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White House interview

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Simon Wilson Simon Wilson | 17:51 UK time, Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Justin Webb's interview with President Obama was months in the planning, confirmed on the morning and almost endangered by a security scare.

We have of course, like all news organisations, been talking to Obama and his press team since election day last November about the possibility of an interview. Our pitch was based on the BBC's global reach and the fact the president's words would be heard not only in English, but also in a host of languages around the world, including Arabic and Farsi.

An interview with an American president at the White House is not one you want to mess up, so we turned up some three hours before the allotted time.

Unfortunately, a minor security scare meant that our usual entrance was closed - and when it reopened, there was a long delay in getting all our camera equipment cleared.

The minutes ticked by and at one point, anxious aides started muttering worrying questions to me like, "when's your red line?" The implication was that if we weren't ready in time, wherever the fault, the president's busy schedule would pass us by.

The interview was to take place in the White House library and, out of respect for the historic nature of the room, great care is taken to prevent visiting TV teams from causing damage. One loyal retainer's job was to move the chairs for us, even if it was just a matter of inches. Another was dedicated to providing and carefully positioning a vase of flowers. It was all done with the minimum of fuss and helped to calm some anxious BBC nerves.

Eventually, the equipment made it through and we had (so we thought) 45 minutes to set up our cameras - just enough time for this kind of interview.

Five minutes later, a new aide appeared to inform us that the president would actually be joining us in 20 minutes' time. Adrenalin is a powerful drug and somehow our technical team was ready in time.

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The interview played out pretty much as planned. We wanted to press the president firmly on human rights in Egypt, where he is making his big speech this week, and on his public disagreement with the Israelis over West Bank settlements. But, as we have with previous presidents, we also wanted to get a sense of life behind the scenes at the White House.

And as we made our way out, we got a glimpse of our own. A secret service agent politely motioned to us to wait in the main corridor. A few moments later, the Obama girls Sasha and Malia skipped past - presumably on their way back from school - and headed upstairs.


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    V. good interview.

  • Comment number 3.

    it was ok but to be honest what does it do to this country?
    are we so weak we now have to fully depend upon the americans?
    can the uk no longer stand on its own feet globaly?
    have recent british governments sold us up the river without any refferendum?
    why all the comotion over an ex-colony.

  • Comment number 4.

    Why does the president think he is a hero.
    'Europe needs America'

    Why does the UK need to rely on America, We are both equal, I stress that to the President.

    I think that peace with Russia is of more concern Mr President, do that first.

    I congratulate Signor Webb for conducting that interview, to take on the president must be quite a thing, you have to know what you're talking about, so again well done.

  • Comment number 5.

    I notice "Al-Qaeda deputy denounces Obama" is the BBC's front page number 3 story at present. How about you (and other news organisations) stop giving these loonies the oxygen of publicity they crave? Their denunciations only work because you spread their message.

  • Comment number 6.

    I hope the BBC feels better now the interview has taken place but has it actually achieved anything? The US do not do things out of a sense of altruism and it is an insult to people in the UK to make Obama feel that this interview was SO important to us. It left me cold.

    Can you now get on with the job of reporting news like we pay you to?

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 8.

    I watched the interview, it was ok no one gives the "O" a hard time.
    A few have tried over here & have been shouted down & then killed by the rest of the press. By the way I am in the US. Just wondering if yall are as worried as a lot of us, just what PressBo is going say in his speech in E.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 11.

    Thank you, for mentioning it's sensible to arrange matters with us in Russia. Pity BBC does not report on the business forum that began today in St. Pete. Not political; companies, corporate world gathered. In 3 groups: Arab world, Europe, the USA. Quite interesting broadcasts of various companies' CEO's, how they think the businesses ought to figure out their ways out of crisis. Lots of clever folks, judging by what they say! we all hope :o)

  • Comment number 12.

    "It seemed that Mr Webb did not push Obama enough, was quite soft on him"

    Mr Webb was hardly likely to do anything to offend his Obamessiah.



  • Comment number 13.

    re #7 and #12

    Absolutely right and supported 100% by this license payer.

    The BBC had better beware - the license fee is up for debate and I have already opened correspondence with my MP over a number of BBC indiscretions and complete disregard for the people who pay its wages. This is a public forum and you have your rules. Stop being petty, grow up and allow honest comment.

    Obama was the BBC's favourite in the election; he has always been the BBC's favourite and your objectivity with his presidency was lost a very long time ago.

  • Comment number 14.


  • Comment number 15.

    I was struck by the journalistic deference shown in this piece. The fine descriptions of vases and furniture being placed for this staged audience; fluttery hearts and adrenalin rushes felt in the presence of a Celeb or a King; the final 'coup de grace' as the two princesses pass by (gasp!) within feet of the journalists penned in the corridor.
    I worked as a junior assistant on a Linda Evangelista shoot once - there was a similar sense of fluttery panic in the hour before she came; a sense of awe and worship as she entered and deigned to talk to us; the utter thrill of spying her then-lover Kyle McLachlan pass by in the corridor. I don't think anyone said a hard or challenging word to her either.

  • Comment number 16.

    President Obama has captured the hearts and minds of journalists as well as common citizens. His meteroic rise to the top position in the world was through sheer determination, honesty, hard work, genuine empathy, excellent ability to react and manage afairs of state and above all his ability to marshal facts. So it no surprise that he commands so much of respect. It would be churlish to deny the very special respect he merits. His children have been brought up so very well and his desire to protect his children from too much scrutiny is understandable. Yet the way the two daughters skipped past the journalists was very poignantly described.

  • Comment number 17.


    How times have changed. I worked with Diana Rigg at one of her many peaks of fame and she was just one of the team, no airs, no graces just a lovely talented professional actress who enjoyed her work.

    Oh how we now hype mortal humans into things they are not. Obama is just a man who happens to be the President of the USA. When he flies through the air like a super hero then I may be persuaded he has the best wire people in the world but I will not stop knowing he has to do all the same things as I do. Just another member of the human race.

  • Comment number 18.

    #16 - "It would be churlish to deny the very special respect he merits."

    I grant that Obama deserves respect for his oratory skills, his words, his turns of phrase, his public relations skills, his good diction, the legal training that informs his carefully crafted speeches, put together with the help of funky young scriptwriters who'd do Hollywood proud.

    But, as aside from golden WORDS, what exactly has Obama DONE to earn 'very special respect' from citizens of the world?

    In a democracy, there's no room for accusations of churlishness. When a country assumes a 'global role', its leader must expect to be criticised and scrutinised from many quarters

  • Comment number 19.


    An interesting perspective and one that history suggests is pertinent. Churchill was not a good orator in Parliament or elsewhere and yet his skill with words at the times that mattered was exceptional.

    I don't doubt that Obama has a smooth tongue but the content of his speeches does not bear closer inspection. Perhaps it is only now that some very astute journalists are getting wiser to this. The worry is, as always, that when the King of Kings is announced to the adoring crowds the expectation is ten or maybe fifty times what can be anticipated from the best politicians there are and I am unsure that Obama even falls into that category anyway.

    So far we have not seen anything of consequence which suggests that Obama may have a much rougher ride soon. I do hope he has some skilled doers behind him.

  • Comment number 20.

    Torture, torture, torture!

    How can you interview any US politician and not give them a hard time over torture? Get Obama to unreservedly renounce torture, anything that is similar to torture and go after anybody that has previously used or authorized torture. Do not allow the US to "outsource" torture either!

    I recommend this article for background reading which traces US policy associated with torture starting from WW2.

  • Comment number 21.

    Dear Sir,
    Your interview with American President is really appreciable.
    My wife have watched entire Mr.Obama!s speech at Cairo University,Egypt by our bbc tv channel.
    You have touched all points of his important visit to middle east countries,especially of Egypt trip,wonderful speech at Cairo,Egypt.
    Mr.Obama had already created new,friendly relationship with muslim countries.
    I am a regular commentator of his words and actions to many websites.
    Once again,thanks to you for showing videos to us.

  • Comment number 22.


    It is interesting how people "radical out of office" turn so benign once they are "in" office? Mr Obama's speech in Egypt was a typical example of political ambiguity where he has not made it clear if he is saying that Israel must return all West Bank territory, or territory free from settlement now, or territory free from settlement in ten years time or whatever else? You hear his words as you want to hear them rather than him telling you precisely what he does mean. Watch this man, he could go a very long way in a very short space of time.

    And we are still waiting on Guantanamo.

  • Comment number 23.

    With all the respect tell your friend who wrote the article with Gigi Becali .
    he doesn"t know what is happening in Romania,Becalii can"t leave the country because of the president Basescu because he is blocking his access to the E.P because he is a patriot and he only wants the good of the country he and his partener Corneliu Vadim Tudorand i repet all they want is the good of the country not like th other partie PSD and PDL(who is at the power now he stole hugely from this country and he doeesn want 2 mens like Vadim & Becali to get in his way to stopp him .and even if they are trying to stop them they won"t make it .and those two mens are going to save Romania from disaster.
    Best wishes from me,

  • Comment number 24.


    Thanks for the comment. Gitmo is only one aspect. Apparently Obama has not closed down extraordinary rendition flights or gone after the people doing the torture. Cheney, for example, still beleieves it was effective!

  • Comment number 25.


    Yes, the inconsistencies continue don't they? Extraordinary Rendition, what Extraordinary Rendition, etc etc.??? And the biggest problem remains our fickle media who like to play the photo game but do not appear to want to engage in pure investigative work with the duplicity of secret service agents. Breaches of the Geneva Conventions are equally serious no matter who is involved and for what reason and yet our press are too quick single out "brutal regimes" (Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea etc) as safe targets whilst being quick to mitigate western torture techniques because of atrocities committed. The fact there is often no direct link between the atrocity and the "offender" is just a bit of paperwork away from resolving.

    Why we have no International law with shark's teeth is beyond me.


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