All the political players were there: the current and former presidents, the defeated candidate and the senators. So were the big beasts of broadcasting: the American network anchors, and their British equivalents in Tom Bradby, Emily Maitlis, Jon Snow and Adam Boulton, with James Naughtie brandishing his microphone for Radio 4. But there was a curious gap at the Trump inauguration: the absence of any of the major BBC1 presenters, with no David Dimbleby or Huw Edwards for what was one of the biggest events in recent American history.
Katty Kay, who hosted the live coverage in their place, is best known to audiences outside the UK because of her role on BBC World, and the broadcasting felt weakened without the familiar custodians of major events. It wasn’t just the inauguration ceremony itself. The flagship news bulletins across all rival services were presented live from Washington, DC – except for the BBC News at Six and Ten, which were firmly grounded in London W1A.
This may reflect the BBC’s stated aim of cutting back on overseas travel for news presenters. It’s invariably the case that, as soon as they set foot on a plane, angry pensioners write from Hove and there is a nasty piece in one of the newspapers. But the inauguration of President Trump is an event where executives should ignore irritable critics; and it was hard to see how audiences were served by the unusually flaccid output on the corporation’s main channel.
Being on location is about two things. One is the impact of being visibly at the heart of the story, so Tom Bradby’s perch on a Washington rooftop for ITV signifies a day of history more than Fiona Bruce trudging round her usual studio in London. The other is that a presenter can become more of a reporter, offering a take on events that goes beyond reading an autocue. Bradby’s headline on ITV News – describing the inaugural address as a “visceral, uncompromising piece of populism” – hit the nail on the head; and he and the correspondent Robert Moore had a discussion about whether they were “shocked” by the speech, and settled on being “stunned”. The BBC’s North America editor, Jon Sopel, by contrast, had nobody to play off, and the corporation relied too heavily on analysis pieces with interviews recorded before the remorselessness of the Trump agenda was known.
In fairness to the BBC bulletins, this is a story where the longer-form daily current affairs programmes come into their own – and the inauguration showed both Channel 4 News and Newsnight at their best. Emily Maitlis’s presentation from Washington for Newsnight, a programme with an audience a fraction of the size of BBC News at Ten, intensifies the mystery of the BBC’s deployments, but this American election cycle has enabled Newsnight to recover some of its mojo. Its opening sequence on Friday night, in which it intercut the swearing-in ceremony with clips of the great and good assuring us that Trump would never win, was a terrific idea and perfectly executed.
Over on Channel 4, the strength – and sometimes the weakness – of the programme is its fondness for a liberal agenda; but on 20 January it felt editorially justifiable to have Jon Snow and Michael Moore winding each other up about how terrible Trump might be. The rest of the journalistic team is magnificent, too. Matt Frei is one of the best writers-to-picture in news television, and the likes of Lindsey Hilsum and Kylie Morris add an expert level of analysis to international affairs. They were all in Washington – hang the expense – and the programme had a commensurate lift in its energy level.
Lurking throughout was the question of how impartial British broadcasters should be about Trump. Many journalists did not distinguish themselves during the Reagan and George W Bush presidencies because they regarded both of them as dim warmongers, and there was often a tiresome sneering in the reporting of America’s leaders – which was absent when that nice chap Obama was in the White House. It’s essential that there is impartial coverage of Trump’s policies. However, on Trump’s personal characteristics there can be less doubt: we know about his attitude to women and people with disabilities, his threat to lock up his opponents, his non-publication of tax returns and the business dealings that generate lawsuits. A broadcaster would be emasculated if they were neutral about these areas, and it’s why the Trump presidency is so fundamentally different from other Republican administrations.
This will be felt even more acutely in America itself. NBC Nightly News is available in Britain via CNBC, and as the election drew close there was a perceptible sharpening in its attitude towards Trump. The notorious comment from the president of another network about the ratings phenomenon of a Trump candidacy – “it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS” – was replaced by unease about what had been unleashed. On inauguration night, NBC’s political analyst, Chuck Todd, made it plain what he thought about Trump’s speech: “It was surprisingly divisive . . . It felt as if he almost was insulting every living president that was sitting next to him in very personal ways.” By Sunday, it was Todd who was in combat with a Trump spokeswoman about her use of the expression “alternative facts”.
It has been hard in the past to buy the argument from the right that American TV networks owned by large corporations are part of the liberal media, but the new administration has put a boot into the hornets’ nest. Journalism is set to be tested as never before in the United States.
Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former head of BBC Television news
This article appears in the 26 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West