We in the media speak of a crisis in news, but no part of that crisis is presently due to the lack of it. We are the beneficiaries of a deluge of news, or at any rate of television programmes, newspapers and websites that take the news as at least their starting points.
When these have little to tell us that is new, they fill in the gaps with comment and analysis. For at least 24 hours until early on Wednesday morning, most of what we had on the US presidential election was filling in. We are long past the time, a golden age (which we should never invoke) when no news was …no news, and nothing was said about it.
Watching the election specials on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning (on BBC1, ITV and Sky), as the expected victory was long in coming, was to see the art of filling in sometimes painfully prolonged, to hear the clichés about the day of destiny and the hinge of history refracted through a thousand interviews and reportorial “I’m standing here in front of…”s.
It was also – if you watched the BBC, as I mostly did – to realise how much of two or even three generations of British citizens have had their civic consciousness shaped by the patrician vowels, grave concerns and “let me come to you…”s of one or other of the Dimbleby family.
But television does get, incomparably, the big moments: the victory speech by Barack Obama in the small hours in Chicago’s Grant Park was, even with a certain dose of the self-serving, as uplifting a re-statement of America’s regenerative powers as any recently heard; one in the eye for the legions who would see this necessary country fail. It is also incomparable in getting the stuff that happens, such as the bilious booing from the Republican faithful in Arizona, which marred a fine McCain concession speech. And it can chart rises and declines, as it did – or is this just the insight of retrospect? – the decline over the past weeks of a McCain locked in a strategy and with a partner he did not love, and which seemed to constrain his exuberance and so blunt his moral discrimination that he could not see, or was incapable of changing, a campaign of more than usual vacuous viciousness and outrageous innuendo: something noted by the writer Christopher Hitchens (no swooner for Obama), in a high point in the low period of BBC in-filling around midnight, as akin to calling Obama a terrorist and to consigning large parts of urban America to the care of the devil.
If the filling-in was thin gruel, we have been well fed by the Americana lavished on us in the run-up. John Adams (More 4, Saturdays, ends this week); Simon Schama’s The American Future: A History (BBC2, ended on Monday this week) and on BBC Radio 4, to stray across mediums, David Reynolds’ very fine America, Empire of Liberty (first series ended October 24) have given us both historic drama and documentary essays of the highest quality, never stooping to underestimate their audiences, commanding attention by the quality of writing, acting, thought – as well as their invocation of a country in which the ideal has always framed the actual, either as an inspiration, or a critique. Obama’s speech managed to combine, with grace, both of these. It was the greatest thing TV did, on the night.
One question not discussed on the night was the effect the Obama victory will have on the storyline of Spooks (BBC1 and BBC3, Mondays), whose new series is now two weeks old. You can bet, however, that the subject has come up in the script meetings of this demented and narcotic series; its pride is to remain closely in touch with the winds of change that blow this way and that across the international scene. The Russians, whom the old-timers back at MI5 HQ still call the KGB, are back again as nasties. Al-Qaeda and other terrorists are ideologically intense, as ruthless in their indoctrination of young recruits as in blasting infidels but subject to defection and treachery; and as for the Americans…well, as Sir Harry, chief of the squad that weekly saves Britain from horror, says, God save us from our friends.
Sir Harry, who on impulse shoots dead the London chief of the Russian secret service because he was distressed by the Russian’s cynicism (from which God has somehow saved Sir Harry), gets in some moral one-upmanship over the Americans’ brutality and ham-handedness in lifting a terrorist boss intent on mass murder – when the British have the sophistication to see that the said terrorist could become, with the employment of some finesse, a valuable turncoat and source.
The old trope – the British wise Greeks to the Americans’ thundering herd of Romans – has been much deployed through the ages, and it’s no surprise to see it here, albeit in bastardised form. The Americans seem to have decided to elect a Greek of their own for a bit: we expect the British secret service to react with their customary sangfroid, and the Spooks storyline to accommodate it seamlessly.
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