President Obama: The Inauguration

Tuesday, January 20, 2009 by

This was not the star-spangled clamour it ought to have been.

As with its presentation of Obama’s victory, so the Beeb neglected to invest coverage of his accession with much trace of scope or exuberance. Huw Edwards sat on a roof in central Washington with “my good friend” Matt Frei. The weather was intemperate and so were they. Levity was in short supply; wit and insight less so. Huw was a step up on Dimbleby (David) in so much as he used proper sentences and treated the audience with respect, but failed to match Dimbleby (Richard) in marshalling his own resources and that of his colleagues to render a moment of history also a moment of TV history.

Hundreds of hundreds of thousands of hundreds of…

Hundreds of hundreds of thousands of hundreds of…

Huw’s panel comprised fusty academics and crumpled lawyers who were rarely allowed to speak and when they did largely confined themselves to swapping anecdotes about their respective grandchildren. Despite Huw’s hyperbole – “my eminent guests…the eminent presidential historian…” nothing eminent by way of comment ever proved imminent.

This non-roll call continued. No premier league politicians from the US or overseas looked in. No writers, commentators or analysts were called up. There wasn’t even a celebrity on hand to spread a little razzamatazz. Huw’s own attempt at a convocation – “It’s not often we can say we’re witnesses to the making of history; it’s a great pleasure to be here” – masked a forlornly self-evident truth: that he was one of the few people on behalf of the Beeb to be here, there or anywhere.

Jon Sopel waits. And waits.

Jon Sopel waits for his cue. And waits. And waits.

This “defining moment in America’s history” turned out to be singularly undefined by BBC personnel. Perched on a balcony near the inauguration podium, Adam Brookes remarked that he could see “hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of people” – seconds after cameras had shown viewers precisely the same thing. Jon Sopel stood in front of a mighty throng that stretched a mile up to the Capitol Building. He reckoned there might be “a mile of people” stretching up the Capitol Building. For his part, Huw spied “crowds, immense crowds”.

It might be stating the obvious, but on television it’s not always necessary to state the obvious. On television it’s always necessary to let the pictures state the obvious, and for words to fill in the gaps. Not literally, mind; one of the most irritating of all elements to this coverage was Huw and Matt’s decision to witter on during the inauguration ceremony itself, cutting into and over the words of the participants (they even crashed the non-verbal items: “we’ll enjoy the music in a moment,” drawled Huw; No! Let us hear it now!)


Huw and Adam swap pleasantries in a lava lamp

Rather, they should fill in the gaps of understanding. Venturing that Obama should ditch “‘yes we can’ for ‘no we must’” is all very well, but why does the Vice-President have to take his oath before the President? Why does the transfer of power have to happen at noon? Why is the whole thing outside? Why so much prayer-speak? Why the pageantry? Why is the American national anthem the same as ours? Was that really Dan Quayle walking past just then?

Answers came there none. Instead came endless ooh-look-at-that nattering, peppered with cutaways to that horrible bubble-themed branding left over from election night. A fanfare sounded. “Fanfares are sounding,” noted Huw. Hillary Clinton appeared. “Hillary Clinton, there,” surmised Matt, “it’s a bittersweet moment for her.” How did he know? Michelle Obama wore a glittering gold dress. “Gold glitter,” concluded Matt.

Katty Kay is cold

Katty Kay searches for things to point at. She is cold.

If they weren’t looking and pointing, they were talking about themselves. Matt unburdened his soul: “I got up before dawn, which I don’t normally do.” His kids wanted a sleepover at the White House. Jon Sopel, trying to recover from a premature handover, decided to go one better: “I left my hotel at five this morning”. Katty Kay was outside the White House sporting an enormous white duffle coat and mammoth black gloves. Clearly she was a bit cold. “It’s cold,” she confirmed.

There were two brief forays abroad. One found Lizo Mzimba in a suit at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham. He turned to his guests. “Baroness Young, you’re an expert… in diversity.” Come again? “People here are going to be eagerly watching,” he predicted. This interlude confirmed and denied nothing. A trip to Kenya might have held potential for something more illuminating, except, as Karen Allen disclosed, all was complete darkness – “as you can see behind me”.


Karen Allen in Kenya. "Earlier on today, it was light."

Deciding upon the significance of the occasion, or rather the degree of significance, proved equally impenetrable. For Huw, expectations were at “unprecedented levels”. But for Matt, “expectations are pretty low” and it was “patience” that was at a premium.

Reflecting on Obama’s speech, he reasoned the new president “wants to get away from the impression that he’s very very good with words” – only to go on and cite his wordplay as one of the stand-out features of the day, in particular the verbal “stinger missile” he deployed at George Bush (a man who Huw Edwards twice casually called “the most unpopular president in recent memory”).

Those moments that did resonate on a plane somewhere a few inches above triviality involved people who had nothing to do with the BBC, but whose responses had the good fortune to be captured, by chance or design, on its technology.


Somebody does their job: a close-up of the crowd

The man interviewed in the National Mall who testified to an infusion of “hope, above and beyond; this is an awesome process”. Unknown faces in the crowd reacting to the occasion with naked honesty. Bill and Hillary Clinton being put in their place by a woman with a clipboard, headphones and a red jumper. The men and women of the military choir singing The Star-Spangled Banner (how come this can sound so moving and God Save The Queen so lumpen?) And the helicopter carrying George Bush out of office and into obscurity, rising through the air and flying behind Huw Edwards’ ear.

Is it possible that the BBC has forgotten how to do Big Events well? Or is it just that nowadays smaller = safer? Is there really a belt-tightening, Daily Mail-fawning catechism pinned up on the Television Centre canteen noticeboard?


Behind you! George W Bush circles an oblivious Huw

“It’s already been a day that few of us will ever forget,” Huw signed off. What, there was more? Not for viewers of BBC1. Evidently two hours’ outside broadcasting was thought enough of an extravagance for the plug to be pulled with Obama’s victory lunch, parade, dinner and 10 balls still to come.

One of America’s “defining moments”? Shush! If anyone asks, the BBC was never there.


6 Responses to “President Obama: The Inauguration”

  1. Jack Kibble-White on January 24th, 2009 11:59 am

    I still can’t believe I am yet to see headlines proclaiming “America’s got B.O.” Also, am I the first person to realise that the only State in the US not to contain a single letter from the name BARACK OBAMA is, rather ironically, Tennessee?

  2. Rob Williams on January 24th, 2009 2:08 pm

    On such a day when there should have been celebrating for a new age, the BBC brought soggy sandwiches to the party…

  3. Ljones on January 24th, 2009 8:04 pm

    I only saw the ending of this, but I did find it weird that only this one programme was shown. No repeat, no “highlights” programme even for those who missed it (which would have been quite a few – most people would be at work). And the one place you’d have thought you might have had coverage – namely radio – was oddly silent too. No audio being broadcast (say) on radio 4, not a thing. The BBC’s coverage was well….minimal.


  4. Lewis on January 27th, 2009 12:55 pm

    Personally, I watched the coverage on Sky News – which at least had the decency to shut up through most of it and let it happen in front of us even if it did leave the viewer with several unanswered questions. Both Sky News and BBC News however spoilt the occasion for me by suddenly lurching into BREAKING NEWS mode when a couple of the senators fell ill and subsequently spent the next half hour bringing pointless updates and newsflashes on what various “eyewitnesses” had said or thought they might have seen.

  5. Cindylover1969 on February 3rd, 2009 6:57 am

    I’m sure CNN et al will do a similarly underwhelming job of covering the next Coronation.

    “Why is the American national anthem the same as ours?”

    If “My Country, ‘Tis Of Thee” actually is the American national anthem that would be an excellent question. Fortunately someone realised the problem several eras ago – and thus a song that isn’t suicidally dreary (“The Star-Spangled Banner”) took the mantle instead.

  6. Glenn Aylett on February 22nd, 2009 10:28 pm

    I often wonder if the BBC would have been so keen if John Mc Cain won. Yes I wish Barack Obama well, but like another leader who won an election over here 12 years ago with the media working itself into a frenzy over him, will disillusion set in? At the end of the day the Obama victory was not a second coming and was not a landslide, as 48 per cent of Americans did not vote for him. I have no beef with Obama as he seems a decent man, but like all politicians things will go wrong.