Page last updated at 18:07 GMT, Friday, 11 July 2008 19:07 UK

Betancourt endures media frenzy

By Stephen Sackur
BBC Hardtalk

Ingrid Betancourt is savouring her freedom.

Ingrid Betancourt - 9/7/2008
Ms Betancourt's story has drawn a wide circle of wellwishers

She has a loving family to reconnect with and a worldwide network of supporters and admirers to draw strength from.

And then she has the media - to satisfy, to endure.

Yesterday, I interviewed Ms Betancourt for Hardtalk in a luxurious Paris hotel.

For me it was both a moving and inspiring experience.

For her, I suspect, it was an appointment she could have done without.

Mob of journalists

She has been free for little more than a week. She is still drawing from the well of euphoria that filled her when she was plucked from her jungle captivity by the Colombian army.

But the buzz of pure happiness can mask exhaustion and physical frailty for only so long.

The trick is getting the balance right: feed the media beast, but do not let it eat you up

Ms Betancourt was robbed of her liberty, privacy and intimacy for more than six years.

She does not desire, nor deserve, to have an unruly mob of journalists armed with cameras, microphones and dazzling lights, following her every move.

And yet she would be the first to acknowledge that the media played an important role in maintaining public interest in her plight.

As a savvy political player, she realised the long-term value of re-entering the free world in a blaze of publicity (thank you Mr and Mrs Sarkozy), and she knows too that broadcasters and the press can now play a vital role in reminding the world that hundreds of prisoners remain in the hands of the Farc.

The trick is getting the balance right: feed the media beast, but do not let it eat you up.

It is not an easy balance to strike, particularly after years of enforced isolation.

So perhaps it is not surprising that relations between her support team and the media became increasingly fraught last week.

Contradictory signals

The night I arrived in Paris, Ms Betancourt had agreed to do an interview with a US TV network via satellite.

The scheduled interview slid later and later.

It was finally finished after 0100 Paris time, at which point the world's most famous ex-captive was feeling faint and had to be helped from the set.

Ingrid Betancourt after her release 2 July 2008
Ms Betancourt was rescued from Farc in a daring jungle mission

One of her advisers responded by cancelling all further interviews.

"She is very ill. She will make one press conference. If that isn't what you want, then leave now," he said, albeit less politely.

I was tempted to argue. To explain how much time and how many resources we had invested in our planned interview with Ingrid Betancourt.

Then I caught myself.

"Do you know what I've been through to get here?" was not the question for this occasion.

For several hours different members of Team Betancourt sent contradictory signals about Ms Betancourt's state of health and mind.

One had been infuriated by media speculation in Colombia about the state of her current marriage.

"You will NOT ask her questions about that," he said.

"You're right," I said. "I will not, because it's none of my business."

Ultimately, and in large part thanks to the intercession of Sebastien Delloye, Ms Betancourt's step-son, we got our interview.

'Learn how to live again'

She was composed and serene. More to the point, she was one of the most compelling guests I have ever encountered on Hardtalk.

However, I sensed in her a longing to find a place of quiet. To be free of the public fascination with the horrors she has seen but cannot yet put into words. To be free of the speculations about her political ambitions.

In her own words, she has to learn how to live again.

She has to forge new relationships with her children, who have become adults in the six years she has been gone.

She needs to be in a place the media cannot reach.

So, I would like to thank her for an extraordinary interview and express the hope that neither I nor any other journalists have reason to appear at her door for a very long time.


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