Let’s begin with the name. It’s genuine: the British birth certificates of twins Richard and Caroline, born on March 9, 1962, testify to the fact they’re really called Quest. If you believe in nominative determinism – the theory that people’s names influence them in their choice of careers – is it any wonder one of them became a journalist?
For a television network like CNN, with its emphasis on roving reporters seeking out global thrills, it’s a gift that keeps on giving: Quest at the Royal Wedding, Quest on the Dreamliner, Quest and the Dalai Lama (a perfect, near-spiritual combination), Quest and Playboy’s Hugh Hefner (rather less so). Five days a week on CNN International, he presents a programme with a title as stirring, and baleful, as a war trumpet: Quest Means Business.
“Of course, the family name was changed,” he says, in the executive lounge of the Island Shangri-La, one recent afternoon. Having announced apologetically that he’s “zonked” with jet lag and has been up since 4.30am, he’s lying back in a chair at his full stretch of six foot, one-anda- half inches; unlike many other television celebrities, he’s as tall in real life, as long-legged and wide-shouldered, as he appears to be on screen.
“My grandparents and great-grandparents were classic East European/ Russian Jewry. Quasky was the name until Grandpa Quasky changed it in 1948. I went to Latvia to …” A pause. “Now. This is where I switch from being a nice person to being CNN business traveller.”
Because, despite having been specifically asked to bring cold milk for his English breakfast tea, the waitress has brought hot. There’s a minor, impeccably polite flurry.
“I have nothing against this woman,” the presenter of Business Traveller explains, as he waits for fresh supplies. “But this hotel sells itself as five-star for the luxury traveller so don’t sell me a luxury experience if you’re not going to deliver it … Oh dear, she’s poured the tea already. I was going to be mother.”
He adds the cold milk. To a committed viewer (or to someone who’s spent hours doing her research on CNN’s website and YouTube), there’s a distinct sense of deja vu. During the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, in 2012, one of Quest’s quests was to delve into the ancient ritual of the British cuppa for the enlightenment of mystified American viewers. On that occasion, a Union Jack was patriotically tucked into his breast pocket and another strategically placed on his desk. There’s no flag-flapping today but, still, you could never mistake him for anything other than an Englishman abroad.
“Let the tea mash,” he says, companionably, peering into the pot. “It looks a bit pishy. Now, don’t let me ramble. You can ask anything you like.
If you want to ask what happened in New York, good luck to you – you won’t get very far with it, but that’s up to you. I’m just telling you that to put you at your ease because what’s happening now is people will wait until the last moment, and I think, ‘Why didn’t you just ask?’” OK, I say. I won’t leave it to the last minute.
Quest is from the north of England, where folk don’t go in for beating about the bush. He was born in Liverpool and later moved to Leeds. His father was a GP who became a medical legal executive and he has three sisters, including Caroline (her journey has gone the academic route: she’s director of enterprise and business development at Britain’s University of Leicester. “Far more intelligent than I am,” states her twin.) The family’s upbringing was religiously observant and the others still keep kosher, but he no longer adheres to dietary restrictions. When asked how Jewish he feels now, he hesitates, then says, “There can be no equivocation. I am Jewish. I am Jewish.”
In 2006, when Al Jazeera was setting up its English-language channel in Qatar and looking for big television names, he is said to have turned down the opportunity on the dual grounds of being Jewish and gay.
He had, he says, a “terrible education” at a comprehensive school, which is why – as anyone who follows his Twitter feed will know – he’s obsessed with the English language. He likes to tweet about discoveries (“trying to get the word of the day OBNUBILATE into as many conversations as possible def. to cloud over, obscure”), spellings (“shouldn’t it be selfy with plural selfies?”) and the minutiae of punctuation. An ongoing niggle has been an apostrophe-less sign he spotted in mid-February which read: “San Francisco Writers Conference.” In the middle of a separate conversation (we never did get back to Latvia) Quest brings this up, unprompted, and says he’s now concluded that the word “Writers” was an adjective describing the conference, not a possessive, and therefore no apostrophe was necessary.
“I do love English,” he cries. “I spend hours on the road. Some people watch porn. I like me-and-my-grammar-dot-com. There’s something … beautiful about a perfectly constructed sentence.”
Despite his schooling’s shortcomings, he went on to study law at the University of Leeds and, in 1985, was called to the Bar at London’s Inner Temple. He didn’t fancy commercial law (too dull; “things falling into the ocean”), though he thinks he’d probably have loved being a criminal barrister, and he still believes it’s an ideal training ground for journalists.
“I choose the interns for our business department,” he says. “I see these students who’ve done media studies. I don’t want you, as a journalist, to tell me you know how to wiggle a camera. I can teach you all that! And I don’t want your belligerent opinion. What I care about is your reasoned argument.”
During his school days, he’d discovered hospital radio but it was only when he read a book in which someone visited the BBC’s Broadcasting House after the second world war that he realised there was “an actual industry” around it. In between Leeds and London, he spent a year at Vanderbilt University, in Tennessee, in the United States, where he was news director of the campus radio station, WRVU; and once he’d returned to England and finished his Bar exams, he applied to the BBC’s news trainee programme. By 1989, he was one of the BBC’s Wall Street correspondents.
In 2001, he moved to CNN and there he eventually became, as they say in US televisual parlance, an anchor.
“My 30s were brilliant,” he says. “And my 50s are better than my 40s.
My 40s [which began in 2002] I hated. The 40s were a dirge, trying to make it through – always thinking how’s the career going, who do I have to knock off a ladder, who do I have to climb over?” Anyone watching him on screen could be forgiven for thinking that he spent those decades deliberately evolving into a distinct species, consisting of exactly one member, in order to stand out from the glossy herds grazing on American television. There’s the stabbing finger, the air-chopping, the odd, lolloping gait, the gurning and the grimacing behind teeth and glass. But most of all there’s The Voice, which consists of a bracing combination of swoops and random emphases as if Quest has encountered the English language for the first time and, despite unfamiliarity with its standard inflections, is bellowing his enthusiasm from a distant Yorkshire crag.
Where does that come from? “It’s mine!” he cries. “There’s absolutely no affectation whatsoever. It does become a little exaggerated sometimes. But that’s the performance.”
And that’s also the paradoxical attraction: it’s a genuine performance. He has referred to his nickname, Marmite Man – “because they either love me or hate me” – in the past and it’s clear that he’s sometimes portrayed as a near-caricature of an English eccentric in order to pander to the audience. (Below the how-to-drink-tea clip, one viewer commented, “I think this guy is a robot built by CNN based on what most Americans think of British people.”)
But plenty of people who wouldn’t know an IPO from an IOU tune in to watch him on the simple basis that Quest Means Entertainment. They like the noisy passion of his knowledge, the accessibility of his showmanship and that sense of boisterous good nature. And, of course, he’s canny enough to play up to this role; like the suits and shirts he gets made here in Hong Kong (extra material in the shoulders, extra length in the cuff ), it’s specially tailored to fit. When there’s someone new in the office, he says, he always makes a point of introducing himself: “I’m Richard Quest. I’m gob-on-a-stick.”
How nervous does he get before interviews? “Oh, I have to stand in the toilet.” Ever thrown up? “No. You know you have a job to do. But there’s more pressure. There’s an expectation. I can do bluster – parp! parp!” (For readers unfamiliar with English children’s literature and The Wind in the Willows, that’s the sound of road-hogging yet lovable Mr Toad blowing the horn of his motor car.) “But it has to be good. And I’m not going to be one of those interviewers that forensically destroys someone.”
This is true. In fact, the karate hand gestures and gaze of penetrating incisiveness can often accompany a perfectly straightforward question.
(To our own former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen: “How important is it that Hong Kong does stay ahead of the game?” To Cathay Pacific’s chief executive John Slosar: “What’s the strategy? … What is your vision?”) At the World Economic Forum this year (“Not sure if this is my 11th, 12th or 13th @davos,” he mused on Twitter), he ran a selfie – or selfy – campaign, taking photos of himself alongside London Mayor Boris Johnson, the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde, Finland’s minister for European affairs, Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson, Bono … It all looked cheerfully matey.
Last night, Cocoa-nomics, a CNN Freedom Project documentary hosted by Quest, was premiered by the network. This is a follow-up to Chocolate’s Child Slaves, a documentary CNN made two years ago about the children who are forced to toil in the world’s cocoa plantations so that the rest of us can enjoy chocolate. Last October, Quest went to Ivory Coast with Jose Lopez, executive vice-president of Swiss-based food and beverage multinational Nestlé, to see what progress has been made. In the trailer to the new documentary, Quest talks to Lopez on what is, clearly, a private jet. How does that work, exactly?
“We discussed this constantly,” Quest says. “We constantly and repeatedly asked, ‘Are we being hard enough here?’ Sometimes the answer was no. But here’s the point – any idiot can blow up the building. To bring the house down round your ears isn’t difficult. It’s far more difficult to do considered journalism.”
But isn’t there a danger of Stockholm syndrome, of Potemkin plantations?
“Nestlé never said to us, ‘You can’t film this.’ When we turned up at the farms …” Quest suddenly hesitates, then grins beguilingly. “I’m not a fool. It’s like that line about the Queen …” That her world smells of fresh paint?
“Here’s a funny story that’s never been told. We were in Ivory Coast, staying up-country somewhere, and I came down and there was a rather splendid breakfast, all laid out, very impressive. And there’s a, what do you call it, a Nespresso. And I thought, ‘Where the hell did they get this from?’ Then it twigged. When Lopez is travelling, an advance party goes to these – to use a Yiddish phrase – verstunken [i.e. smelly] hotels. There were clean towels!” Was that for you or for him? “Him … all of us. I challenged Nestlé about it and this is what I would say: it was not designed to shield anyone from the reality of the situation, it was to facilitate what was being done.
Between Lopez, the people from Switzerland, local reps, the CNN crew and the middlemen, you had to make it happen. There’s a huge amount of enlightened self-interest by Nestlé in what they’re doing. As Lopez says, ‘This is a long-term issue.’” He produces his iPhone and scrolls through the vivid bleakness of Ivory Coast photos.
“Look at her – prawns on her head! … These are the tribal elders, these are the people you have to convince not to put children in the fields … This is the level of poverty, it’s grinding … As [former British prime minister] John Major famously said, talking about Northern Ireland, ‘If there were any easy solutions, don’t you think we’d have found them by now?’” Then he takes out his fountain pen and begins sketching boxes and arrows and percentages, dissecting the bitter segments of chocolate’s global trade. This is what he’s good at. This makes him happy.
“I’m a capitalist,” he says. “I believe in the proper working of the free market. That’s why I found the scandals of 2008, the banks, Libor, absolutely abhorrent.”
There was another scandal in 2008, and the moment has come to bring it up. (Two pleasant women from CNN, politely sitting at a nearby table, are making shuffly, pre-departure movements.) On April 18, 2008, at 3.40am, Quest was arrested in New York’s Central Park, initially for loitering, and then for criminal possession of a controlled substance, methamphetamine, which he told the police was in his pocket. He was sentenced to six months’ drug counselling and told to go into rehab.
The real punishment, however, began when the New York Post ran a story about the arrest that went viral. It reported that Quest “had a sex toy in his boot”. (For a while, the British press thought this meant it was in his car. Such are the potential sinkholes of transatlantic English.) There was also mention of a rope strategically placed round his neck and genitals.
Quest has consistently said of the story that “nothing is what it seems”.
I’d read some speculation that the New York Post, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, had an obvious interest in humiliating a well-known face on CNN, a major Murdoch competitor. When I ask Quest if he’s heard this theory, he says, “Absolutely”, and falls briefly and, believe me, uncharacteristically, silent. His foot begins jiggling in its blameless shoe, as if it would quite like to speak up for itself.
“I’m trying not to fall back on ‘regrettable incident’,” he says. “It is what it is.”
(A few minutes later, he will suddenly ask, “Have you seen House of Cards?” The US version or the original British series? “It doesn’t matter,” he’ll say. “Either.” Yes, I say … But whatever’s gnawing inside his mind remains unspoken. Maybe he was set up that night; maybe he’s protecting someone else who was there; certainly he’d have been better off with a me-and-my-grammar website.) How did he get through it? “That’s easy. I’m afraid you’re going to get the standard comment because it’s true – the support of family, friends, employer. You don’t get through these life crises on your own. Decisions were taken very quickly. I found myself in a truly awful situation. I didn’t blame anyone, I still don’t. Whatever the reasons and wherefores, it was my responsibility to deal with it, which I did.” He leans forward, and The Voice is earnest. “Some people will read this and think it’s a PR speech but people who’ve been through life crises will think, ‘He’s nailed it completely.’ You don’t get through it on your own. The clearest indication of that policy is that I’m sitting here today, talking to you.”
CNN stood by him throughout. In mid-2008, he was back at work.
Although he remained a network presenter, you might say there’d been a shift in roles. Now CNN had become the anchor.
What’s known as the Curse of Quest (“I carry my own personal raincloud in the overhead compartment,” he once tweeted, landing at some damp airport) is about to fall upon Hong Kong. The temperature is plummeting.
The sky is, definitely, obnubilating. He invites everyone to his hotel room so he can collect a hat and coat for the photo shoot on the Star Ferry. The CNN representatives are inclined to hold back but Quest says, blithely, “Oh, there’ll be no dirty knickers on the floor.”
Except he can’t remember his room number. He lopes up and down the corridor, muttering “Oh lordy” and peering hopefully at identical doors as if one of them might swing open and claim him. In the end, he has to return to the executive lounge and ask. Perhaps it’s exhaustion; in the taxi, he’s so tired he places his fedora (US$15 from a Walmart in Ohio) over his face and has a power nap. Yesterday he was in Macau, for a CNN gathering, sampling the casinos. Tomorrow, he’s in Kuala Lumpur.
“We used to go to the Conti – the Continental – in Leeds every Saturday night,” he’d said earlier, thinking of casinos of his youth. “We figured out you got free sandwiches and tea at the end of the night. I learned then the art of roulette – playing the table for a period of time, going up a bit, going down a bit. You could have bad luck but with strategy you could play for an hour or so. You could have fun. But I came to like it too much. I have a complete and utter addictive streak.”
On the Star Ferry, of course, he’s a trouper – taking off his jacket in a stiff breeze, genially posing as directed, being a professional. Only once does he claim feelings of distress, and that’s because the Gents Toilet sign at the Kowloon-side lower-deck entrance doesn’t have an apostrophe.
As an interviewee, he could hardly be bettered. Not that he’ll know it because he’ll never read this piece; the quest to see his name in the papers ended years ago.
Cocoa-nomics, a CNN Freedom Project documentary hosted by Richard Quest, will be repeated on CNN at 7.30am and 6.30pm today; 9am, 12.30pm and 4.30pm tomorrow; and 1.30pm on Wednesday.