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May 13, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:16am

Interview: BBC North America editor Jon Sopel on ‘banter’ with Trump, ‘boring’ Biden and ‘pompous’ US media

By William Turvill

“If you’re a journalist, and you need your daily heroin fix of being on the news, Joe Biden ain’t great.” 

Jon Sopel, the BBC’s North America editor, is probably not the only White House correspondent to have a slight professional pining for the days of Donald Trump – even if he is being slightly tongue in cheek.

From the Republican’s shock election victory in November 2016 through to the 6 January storming of the US Capitol, the Trump era captivated the world.

Sopel, already an important correspondent for the British public, became one of the BBC’s most in-demand commentators. (He also had three books published during Trump’s reign, the latest of which was titled ‘Unpresidented’.)

So when asked if he is missing Trump, Sopel doesn’t hesitate.

“Yes,” he says over a video interview (excerpts below), before breaking into a chuckle.

“As a television journalist, every day was a five-course blowout feast with Donald Trump. There were endless tweets. There were the briefings that would explode. There was the name-calling. There were fantastic visuals. There’d be the rallies.

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“And in television terms – in television news terms – could Joe Biden be more dull and boring and tedious?”

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In non-TV terms, Sopel says Biden is in fact “really interesting”.

“The stimulus package, the American rescue programme, is a big deal,” he says. “The infrastructure thing is a big deal. This is going back to big government in a way that we haven’t seen since pre-Reagan, or pre-Thatcher in the UK. So there are really interesting things happening.

“But Biden is also doing this whilst trying to dial down the temperature after 6 January. And so… if you’re a journalist, and you need your daily heroin fix of being on the news, Joe Biden ain’t great.

“Because a lot of it is just the smooth whirring of the machine of government. It’s pretty dull. Whereas with Donald Trump, it was fireworks every day. So from that point of view, it seems a much quieter, stiller place.”

The challenge for Sopel is to persuade BBC programme editors that the policies of Biden deserve as much attention as the histrionics of Trump.

“Look, in fairness to the BBC outlets, they are taking it. But what you don’t have is the pyrotechnics. Television loves an image, or it loves the soundbite… and that is not rich territory for Joe Biden.”

‘Some of the American media went slightly mad’ over Trump

Sopel, a politics graduate from the University of Southampton, started his career as a reporter and producer for BBC Radio Solent in 1983. He worked as a Paris correspondent, chief political correspondent, Politics Show presenter and lead anchor for BBC World News before taking on his current role in 2014.

Two years after he took on one of the BBC’s most senior (and best paid) positions, Trump’s election victory made Sopel’s role even more significant.

Sopel believes that he and BBC colleagues managed to remain impartial while covering Trump, but he’s not too sure about the performance of some of his Washington colleagues.

“I think that some of the American media went slightly mad,” he says. “And I think they were driven mad by Donald Trump and him calling journalists the enemy of the people and a bunch of liars and all that sort of stuff.

“And so they took up cudgels against him. Our job is not to take up the cudgels – we’re not the opposition. The Democrats are the opposition to Donald Trump.

“Our job is to hold power to account. And I think we should do that politely, reasonably – arch an eyebrow, by all means, ask tough questions, absolutely. But we don’t set as our default position to either hate Donald Trump or love Donald Trump.

“And I think too much of the American media decided they either hated him or loved him. And it wasn’t just an emotional response to that, it was a monetary [response], you know.

“It was a financial model that they were following… ‘There are an awful lot of people who hate Donald Trump: right, we can cash in on that by being the anti-Trump network.’

“I just don’t think that’s good. I don’t think it’s good for democracy [when] people go to news just to hear their views confirmed. They ought to go to news to discover, to find out, to be challenged.”

Asked if he is talking about just TV channels, or the written press as well, Sopel says: “I think particularly the TV channels. I think the written press in America are probably less opinionated than they are in the UK…. I think that it was generally the TV media and the radio stations, which are kind of poisonous a lot of them. Poisonous in all directions.”

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American journalists can be ‘rather serious and pompous about themselves’

Trump’s regular verbal attacks on the “fake news” media became one of the trademarks of his presidential reign.

In 2017, he ironically described the BBC as “another beauty” as Sopel attempted to ask a question (see video below). Laughing off the incident, the reporter told the president they could “banter back and forth”, before returning to his question.

Sopel suggests that some of his US peers may have taken these attacks too seriously. “I think that journalists did almost relish the fight… this was their holy cause.”

He adds: “I think that in Britain we do not, as a rule and as a class of people, take ourselves too seriously. I think, you know, we love our jobs. And we enjoy our jobs. But we enjoy the banter – we enjoy the fun of being on the road. The Press Gazette, when it holds awards, they can be quite raucous dos.

“In the US, because there is a First Amendment – and there is a sort of almost a constitutional place for journalism, and the fourth estate is kind of sanctified – I think that it has led to the journalists taking themselves very… being rather serious and pompous about themselves in a way that I don’t think, generally speaking, we are quite the same.

“You know, I kind of sometimes read articles and I think: ‘Why keep it to 200 words when you can spread it out to 1,000?’ You just think, where is the sub-editor in all of this long-windedness?”

[Full disclosure: this article is more than 2,000 words long]

Nevertheless, he does recognise that we are in a serious time for journalism.

“I’ve been a journalist now for nearly 40 years,” he says. “And I don’t think this is an age thing or me turning into a boring old fart, but I do think that journalism is more important today than it has ever been in my lifetime for the simple reason that there is so much falsehood out there.”

Having worked in both Washington and Westminster, what are the main differences between US and UK political journalism?

“There’s a kind of interesting constitutional point,” says Sopel. “Which is that, in the US, the president is the head of state. And in the UK, the prime minister is not.

“So when the president walks into a room, everyone stands up. No one stands up when the prime minister walks into a news conference.

“And I think that brings a degree of deference that I don’t think that British journalism has. British journalism can be quite roughty-toughty and can be quite abrasive…

“I think it’s more healthy to have a relationship with a prime minister where you can just say, ‘Oy! What ya doin’? Why ya doin’ this?’ And so I think there is a bit more deference [in Washington], which I’m not a great fan of.”

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‘I’ve been jostled… there’s spitting… it’s crap’

Over the past year in particular, hostility towards journalists has escalated in the United States.

In 2020 – a year that included many incidents at Black Lives Matter protests – the US Press Freedom Tracker recorded 438 physical attacks on journalists (up from 35 in 2019) and 139 cases of arrests or charges being brought against journalists (up from nine in 2019). 

Sopel says that “most people are incredibly polite and nice” to him – “the fact that I’ve got a nice British accent makes life a bit easier”.

But he adds: “Yeah, look, I’ve been jostled. And I’ve been in audiences where there’s been spitting and ugliness like that. You know, it’s crap….

“Look, I’m fine about it and I’ve never felt in any danger. Although I think that the nastiness on social media – and when it turns into a gangbang and everyone’s piling it – it can be quite unpleasant.”

Sopel, like many other high-profile journalists, experiences a fair amount of trolling on Twitter. 

“Yeah, I mean, I think what’s pathetic about it is that, invariably, all the most vituperative stuff is from people who’ve got made-up names, who are anonymous, who are Darth Vader, who are whatever it happens to be. And you just kind of think: Oh, come off it.

“I tend to block people like that because I think if you haven’t got the courage to have a real name, why should I engage with you?

“And if people are reasonable about criticism – ‘I think we were horribly anti-Trump because you said X, Y and Z’, or whatever, I try and engage.”

He suggests that social media abuse is “an awful lot worse” for female and minority background colleagues. Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, “gets a million times worse,” he says. “And Sarah Smith in Scotland. They really get it by the bucket load, and it’s just horrible. 

“We’re doing our job. We’re not there as political operatives, we’re there to report the news… We’re not there to affirm, we’re there to inform. People seem to think that we are there to affirm the biases and prejudices that they already have…

“I think that we need to be able to listen to people we disagree with.”

[Click here to subscribe to Press Gazette’s must-read newsletters, Future of Media and Future of Media – US]

John Humphrys call ‘wasn’t a particularly comfortable moment’

As an on-screen reporter for the publicly-funded BBC, Sopel is also vulnerable to criticism from the rest of the news media.

In January 2018, he found himself at the centre of a row when a recording was made of him and Today programme host John Humphrys discussing the BBC’s gender pay gap.

The recording features Humphrys (who has since left Today) apparently making light of the situation. After it was leaked to the media, Humphrys wrote off the incident as a “jokey exchange” that was “meant to be a bit satirical”.

For his part, Sopel sounded like a reluctant participant in the conversation and largely escaped criticism. 

He says now: “He’s trying to wind me up about the pay thing. And I just said: ‘This is nuts.’ I was in Washington, he was in London. It’s an open line, you have no idea who is across that line… I just batted him away.”

Sopel says that being part of this story “wasn’t a particularly comfortable moment”, adding: “I am much more comfortable reporting the story than being the story.”

‘I’m probably going to get fired for saying this, but…’

As North America editor of the BBC, Sopel says much of his focus is on serving UK licence fee payers (although he notes that Americast – the podcast he hosts with Emily Maitlis – is popular on both sides of the Atlantic).

Nevertheless, he can take some pride from the fact the BBC was last year named as America’s single most trusted news source in the Reuters Digital News report.

“I think the BBC is trusted for the reasons we’ve discussed,” he says. “We are not CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Newsmax or One America News Network, which often seem to an awful lot of people very biased. So, if people want stuff they can trust, they will come maybe to the BBC.”

Sopel suggests that the people of America’s so-called “flyover states” are “not watching the BBC in huge numbers”. But, he adds: “I think there’s a great opportunity for the BBC.

“I hear reports that the BBC is looking to set up a subscription channel in the US. Great. Bring it on. Market the BBC… I think there are enough people who are curious about how the outside world sees America, but in an informed way, and that’s why they come to the BBC.”

If the BBC is making inroads in America, it’s worth noting that CNN drew much praise in Britain for its coverage of the US election. John King this year became the first overseas presenter to be nominated for an RTS television journalism award.

Sopel says: “If I was in the – I’m probably going to get fired for saying this – but if I was in the UK watching a US election, I think I’d rather watch the US with all its firepower.

“And likewise, if you’re an American wanting to know what’s happening in the British general election – I wouldn’t watch CNN, I’d watch the BBC or Sky or ITV…”

Assuming Sopel, 61, isn’t fired as a result of this interview, what’s his plan now? How much longer will he remain the BBC’s North America editor?

“If my career ends in Washington – and I have been in the BBC for 38 years now, which is quite a long time – that wouldn’t be a bad way to go out.”

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