5 May 1977: David Frost’s ‘Nixon Interviews’ are broadcast

David Frost and Richard Nixon © Getty images
Millions watched Richard Nixon confess to David Frost

Like a chastened schoolboy, former US president Richard Nixon, once the most powerful man on the planet, sat before British broadcaster David Frost. “There are three things I’d like to hear you say”, scolded Frost, fishing for an apology. “People need to hear it… and unless you say it, you’re going to be haunted for the rest of your life.”

On 5 May 1977, the first of the Nixon Interviews was broadcast. “Perhaps there is a little bit of history in the making”, noted The Times television section for that day in understated fashion, “when the smooth David Frost starts his series of the Nixon Interviews (BBC1 9:25) with the former president…”

This was Nixon’s bare-all moment, and it was the biggest scoop of Frost’s career. Nixon was paid £380,000, plus 10% of any profits from sales, to come clean on Watergate, the political scandal of the century. The interviews attracted the highest ever viewing figures for a political interview – a record that still stands.

Watergate had shaken the political establishment of the United States to the core. In June 1972, with the president’s full knowledge, the offices of the opposition Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington DC were raided for intelligence, while listening devices were concealed.

But the agents tasked with breaking in were caught red-handed, and the subsequent investigation followed a dirty trail all the way back to the White House. Nixon had no choice but to resign.

Sitting in the hot seat, Nixon did apologise for the cover-up, but famously excused himself from having committed any crime, because “when the president does it, it means that it’s not illegal”. Nixon had already been pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford.

Of course, it wasn’t to be the last time America was stung with a bugging scandal, as German chancellor Angela Merkel might point out. It would, however, be a brave and ill-advised president to try Nixon’s defence. But it would make for a riveting interview.