be nice for you too, you know.
So yes, there's an underlying text, subtext which is the truth. And I think that was through, say in communist societies, where people want to
like to say anything but underneath, there was this underground humor going all the time.
SREENIVASAN: But one of your first visit you talk about that actually got the attention of -- it was actually written by John Cleese but you were in
college at the time. This is a biblical weather forecast.
IDLE: Yes, it was started as a biblical newscast which is called BBC B.C. Good evening. It's the first chapter of the news, you know. And they were
very college kind of jokes but then the weather forecast, it came on and he's talking about the place, you know, locusts followed by life, some
flies and on Tuesday, frogs. And so I did that in my college view and it was written by John Cleese. So this is my second term and after the show,
he came up and I met him. This is like February 1963.
SREENIVASAN: And you guys decided to be friends ever since?
IDLE: Well, no. He said -- he asked me to join the Footlights which is a club in Cambridge just for comedy and I hadn't heard of it. And he said,
"Well, come along anyway. You have to audition to get in." And I got in and then my life changed because that sort of became my college.
You know, they gave lunches. We had a bar that would open at 10:30 at night. It's fantastic. The pubs closed in England at 10:00 so it was
really nice. And then I met all these really funny people and learned about comedy, which is the only way you can by actually getting up on stage
and doing it.
SREENIVASAN: You had an amazing opportunity at the BBC to run with this group of friends and write this material. Did they understand what they
IDLE: No, because we didn't know what we were doing. We didn't know what we were going to do.
SREENIVASAN: Well, you're in this meeting and you don't know what's going on?
IDLE: We had no idea and we just said we don't know. We don't know where -- we have band. No, we don't have band. Film? Yes, we'll have film.
And the point was they should all just go away on May 13.
It's extraordinary. And they knew us. We'd written for Frost. We were all professionals. We'd done children shows. John Cleese was already a
star because he'd been on the Frost Report so they trusted him and they really didn't want to know because it was a new slot. They were opening up
after 10:30 at night on a Sunday when the queen came on on the horse and then television close down.
So they didn't really mind. They were just exploring that. Well, what happens if we put on a show on a Sunday night after the pubs have closed?
And they have no idea who would be watching and they have a lot of complaints but they were very good. They just ignored them and they let us
do what we wanted. And they never even read the scripts. They just, "Oh, it's that thing. Yes, let's do that thing."
SREENIVASAN: But when you guys were in the room writing Monty Python sketches, you are not necessarily looking at this as actors?
IDLE: No, we're not actors. We're writers. So that was one of the original things about it. The whole show was written by the six of us and
we acted everything.
And so, you know, even the women's roles, we would do them because we wanted more parts. You know, six rows, six people to go around. You know
what I mean? And so we played everything and that was a kind of also gave it a sort of madness quality to it but the writers were in charge always.
SREENIVASAN: The name of the book Always Look on the Bright Side of Life is named after the song that you wrote. And it is one of the most iconic
scenes in the history of Monty Python. There you are on crucifixes. [23:45:00] Always look on the bright side of life. And apparently, it is
now still the number one song being played at funerals in the U.K.
IDLE: Well, that's pretty heavily ironic when you're being crucified to say, "Look on the bright side," you know. Not a lot of songs to go. But
what happens when it started to be sung by -- in the Falklands War? The ex-Mashafia was hit by an Exocet and the sailors sat on the deck for three
hours singing that song whilst they're waiting to be rescued.
And then when they were doing the -- well, was it the Gulf War, the RAF bombers who did those super low-level things, when they were shooting up to
go, they would sing Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. So it became a song of -- when things are really bad and bleak, it became a way to sing
and to cheer up.
SREENIVASAN: Yes. Do you want this at your funeral?
IDLE: I don't know. I told my wife I want to sit on my face and tell me that you love me but I've left a bribe for her to say something really
awful. Get extra money -- not that, something else. If you'll say that, I've left a little extra bonus money. If she comes up with a memorial.
SREENIVASAN: When that movie came out, A Life of Brian, there were protests in the United States or protests in the U.K., there are protests
all over. You had rabbis, you had Christian, all kinds of people could not deal with what you were trying to do at the time.
IDLE: No, no. We were supposed to come here and do promotion. And they said, "Forget it. It's on the news". You know, people are protesting.
They were picketing Warner Brothers in L.A. and said Warner Brothers are the agents of the devil. So they were -- you know, they didn't need us
because at all -- once you're on the news --
SREENIVASAN: You've got people listening.
IDLE: Yes, every night. You couldn't possibly beat that.
SREENIVASAN: Yes. And so it was a blockbuster success.
IDLE: For an usher.
SREENIVASAN: Yes. And then you also have other major films that every 12- year-old boy remembers, Holy Grail. I also wonder what is it about these movies that goes beyond the 12-year-old boy?
IDLE: Well, I think it's very funny. I think grails got a lot of action, you know. He's not taking so seriously in filmmaking terms, although it
does look like a real film and they're behaving in childish ways, you know. And they're having some cows thrown at them.
SREENIVASAN: What's not to like about that?
IDLE: You know, we were actually filming it in nasty muds and horrible situation. So it didn't, you know --
SREENIVASAN: But you were miserable when you were there. The misery was real.
IDLE: And that's always funny. It's really unpleasant. You can be fairly sure it's funny.
SREENIVASAN: This is one function of your life being part of Monty Python. Since then, you've gone on to write music, write plays. A play that is
familiar to a lot of people in the United States is Spamalot. It did critically end at the box office quite well.
IDLE: Well, I was trying to write a musical. We've written one about cricket. She's clearly not going to work in America, OK. And then I
suddenly thought, actually the Grail is perfect because it's a bit like a parody of Arthur. And also you could do it on stage. She didn't need
horses and it's really funny. And it seems to be always about to be a song. I mean surely I'm not dead yet was always in the Holy Grail but it
So we got to adapt it for the stage and we had to change it a lot because there's 98 characters in the film. It has no shape, whatsoever and is
stopped by the police just stopping it, you know. So -- but I had Mike Nichols to work with. Although I think I don't buy them. So that was
great fun adapting it for the theater. It was just really great fun. And there are 25 million people who watched that play and were about to do it
as a movie.
SREENIVASAN: This has also afforded you a fairly fantastic life as you write in the book. You have gone to sort of hobnob with royalty, whether
it's rock & roll or the actual Prince or some amazing people that you talk about in the book. But that's not what the kid that was growing up in that
town was destined to do or be.
IDLE: Right. Well, that's sort of in a way because we were part of this generation who were all the 60s who invented everything because there was
nothing there. There were bomb sites and rationing and it was really awful. There wasn't a comedy show there three years before that we are now
And that -- what happened was that all the rock and rollers loved what we were doing because they love comedy and so they sort us out. [23:50:00] We
didn't go looking after -- looking for them.
SREENIVASAN: You became really good friends with George Harrison. What did he teach you over time?
IDLE: He was amazing. I mean he -- I always think of him now as my closest I ever had to a guru because he was very good. I was very
depressed at the time, my marriage was breaking up, and he was just always so positive and always so generous to everybody.
SREENIVASAN: And it didn't have to do with the fact that he was so successful or rich.
IDLE: No, because being the most successful things in the world and he realized they were going to die. And very early on, you can't take it with
you. I mean it's one of the best examples. You know, so what? You were there but you're still going to die so he began preparing himself for his
own death which I wasn't around for and he really have no -- he really had no regrets or fear.
IDLE: And that was great.
SREENIVASAN: You also write a lot about Robin Williams.
SREENIVASAN: You shared a long friendship. I mean you guys at vacation with your families.
IDLE: Yes. Robin was a very good friend and just a wonderful man, a really really generous, lovely genius and that was just so heart-rending.
It was the last thing I wrote for the book. I finished the book. You've avoided Robin and I thought, well, I've got to write about him. And
because people like to know what he was like. They obviously know he's comedy but what was he really like? And so I thought I had to write a
chapter about him. And that was hard because I think I've been pretending he actually wasn't really gone.
SREENIVASAN: There's a streak of kind of tragedies of some of your friends and colleagues as you go by, some to alcoholism or take their own lives.
Do you feel, I don't know if it's survivor's guilt or what could I have done, how is it possible that these people made these choices?
IDLE: I think you know, spoiler alert, we all die. And when you get to my age, a lot of people -- I probably know more people who are dead than
they're alive. And some just -- I mean in the last few years, I mean, you know, Mike Nichols and Carrie Fisher and, you know, a lot of really funny
people who I relied on in my life just suddenly went and left.
SREENIVASAN: Has your relationship with the Monty Python gang changed over time?
SREENIVASAN: Now that you see them with the benefit of hindsight and age and what's worked and what hasn't and how their lives are changed.
IDLE: Sure because you're all going -- you know, you're all going through the same process. And it's a raft of the Medusa. We're all sliding off
the life raft and the sharks are waiting. So Python is really good fun to be with. They're all really great fun. And when we're together, it's
still just as funny. I mean it's really funny and I like that. So we do get together now and again. But now we have much more time for each other.
IDLE: Yes, much more because we don't have to do anything together. I mean we did ought to say goodbye and that was 2014. And now, you know,
it's beyond the possibility of doing anything.
SREENIVASAN: Have you all gotten funnier?
IDLE: I think a little bit, yes. I think we're still very funny, certainly with each other. I think so, yes, but I think we always were.
It was a very strange group. It was self-selected and it was all and it worked so we just kept it going.
SREENIVASAN: You know, there's a section at the end of the book. I'm just going to quote it. It says, "Laughter is the best revenge. One day, the
sun will die. One day, the galaxy will die. One day, the entire universe will die. I'm not feeling too good myself. So what have I learned over my
long and weird life? Well, firstly that there are two kinds of people and I don't much care for either of them. Secondly, when faced with a
difficult choice, either way, it's often best. Thirdly, always have a party when people begin to play the bongos."
Any other advice that you like to leave out?
IDLE: No, I think that pretty much covers a lot of time and advice.
SREENIVASAN: Eric Idle, thanks so much.
IDLE: My pleasure.
AMANPOUR: Eric Idle, a long and weird life perhaps but a great and funny legacy. And how important on this day to hear him describe the importance
of freely speaking and even getting under people's skin, particularly the skin of the powerful.
Now, for something completely different. Tomorrow, I'll talk to historian Michael Beschloss about his new book Presidents of War, an alarming account
of how certain American presidents pushed the country into costly wars to serve their own political ends.
But for now, that is it for our program. Thanks for watching.
And remember, you can always listen to our podcast. See us online at amanpour.com and follow me on Facebook and Twitter.
Goodbye from London.