Jon Sopel, the BBC United States Editor, a graduate from the University of Southampton and a former president of the Student’s Union, is someone I had been dying to have a conversation with all day.
As a hugely accomplished journalist who has has been insulted by none other than Donald Trump, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to ask him a few questions one to one. Fascinated by the sequence of events across the Atlantic (aren’t we all?), I couldn’t wait to pick his brain. Positively intimidated, knowing that I was merely one handshake away from President Obama, I began.
Jon began by talking about how his interest in Journalism began – in Southampton, his year as Union President coinciding with the Falklands War.
A number of the ships set sail from Southampton and it suddenly felt very real that there was this major world event taking place. I mean I’d always been interested in politics, but that was right on the doorstep and that made me gravitate towards journalism.
With his best friend working at the radio station in Portsmouth, reporting on how the fleet were getting ready to sail, Jon’s interest in journalism gathered pace, supported by his experience as Union President.
Having grown up in a household where reading or listening to the news was routine, the interest had always been there. However, with a line that I’d expect from an ambitious 22 year old rather than an accomplished and serious journalist, Jon said:
“I wanted to see the world and I wanted someone else to pay for it and the BBC were kind enough to pay for me to travel the world.”
With that in mind, it’s unsurprising that the industry is so competitive right? Right. Jon confirmed this with a story that both felt like a kick in the shins and a pat on the back, when he said “The advice you’re going to get isn’t always going to be good advice.”
Jon’s remarks on how he was repeatedly knocked down each time he wanted to further his career seemed like a mixed message. He was urged to stick to radio and then following that, urged to stay where he was when he had ambitions to become a correspondent and then a presenter. But despite being pushed back, he still succeeded.
“I loved my time when I worked at Radio Solent although there were some big ups and downs along the way”, said Jon, virtually describing the next few years of my life “But, did I ever think I’d be sitting in the same room as the President of the United States? Probably not. It seems to have worked out ok.” Such modesty.
Suddenly inspired by his success, negativity hit once again. How do you make journalism pay?
“It’s a very difficult business model if everybody expects to get their news for free when actually to send a correspondent to cover a typhoon in the Philippines costs quite a lot of money.”
Although it’s not quite as glamorous as it sounds.
“I once described to a friend’s kid what I did. I was a TV news presenter at the time and had worked in some pretty dangerous places and the 7 year old girl says to me ‘what do you do?’ and so I told her. She pauses and goes ‘So what you do is read out loud’ and I thought, ok well that’s one way of describing it and I was firmly put in my place.”
If to ‘read out loud’ is all Jon does, then there is hope for all of us, proved by the very fact that his lecture for that evening had sold out within hours, and the live stream was watched by thousands online.
In Jon’s case, his job as BBC United States editor has allowed him to absorb a huge amount of knowledge about the state of Western democracy and the effect Donald Trump’s ‘fake news’ campaign has had on journalism and the world. Touching briefly on the topic of his lecture, Jon summarised his thoughts.
“If you do not have a well informed democracy, then bad things can happen. My job as a journalist is more important than it’s ever been, which is to tell the truth and to make your viewers believe you are telling the truth, be reliable, be trustworthy, be straightforward, admit what you know, admit what you don’t know, and hopefully you will keep your audience with you and you will get a better informed democracy at the end of it.”
Over the course of the day, and after hearing the lecture and seeing other, more senior people at the university converse with Jon, it seemed most were as eager as I was to hear his thoughts. Despite the hubbub over his arrival, and his obvious expertise on the world according to Trump, he remains modest as ever.
“I’m only a blooming journalist, I’m not here to save the world.”